By Debie Thomas
This week, the Church celebrates “Christ the King” or “Reign of Christ” Sunday. It’s a hinge week between the liturgical seasons of Ordinary Time and Advent, when we pause to reflect on the meaning of Christ’s kingship before we delve into the mysteries of light and darkness, hope and lament, prophecy and Incarnation.
Given the pomp and circumstance we typically associate with kings, we might turn to the lectionary this week, expecting to find passages that sound, well, kingly. Something glorious from the Book of Revelation, perhaps, about Jesus sitting on his throne, decked out in splendid robes and a jeweled crown. Or something majestic from Isaiah: “A son will be given to us, and the government will rest upon his shoulders.” Or at least a shiny moment from one of the Gospels: Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop. Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus emerging from the waters of baptism, heaven thundering in his ears.
But no. We find none of these. What we find instead is a crucifixion scene. A stripped and suffocating man, wracked with pain. A crowd of mockers spewing hate. A man hanging between thieves, derision in his ears, speaking blessing and promise to someone less fortunate than himself.
Can we pause for a moment and contemplate the paradox that is at the heart of our faith? This is our king. This is our king. If there is any moment in the Christian calendar that must smack all smugness out of us — all arrogance, all self-righteousness, all contempt — this one has to be it. Our king was a dead man walking. His chosen path to glory was the cross. If paradise was anywhere, it was with him, only and exactly where his oppressors left him to die: Today. With Me. Paradise.
What does it mean in the time and place we live in — a time marked by greed, selfishness, and bitter partisanship — to honor Christ’s kingship through his passion? What does the cross offer us by way of example, warning, and benediction? What version of citizenship might we live out that will begin to mirror our king’s?
As I sit with this week’s lectionary passages, what strikes me most is what I don’t see:
I see no path to glory that sidesteps humility, surrender, and sacrificial love. I see no permission to secure my prosperity at the expense of another’s suffering. I see no tolerance for the belief that holy ends justify debased means. I see no evidence that truth-telling is optional. I see no kingdom that favors the contemptuous over the broken-hearted. And I see no church that thrives when it aligns itself with brute power.
Where does this leave us? I think it leaves us with a king who makes us profoundly uncomfortable.
As I survey the political and cultural landscape in the United States right now, I’m wondering what it means to bend the knee to a king who exchanged his crown for a cross. As I engage in strained conversation with Christians who see the landscape differently than I do, I am struggling to honor a sovereign who spoke words of blessing even in his darkest hour. As I hear people minimizing the severity of the domestic and global crises we are facing, I’m remembering that grace in the Crucified One’s kingdom is neither easy nor cheap; it cost the king his life. As I’m faced with those who tell me to make peace at all costs, I’m trying to hang on to the fact that Jesus died because he made no peace with oppression. As I’m tempted to couch either denial or apathy in some version of “Calm down; God’s in control,” I’m reminded that Jesus’s kingdom is incarnational through and through; it’s a cop-out to expect God to act when I will not.
Even as Jesus hung on the cross, he spoke hope to a thief who needed solace. He hung in the gap between one man’s derision and another man’s hunger, absorbing both into his broken body. This is our king.
My prayer for the Church during these challenging times is that we will find ways to walk as Jesus walked — to spend ourselves for love of the Other. To listen, to protect, to endure, and to bless. To find strength in the love of both friends and strangers. And to rally fiercely and relentlessly to shield the vulnerable from terror and harm. The truth is, the Church has always proven itself in times of peril. Peril brings forth prophets. It lights holy fires. It teaches us the radical nature of love.
After Christ the King Sunday, we will enter into Advent, a season of waiting, longing, and listening. Holding firm to our vision of a better kingdom, we will walk into the expectant darkness, waiting for the light to dawn, and straining to hear the first cries of new life. Yes, there are reasons for fear right now. Reasons for anger, reasons for grief. But we are not a people bereft of hope. We are not abandoned. We know where to look for paradise. We have a king like no other. The very best king for this hour.
Debie Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org
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