In Roman Catholic circles, today is referred to as Christ the King Sunday. This feast was established by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in response to what he saw as a loss of the monarchical dignity of the church among the kingdoms of the secular world.
With this in mind, it seems ironic that our lessons for today evoke a collage of images that don’t really project the conventional regal likeness we might expect on a day proclaimed as Christ the King Sunday.
Instead, our lessons are simultaneously a mix of promise and loss, of praise and mocking, of anticipation and execution. They seem at the same time to evoke feelings of excitement and anxiety; a confusing cocktail of emotions if one is hoping for a vision of steadfast decorum and dignity.
What’s more, this confusing collection of Scripture is presented to us in the midst of transition – a new year’s eve of sorts. This last Sunday after Pentecost marks the beginning of the final week of this season of ordinary time. Next Sunday will mark the beginning of a new liturgical year; but more significantly, it will mark the beginning of an extraordinary time – Advent – a season of preparation for the coming of the messiah – our Savior Jesus Christ.
Thus, this new year’s eve of sorts marks a period of transition for us; as if there’s not enough transition swirling about us. There seems to be transition within transition, like nesting dolls – one within the other – nesting dolls of mixed emotions.
Begin with whatever may be your own personal nesting doll of anticipation or anxiety at present: a recent death, a recent birth, an empty nest, a marriage, a move – you get the idea.
Now, place that transition inside the confines of our convocation’s nesting doll of visioning for the future. Next, let’s place these nesting dolls within our diocesan nesting doll – Bishop Wolfe’s resignation and looming departure.
Wait, there’s more. These three nesting dolls will fit nicely within a really big one – the transition between presidential administrations. As if that weren’t enough, today we are being reminded of the largest nesting doll of all – cosmically speaking. It is within this largest of dolls that all other transitions are perennially taking place – in the midst of all of creation’s transition between this life and the paradise of God.
If you weren’t already feeling a little overwhelmed and anxious, at least now you may have justification for that feeling.
Yet the reality for most of us is that we are preoccupied with or more intrigued with the smaller nesting dolls – those transitions that seem the most pressing because of proximity of place or time. This is completely understandable, but it often leads us to overlook the bigger picture – the overarching story – at our own peril because it is this story that defines our eternity.
So let’s turn our attention to this confusing collection of readings to see what we can discern among them.
This last Sunday after Pentecost reads a bit like a mini Palm Sunday of sorts. It begins with a promise of restoration under a new king, it continues with the description of the reign of Jesus Christ as head of the Church, and yet it concludes with the heartbreak of Jesus’ crucifixion. Figuratively, the lectionary leaves us hanging on the cross – a place of unresolved anxiety. There is no pretty bow to tie up the loose ends of unresolved pain.
For weeks now, our lectionary has been leading us down a path of increasingly end-of-time-ish readings as the day light hours gradually dwindle into increasing darkness, as if beckoning us to gird our spiritual loins for the challenges that lie before us. It is as if these readings have – with intention – been directing our attention to this final lesson of the church year – Luke’s account of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
In this story, blinded by worldly ambitions or fears, the crowds and even followers, who heard the good news, have turned their backs on Jesus because the reign he speaks of does not match with their vision. Even a criminal ridicules Jesus. As he is staring in the face of his own death, this criminal thinks Jesus’ death is pointless.
The crowds and this criminal are so engrossed with their own expectations or anxiety that they are incapable of seeing the bigger picture that is emerging in the midst of them. This bigger picture is in effect the beginning of the coronation of the king of kings, whose coronation is so unlike any that has come before it or that will follow it.
There is only one person in this story who is able to behold what is happening. The other criminal, who amid his own suffering is able to witness what is happening because of his compassion. Through his compassion, he is able to see the injustice and to recognize the regal decorum and dignity in Jesus, and to say, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Among the multitude present, he is the only one to receive Jesus’ benediction, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
It is because of and through this seemingly insane gesture of dying like a criminal that we, despite our brokenness, corruptness, and unworthiness, are made whole, redeemed, and made worthy to inhabit the kingdom of God.
Therefore, as we find ourselves feeling bound up inside our layers or nesting dolls of anticipation and anxiety, we – like the criminal who sees Jesus for who he is – must learn to bear with dignity and decorum the anxieties and injustices that we encounter, not by hiding them in our compartmented nesting dolls, but by opening them up, and letting the contents spill forth in prayer and communion so that Jesus and our fellow disciples can help guide us toward wholeness so that we – like the compassionate criminal – can recognize the real kingdom and receive Jesus’ benediction of Paradise.
 Luke 23:42-43.