In Roman and Anglo-Catholic circles today is referred to as Christ the King Sunday. But don’t be fooled by the title, this isn’t some ancient feast of the church; rather it was established by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in response to what he saw as a loss of the regal dignity of the church among the kingdoms of the secular world. Personally I find such preoccupation with the regal dignity of the church at odds with the gospel as proclaimed by Jesus, especially today.
Nonetheless, with Pius’s desire for regality in mind, it seems ironic that our lessons for today evoke a collage of images that don’t really project conventional regal likeness. Instead, our lessons seem to be 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 regal vision of steadfast decorum and dignity.
What’s more, this confusing collection of Scripture is presented to us on a new year’s eve of sorts. This last Sunday after Pentecost marks the beginning of the final week of this season of what we call 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 resolution and preparation for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ.
Maybe this new year’s eve of sorts marks a period of resolution and transition for each of us as well. And no, I don’t mean camping out for Black Friday or counting down the shopping days ‘til Christmas! [As an aside, although the irony of naming the kick-off of this period of shopping mayhem is not lost on me – we have given a doomsday-sounding name to what is supposed to be the beginning of a sales bonanza for retailers. Maybe, just maybe retailers get this Advent thing after all. Or not.] Now back to the point. Rather than a period of consumerism gone wild, Advent is a period of interior preparation and practice for the coming of Jesus.
Yet the reality for many of us may be that we are preoccupied with a season of shopping mayhem, or more intrigued with those resolutions and transitions that seem more pressing because of proximity of place or time. This is understandable, but it often leads us – at our own peril – to overlook the bigger picture – the overarching story – 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, these readings seem to leave us hanging on the cross – a place of unresolved anxiety. There is no pretty bow to tie up the loose ends of unresolved pain. Perhaps this serves as a reminder that the holidays are painful for many of us.
For weeks now, our readings have been leading us down a path of increasingly end-of-time-ish stories as the daylight hours 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.
Despite its heartbreak, within this narrative there are agents of hope being named. In this story, blinded by worldly ambitions or fears, the crowds and even followers, who heard the good news, turn their backs on Jesus because the reign he speaks of doesn’t coincide with their vision. Even a criminal, as he is staring his own death in the face, ridicules Jesus; this criminal thinks Jesus’ death is pointless. The crowds and this criminal are so preoccupied with their own expectations or anxiety that they are incapable of seeing the bigger picture, the overarching story, that is emerging in the midst of them. This bigger picture is in effect the unlikely beginning of the coronation of the king of kings; a coronation so unlike any that has come before or that will follow. In this story there is only one person who is able to behold what is happening. Another criminal, one who in the midst of his own suffering is able to recognize what is happening because he has compassion. His love of his neighbor on a cross enables him to see the injustice and to recognize the regal decorum and dignity of 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 – if we are willing to accept the compassion and grace of another – are made whole, redeemed, and made worthy to inhabit the kingdom of God.
Therefore, as we find ourselves staring our anticipation and anxiety in the face, may we – like the criminal who loves Jesus for who he is – learn to bear with dignity and decorum the anxieties and injustices that we encounter, not by hiding them behind Happy Holiday facades, but by opening them, and letting the contents spill forth in compassion, prayer, communion and grace so that Jesus and our fellow disciples can guide us toward wholeness so that we – like the compassionate criminal – can recognize the real kingdom and receive Jesus’ benediction of Paradise.
May your Advent be so Blessed!
 Luke 23:42-43.