The Crucified King

The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King (Last Sunday of the Year).

It might seem strange that today’s Gospel for the solemnity of Christ the King presents Jesus apparently stripped of all dignity and power – indeed of anything that we would normally associate with kingship. In today’s Gospel, Jesus is a condemned criminal, crucified between two thieves. It is true that the inscription above his head acknowledges his kingship on Calvary, “This is the king of the Jews.” However, the authorities of the time intended their unique recognition of the kingship of Christ solely as a mockery and as a warning. Why then is this Gospel of the crucified Christ so appropriate on the Solemnity of Christ the King?

One possible answer to this question is that Christ on Calvary does in fact exercise kingship, even measured in terms of practical earthly dominion, provided one takes a long term perspective. In today’s Gospel, the Roman soldiers jeered at Christ on the cross. Three centuries later, however, the Romans came back to Calvary. There, at the orders of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, they built a great church in honour of the crucified and risen Christ. In this way, the truth taught by St. Paul was shown openly to the world, that all thrones, dominations, principalities and powers were created through Christ and for Christ. This mystery was at last revealed openly when the might of Imperial Rome bowed to the one they had pierced. So the shame and powerlessness of Christ on the cross is only apparent rather than real. The power of the cross finally overcame even the Roman empire.

If we needed further evidence for the regal power of Christ crucified, we can also learn from those hostile to the very symbol of the cross, since one does not fear what is without power. In the sixteenth century, the more extreme generation of Protestants after Martin Luther generally rejected and even destroyed representations of the cross, especially crucifixes on which the body of Christ is depicted explicitly. Although St. Paul had boasted that he preached Christ crucified, Calvin’s successor in Geneva, the theologian Beza, wrote that he detested and could not endure the image of the crucifix. Driven by a similar sentiment, seventeenth century Puritans under Cromwell burnt, smashed and defaced crucifixes and other devotional art throughout England. The ‘Reformers’ in England and elsewhere claimed that they were purifying Christianity from ‘Popish’ practices. Seen from a longer term perspective, however, these actions in fact helped pave the way for the secularization of many European countries. God has chosen to save the world through the cross of Christ, and even the image of that cross has great supernatural power. Conversely, the removal of the cross tends to coincide with the decline of the Christian faith. If we needed any confirmation of this, we should notice how, even today, those hostile to the Christianity in Western countries campaign tirelessly to remove the cross from public display. Elsewhere in the world this hostility can be far more explicit and severe. In present day Saudi Arabia, the airport authorities confiscate even privately worn crucifixes, if they are found, and many less extreme Islamic countries avoid any public images with even the slightest connection to the cross of Christ. Such measures can verge on paranoia. In Dubai, for example, official photographs no longer show the country’s most famous landmark, the Burj Al-Arab hotel, viewed from the sea. Why? Because of the rather embarrassing discovery that the hotel seen from the sea looks like a giant, one thousand foot high cross. We who enjoy the freedom to practise our faith should, I think, take notice of such extreme reactions. Like a photographic negative, this seemingly irrational fear of the cross of Christ itself bears witness to the kingship of Christ crucified. It is therefore prudent that we who do claim to be citizens of Christ’s kingdom take care to put crucifixes and other images of Christ the King especially in our homes, our schools and public spaces so far is possible.

But how is it that the cross of Christ does have such power? What is it about Christ on the cross that even those who reject the kingship of Christ are frightened of its power? I do not think that any one explanation could ever give a complete explanation of this mystery. However, it seems to me that Christ on the cross is at the centre of all Christian mysteries, making the crucifix the supreme Christian symbol. First, the crucifix witnesses that God was made man, not an inhuman superhero, but a man of flesh and blood that bled and suffered as one of us. Second, it is the ultimate sign of our Redemption, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) The very contemplation of Christ crucified can enlarge and melt even the most hardened hearts of stone, a power that nothing else on earth can do. I would therefore like to finish with some words of St. Paul. These words link the breadth, length, height and depth of the cross of Christ to being filled with the love of God, a fullness that is our very salvation.

 “May Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph 3:17-19)

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Ambrose Church, 25th November 2007

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