Sunday, November 25, 2007

Christ the King

Christ the King
C cycle

Reading 1. 2 Samuel 5: 1-3
Reading II. Colossians 1: 12-20
Gospel. Luke 23: 35-43 (the good thief).

Today's feast of Christ the King marks the end of the church year. Although Christians have always believed in the Kingship of Christ, the feast is a relatively recent one dating only from 1925. Pope Pius IX instituted the new feast after a devastating world war which saw millions killed and empires fall. The Kaiser of defeated Germany was forced to abdicate his throne; the Tsar of Russia was deposed and executed by angry revolutionaries; the Austrian empire--the heir to the Holy Roman empire which had lasted for over a thousand years--was broken up into a number of small states; and the Turkish empire, which had ruled the Middle East for over 500 years, was also overthrown, an event which led to the anarchy in that area which persists even today. Even though the English monarchy survived the war, the mighty British empire was mortally wounded.

At a time when the very idea of Kingship was on the way out, the Pope chose to emphasize the Kingship of Christ. The Second Vatican Council reemphasized the importance of the feast when it moved it from the last Sunday in October to the very last Sunday of the church year. Naturally, the theme of today's readings is Kingship. The first reading presents us with David, the greatest of the kings of Israel. The reading makes clear that a true king exists to serve his people, and not to be served by them.

You shall shepherd my people Israel
and shall be commander of Israel.

In America we have never been partial to kings or the idea of Kingship. We pride ourselves on being a government "of the people, for the people, and by the people." It wasn't only that our founding fathers revolted against King George III of England but their aversion to kingship went even deeper.

Kings were supposed to be God's divinely appointed representatives on earth. Their coronations were religious ceremonies where the new king would be anointed with holy oils by a religious leader. Political philosophers spoke of the "divine right of kings" to justify their power. Ever since the time of King Henry the Eighth, the kings and queens of England had acted as head of the Church of England. Old traditions held that the King even possessed miraculous healing powers. It was believed that merely touching his cloak could cure many physical maladies.

By the time of our revolution it was clear that most kings were not what they were supposed to be. Many had come to their thrones not by divine right or election but through violence and usurpation. Many did not behave like representatives of God especially when it came to being good shepherds. A King was supposed to be the best and noblest man in the nation but often he seemed to be the worst. Even if they started out with good intentions, power corrupted them.

But what if there was a person whose teaching was both simpler and wiser than any of the world's great philosophers? What if this same teacher was able to calm storms at sea and even walk on the angry waters? What if there was a person who did indeed possess miraculous healing powers? -- if merely touching his cloak could cure both physical and spiritual ailments? What if there was a person who could feed the multitudes not only with bread for a day but with the bread of everlasting life? What if there was a person whose power was so great that he could even bring the dead back to life? Finally, what if there was a person who rather than being corrupted by power, surrendered his own life for his people? Shouldn't we call that person our King?

Today's readings present us with Christ our King. In St. Paul's letter to the Colossians we hear that God has "delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son." He enabled us to enter the Kingdom "by the blood of His cross." In other words we have a shepherd king who was willing to lay down his life for his sheep.

In today's gospel from St. Luke we see our King on this last Sunday of the Church year dying on the cross. The crowd is jeering at Him and the soldiers taunt, "If you are King of the Jews, save yourself." Even one of the criminals dying next to Him reviles Him. How fitting it is that our whole cycle of readings ends this year with the "good thief," who only asks, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

All year we have been reading St. Luke's account of our Lord's journey to Jerusalem. We started in January when Jesus was forced to leave his home town of Nazareth after preaching in the synagogue. We've followed Him on the journey, heard the famous parables, witnessed the miracles and the miraculous cures and healings. He asked us to take up our cross and follow Him and promised that if we would do so we would enter into His Kingdom. Actually, He said that His Kingdom would enter into us--that the Kingdom of God would be within us.

Let's end this Church year by visualizing the scene on the Cross. Let's imagine that we are one of the thieves being crucified along with Jesus and that our own journey through life is coming to an end. Wouldn't we want to hear the last words in our gospel when the King turns to us and says,

Amen, I say to you,
today you will be with Me in Paradise.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Wisdom 11: 22-12:2
Reading II. 2 Thessalonians 1: 11--2:2
Gospel. Luke 19: 1-10 (Zacchaeus, come down).

The Book of Wisdom was written in the century before the birth of Christ. One commentator calls it "a precursor of the message of mercy that Jesus taught." Today's passage certainly bears that out. It is a hymn to a merciful Lord.

But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
and you overlook peoples' sins that they may repent.
For you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made...

This is a central idea in both the Old and New Testaments. God is Good, God is Love, and His creation can only be full of good and love. Where we find imperfection or evil in the world, it is only because of our own doing. Nevertheless, despite our failings, the God of mercy and love is always open to us who turn to Him.

St. Luke's Gospel is sometimes called the "Gospel of the Great Pardons." Only a few weeks ago we heard the parable of the Prodigal Son. Last week it was the parable of the tax collector who went home "justified" because of his humble prayer, "O God, be merciful to me a sinner." A parable is just a story but this week we have the story of a real tax collector, Zacchaeus.

Remember that tax collectors were hated by the Jews and regarded as sinners because they did the dirty work of the Roman conquerors. The Romans knew better than to try and tax conquered people themselves. They gave out franchises to local leaders. A tax collector like Zacchaeus would advance a large sum of money to the Romans for the right to collect taxes from the local people. Once he collected more than he had paid the Romans, it was pure profit and his to keep.

Besides its spiritual message, St. Luke's gospel is a model of historical accuracy. We certainly can believe him when he tells us that Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector of Jericho, was a wealthy man. The Jews despised men like Zacchaeus not only because they cooperated with the Romans, but also because they enriched themselves at the expense of the oppressed.

The gospel account of the conversion of Zacchaeus is sketchy but we can imagine what happened. Seeking to catch a glimpse of Jesus, Zacchaeus climbs a tree only to be called down by Jesus who informs him that He intends to stay at his house. Like so many people who came face to face with Jesus, Zacchaeus is instantly converted. He received our Lord into his house "with joy." When people grumble that Jesus is going "to stay at the house of a sinner," Zacchaeus is so moved that he offers to give half his wealth to the poor. He even promises to think back over his entire career and repay anyone he has wronged four times over.

The conversion of Zacchaeus means that he realizes that he doesn't need all his wealth and possessions once he has found our Lord.

Our Lord pays Zacchaeus one of his highest compliments. He calls him a "descendant of Abraham." It's not that Jesus is calling Zacchaeus a Jew, that would merely be pointing out the obvious. He is saying that the tax collector is acting as a Jew is supposed to act. He is giving to the poor, he will be fair in his dealings with others, and he will make restitution if he has harmed anyone. Anyone who acts this way is a true "descendant of Abraham" no matter what his occupation.

A vocation is a calling. The word comes from the Latin word, "vocare" which means "to call." It is the root of the words, "vocal" and "voice." Sometimes we use it in a very limited sense of religious vocation. In earlier days we used to speak of vocations to the religious life, the married life, and the single life. It's clear though that in the scriptures we all have a vocation and that none of them are unworthy or ignoble.

In St. Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, he prays for that little community of believers. He prays that "God may make you worthy of his calling." He also warns them not to be alarmed or distracted by thoughts about the end of the world. If we are true descendants of Abraham we need not worry about such things. All we have to do is conduct our affairs honestly, keep busy following our own vocation in life, and realize what constitutes real wealth.

There is a famous passage in the Book of Revelation which reminds us of the story of Zacchaeus. It is the passage of Jesus knocking at the door asking us to let Him into our homes and lives. The passage is addressed to those of us who have become comfortable and materialistic.

You say to yourself, 'I am rich, I have made a fortune, and have everything
I want,' never realizing that you are wretchedly and pitiably poor, and blind and naked too."

Even so, He offers us a chance.

Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share his meal, side by side with him.

There is a famous painting of this scene but if you look closely, you will see that there is no knob on the door. It must be opened from the inside.