THE CROSS AS THE ULTIMATE REVERSAL

Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
Solemnity of Christ the King

By Fr. Chito Dimaranan, SDB

Over the past few weeks, we have been reflecting on some reversals that the Gospel accounts present: the Pharisee and the Publican, Zacchaeus the tax collector, and his dramatic turn-around towards the Lord and his fellowmen, and the powerless widow who nevertheless influenced the unjust judge by her persistence. Make no mistake about it. Scriptural evidence is clear with regards to whose side God is on. He is on the side of the powerless, the poor, the orphan, and the widow. More than that, He has a soft spot for those who call on Him in trust, in unflinching and unflappable faith.

Today, we are face to face with one more such reversal … the ultimate reversal of the cross, an overturning of something that all of humanity associated with defeat, with death, with shame, and utter humiliation.

No matter contemporary and past society’s attachment to a culture of power and prestige, pomp and circumstance, honor and glory through worldly power and wealth, somewhat counterintuitively, the Church would have us celebrate today the solemnity of Christ, the King of the universe.

Contemporary postmodern society is really conflicted about power and the trimmings of power. We don’t value anymore the image of kings and queens in regal splendor, ruling over the masses with such aplomb and an air of snobbish detachment, far removed from the hoi polloi, the ranks of the great unwashed, and the arena of daily mundane, workaday world. The world has little respect and awe left for royal fanfare and pomposity. Just look at how much not a few societies have reduced the image of their centuries-old royalty all over the world. They are kept, not so much as a necessary fixture in their societal lives, as a cultural and historical artifact that defines, not so much their daily life, as their glorious historical and cultural heritage. Modern society is not exactly in love with royalty at least in its traditional image characterized by pageantry and pomposity.

At the same time, however, society all over the world manages to find a replacement for what they throw out the window. Ridding themselves of inane royalty, they look for the equivalent of persons on whom to bestow the same status. People do not line up anymore to get a glimpse of kings and queens in gilded horse driven carriages, but people do rant and rave for their favorite divas and entertainment kings and queens down Hollywood, Bollywood, and their local equivalents all over the world. They swoon, they stumble, they shriek with delight at the sight of their queenly and kingly stars whose faces are perpetually plastered on TV screens, billboards, and glossy magazines.

People just love to dignify and glorify all those they fancy, all those they identify with, all those who seem to represent their collective dreams and desires.

The Feast of Christ, the King of the universe, seems to be a little counterintuitive to this postmodern trend. There is something in the language that does not seem to fit the mould, something in the image that does not quite add up to the expectations of a people who have enthroned a lot more kingly or queenly figures than they can handle. The symbolic image of a Christ reigning gloriously on earth and in heaven just cannot compete with the modern icons of cultural leadership that the young people have elevated to the dignity of a figurative type of royalty. An image that drew raves during the baroque period associated with colonization and missionary expansion of the Church just does not attract a society that is now far removed from that understanding of Christendom that spelled untold successes and triumphs as far as “bringing the world to Christ” is concerned.

What do we make, then, of this feast of today? Wherefore celebrate it? What does it mean for us who talk less of kings and queens, and more of divas, thespians, idols, and cultural icons? With no space, time, nor interest for triumphant processions and whole-day adorations and the like, what is there left for us believers to hang on to?

A cursory look at history ought to show us that our faith has always been expressed through the prevailing customs, language, and symbols of the time. Thus, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament arose at a time when, first, there was a heresy denying the Real Presence of Christ in the sacred host. Second, it arose as a substitute to receiving communion at a time when, thanks to Jansenism, people thought nobody was worthy to receive communion, so people weren’t receiving any. In its place, popular devotion, supported by private revelation given to some saints and mystics, substituted the act of giving a “pious stare” to the Sacred Host placed in ornate, baroque, regal, and pompous “monstrances.”

The figure of Christ the King and other images associated with worldly kingship like power, majesty, prestige, and glory became de rigueur in people’s minds. People began to think of themselves as loyal subjects of this King, ready to suffer the cold, the heat, hunger, and sleep deprivation, in order to show one’s unparalleled allegiance to this same King and Lord, for whom the pageantry and high profile symbolism of triumphant processions were but right and fitting.

The image of Christ the King as powerful leader, savior, and Lord became uppermost in people’s minds and hearts.

I am not about to obliterate that tradition with this reflection. That is not my task. It is up to the believing community, helped by theological reflection, and led by sound and wise pastoral leadership to do that. But a little reflection on the liturgy and today’s readings might help us in our common quest for the unchanging essence of today’s feast. To start with, it might come to many as a pleasant surprise that the readings chosen for today do not emphasize that pompous image of Christ the King.

The first reading from the 2nd book of Samuel gives the opening salvo. It presents the image of David as a shepherd: “You shall shepherd my people Israel and shall be commander of Israel.” Shepherd here connotes tenderness, not brute power. Paul’s letter to the Colossians speaks of Christ as the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” Christ, our King and Lord, comes from the Father, and cares for all of God’s creation, being its “firstborn.” More like a divine gardener sent from above, to which Paul adds still another image, this king is shown thus: “all things were created through him and for him.” He is, furthermore, “head of the Church,” “firstborn of the dead,” who by his rising, now shares everything, including reconciliation and peace with His Father. He is King who mediates. He is King who serves. And lastly, He is King through “the blood of the cross.” His kingship shines out most fully on the throne of the cross.

The baroque period was right in conjuring up images of a victorious, triumphant Christ as King of the universe. It was a period of growth and expansion on both the political and ecclesial fields. I am not about to take that away from history. But as a priest, pastor, and part-time teacher, I do suggest an overhauling of the way we present the feast of Christ the King of the universe. We do have to reappropriate the rich Biblical tradition that steers clear of worldly honor and glory, and pride of an elevated, but detached status of leadership. Rather, we need to appropriate a Christ, who earned this same honor and glory through dedicated leadership as servant, as victim, as bridgemaker (pontifex) who brought heaven to humankind, by offering himself to be lifted up on the cross. He was both priest and victim, offerer and offering, servant and leader, up on the cross.

The cross was Christ’s most important image in the tradition of “reversals” in his preaching and teaching. Up on the cross, he proclaimed one more such reversal. The condemned was no longer damned forever. The repentant sinner’s plight was reversed by him who overturned a sign of a shameful and ignominious death, and made it a symbol of eternal life and salvation. To the repentant thief, this same Jesus up on the cross himself said: “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Silenced, cursed, wounded, derided, and defiled on the cross – and ultimately by dying on that same cross – he destroyed death and restored life forever.

What does your cross mean for you? What do you make of your current pain and suffering? One thing certain, for Christ, his cross represented the ultimate reversal. On that cross, he reigned supreme, as Lord, as King of the universe. Down from that cross, and once more lifted high in the glory of the resurrection, he still reigns as Lord and King in the hearts and minds of every believer. And He shall reign forever and ever. Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

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