Today the Church fittingly closes the liturgical calendar with the solemn celebration of Christ the King. As the year ends, the Church reminds us that Jesus too will come at the end of time to gather us into his kingdom. The opening prayer tells of God’s will “to restore all things in [his] beloved Son, the King of the universe… that the whole creation [may be] set free from slavery.”
Jesus is King, not only of Israel (first reading), but of the whole creation (second reading). “For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers.”
That Jesus is king is clear enough. The problem is whether we can recognize him as king. For if we cannot recognize him as king, it would be difficult to enter into his kingdom.
In the gospel, the rulers and the soldiers failed to recognize him. In fact, they mocked him and jeered at him. “If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.”
It is not easy to recognize Jesus as king because, as he told Pilate, his kingdom is not of this world. (cf. Jn 18:36) Our image of the king is one who is surrounded with pomp and power. The image of Christ the King, portrayed in today’s gospel, is just the opposite: one who is weighed down by suffering and totally helpless. Unlike the kings of this world, Christ has a cross for his throne and a helmet of thorns for his crown. No one recognizes Jesus as king, except the thief who asks to be admitted into his kingdom.
How does the thief recognize him as king? Through his own suffering and the awareness of his own sinfulness.
Our sufferings can open our eyes to recognize the face of God. At the end of the book, Job confesses that he finally came to know God through his sufferings. “By hearsay I had heard of you, but now my eye has seen you.” (Job 42:5)
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis exhorts us to let ourselves be taught by the poor for they know Christ better. “The [poor] have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.” (EG, 198)
Mother Teresa describes suffering as the kiss of God. When we suffer, we come so close to the cross that Jesus can kiss us.
But it is the recognition of our own sinfulness that ultimately makes us recognize Jesus as king and savior.
For the “good thief”, the experience of an innocent man willing to take on himself the punishment of the condemned is just overwhelming. This Jesus is no ordinary man, much less a criminal. Could it be that the inscription written above him, originally intended to be a mockery, actually reveals the profoundest truth of his kingly identity? “Indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal… Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And the response of Jesus is as quick as it is certain. “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”