Come celebrate with us!

Feast of Christ the King (C)

Years ago, my husband and I received a printed invitation from a family we had recently met to “Come, celebrate Christ the King with us!” We barely knew this family and my initial reaction  was a sarcastic “Wow, I didn’t know Liza (not her real name) was such a church lady.”

To be honest, both my husband and I were a little nervous to accept the invitation which only included the date, time and address. We did not know what to expect: would this be a prayer service, a faith sharing group, would we know anyone, was there going to be spontaneous prayer and if so could leave early? We devised a plan to stay for an acceptable period of time and cut out if things got weird.

Turns out our concerns were unfounded. It was a big party with loads of food, crown shaped cakes and cookies, music, games and laughter. It felt like it was Christmas day. To be clear, the hosts made sure the reason for the party, the Solemnity of Christ the King, was front and center, but believe me when I tell you, it was a lot of fun.

We moved away before the following year’s fest, but I think about that family every year around this time and recall their sincerity, their hospitality, and how they seemed to take this feast so seriously, far more seriously than I ever had, at least.

But they were right to do so. The feast of Christ the King overturns all of our worldly ideas about “Kingship” and invites us to reject the dark and narrow focus dominating much of our social discourse. Instead we are urged to take the long view and “go rejoicing to the house of the Lord” [PS 122:1] and to receive, even in our brokenness, the divine inheritance which the whole of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection gained for all of creation.

Dear readers, take this to heart, for it is love; it is redemption; it is human-divine solidarity.  It is the foundation of our faith and it has not only sustained generations of believers through unspeakable trials, it has been the driver behind breathtaking examples of human compassion, forgiveness, justice, self-sacrifice, fairness, and freedom.

Furthermore, Sacred Scripture has an indisputably redemptive, life-giving, and transformative message for contemporary readers and our world. We would be foolish not to attune ourselves to it and respond as our religious forebears did, to God’s movement in our lives.

Carroll Stuhlmueler, C.P., says, “Every part of ourselves belongs to the Kingship of Christ, our politics, our theology, our humanity.”[1] Fortunately for us, each of the readings for this year’s feast of Christ the King provides particularly relevant wisdom in that exact order.

Beginning with the first reading, we hear about the appointment of David as the King of Israel [2 Sam 5:1-3]. “All the Tribes of Israel came to David.” They identified him as one of their own saying “here we are, your bone and your flesh” and recalled his recent leadership on behalf of the Israelites: “it was you who led the Israelites out and brought them back.” They, “All the Tribes of Israel” anointed him, unanimously.

The story of Israel—the whole of Hebrew Scripture contained in the Old Testament—is the story of human discernment and cooperation and trust in a God who promised to be faithful to them. This particular acuity to God’s faithfulness became the filter which revealed, and continues to reveal God’s direction in every aspect of life.

St. Paul’s profound understanding of Christ’s divinity and role in the redemption of humanity[2] is expressed in the second reading, which is taken from the letter to the Colossians. Notice the writer’s poetic use of the word fullness which he uses to describe “everything,” even that which is hidden in the folds of cosmic and earthly realms, visible and invisible, from time’s inception and into infinity, all of which is drawn together in the person of the beloved Son, who reconciles—a word that conjures images of balancing, smoothing, forgiving, returning, uniting—everything, the fullness of creation which was once separated with the Creator.

This is high Christology; it is mind-bending and almost too beautiful to contemplate. Our existence is infinitely greater than our mortal experience. Paul’s grasp of the immeasurable, universal message of Jesus’ life is light years ahead of the narrowly defined interpretation which many Christians want to accept.

The feast of Christ the King urges us to open our hearts and our minds and permit the whole of this theological truth to saturate us.

Finally, Luke’s gospel brings us back to earth and allows us to witness an intimate conversation between Jesus and one of the two condemned criminals who were crucified with him. [Luke 23:35-43]. The criminal, forever known as “the good thief,” recognized Jesus in a way no one else had.

His eyes were opened, and to my mind the words, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” recall the human connection heard in today’s first reading from 2 Samuel: “Here we are, your bone and your flesh.” Jesus’ response, even as he was dying inspired hope in what seemed a hopeless setting, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” [Luke 23:43].

As we can see, the feast of Christ the King is more than the annual last hurrah before the first week of Advent. True, the feast concludes the liturgical year that officially begins each January with Jesus’ baptism and which follows one of the three synoptic gospel[3] accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry throughout “Ordinary Time,” but it is more.

With the exception of Christmas and Easter, many Christians tend to limit their participation in the celebration of Feast days to attending the liturgy, but the expression of deep faith and theological understanding shown by our friends who invited us to their annual “Christ the King” party tells me we might be missing out on something greater. I witness that “something” every week in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood where my husband and I, the sole Catholics for several blocks, now live

I find the religious observance of my neighbors to be extraordinarily moving. Not only the Sabbath rituals, but every feast day (and there are many!) is observed with great reverence and respect, not to mention the quality family time, meal-sharing, kindness, and authentic joy that surrounds these observances. On more than one occasion I have tried to imagine what the Christian response to the words “Go in peace to love and serve the world” might be if Christian men and women practiced their faith with the same passion our Orthodox Jewish neighbors do.

Perhaps, as Stuhlmueller suggests “in our own human way of life, with its tragedies and political moves, with its mistakes and successes”[4] we can discern the path that the Kingship of Christ points us towards, and in doing so lead us to live in ways that give everyone reason to “Come, celebrate Christ the King with Us!”

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[1] Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P., Biblical Meditations for Ordinary Time-Weeks 23-34, Paulist Press, New York/Mahwah, NJ 1984. p 401

[2] Vincent M. Smiles. “The Letter to the Colossians” in  New Collegeville Bible Commentary, New Testament, edited by Daniel Durkin. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. 2009. 635-650, here 638.

[3] The three synoptic gospels are Matthew, Mark, and Luke

[4] Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P., Biblical Meditations for Ordinary Time-Weeks 23-34, Paulist Press, New York/Mahwah, NJ 1984. p 401

May we all be One

Feast of Christ the King (B)

Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” [John 18:37c] These are the words that Jesus spoke to Pontius Pilate at his trial, the night before his crucifixion. These are the words that conclude the Sunday readings for Year B on the Feast of Christ the King, which Christians celebrate this weekend.

Do we listen?

The truth is love. Love for God, and love for neighbor. Do unto others, and so forth.  Christians know this, but there are times when we struggle mightily to hear Jesus’ voice over the cacophony of our own.

These are pretty tough times for those who listen.

On Friday, November 13th ISIS suicide bombers attacked six densely populated locations in Paris, killing 126 people and injuring more than 300, leading French President Francois Hollande to declare war and commence bombing ISIS targets in Syria. This came one day after two suicide bombings, also the work of ISIS, killed 43 people and injured more than 230 in southern Beirut.

Both incidents were the continuation of a succession of unspeakable and violent attacks on civilians by the terrorist organization, ISIS, but the attack on Paris hit many Americans as if it had occurred on American soil.

Almost immediately an outpouring of heartfelt support blossomed on the internet. And, almost as quickly, social media sites were polluted with the hate-filled opinions, memes, and videos of armchair “experts” on ISIS, Islam, the Syrian refugee crisis, immigration, and Muslim American citizens.

By Monday, I was stunned into silence. The hateful rhetoric worsened with the added voices of “news” personalities and certain politicians. I had no words of my own to describe the depth of shame I felt. This growing pile of garbage—racism disguised as patriotism—exuded a stench that was shockingly similar to what it purported to reject. It did nothing if not to foment more fear and increase divisions between neighbors. If one of the goals of terrorism is to polarize its victims, we are effectively handing ISIS its success on a platter.

I write about Christian discipleship: what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. I write about the need to press on, to remain focused and hopeful and unafraid, even, and especially in times of extreme hardship. But this week I felt as if my senses were being crushed by the sight, sound and smell of the world’s flesh being torn and mutilated on social media sites.

My struggle to form a single, hope-filled thought in response to so much hate speech, ignorance and fear-driven rhetoric left me dry. I believe I belong to the truth as lived by Jesus, but I also know that before these truths can be heard, ears need to be able to hear. And it seems to me that everyone is currently cutting off their opponent’s ears.

After 9/11 I wrote to my grandmother, who was 86 at the time and who lived another ten years, and asked her, in light of all that she had seen and experienced since her birth in 1915, to tell me how people managed to remain hopeful through such difficult times. What did people do to keep their hearts filled so that fear could not overcome them? In response to my question, she wrote, “We pulled together and supported one another,  because we were all suffering the same. We helped our neighbors, and we stuck together. And those hard times passed.”

My grandmother’s words consoled and assured me that as dark as those days were, hope remained alive. What she told me was that despite having good cause to be frightened, her generation learned to cope not by pushing away from one another, but by drawing closer together.

Jesus prayed on the night before he died that all might be one [Jn 17:21]. Facing his own death, Jesus prayed for us. In a speech on Christian Unity, Cardinal Walter Kasper said, “When Jesus uttered the words “may they all be one”, they by no means represented a vision or a dream. Jesus said these words on the eve of his death. This was not the time for triumphal utopias. The Galilean spring, when the enthusiastic crowds overwhelmed him, was over. They no longer cried “Hosanna!” but ” Crucify him!” Jesus was well aware of this, and predicted also that his disciples would not be one, and that they would be dispersed. What else could he do in this situation than to leave the future of his work in the hands of his Father? Thus, the words “may they all be one” are a prayer, a prayer in a humanly perceived hopeless situation.”[1]

We live in frightening times; it is true. And it is all too easy to succumb to fear and circle our wagons to keep others out. Turning against one another out of fear creates lies and leads to hatred; it separates us, and empties our hearts of hope.

Instead, let us turn towards one another and fill our hearts with the truth. Listen for Jesus’ voice, and may we all be one.

Today’s readings can be found here.

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[1] Cardinal Walter Kasper, May They All Be One? But How? A Vision of Christian Unity for the Next Generation, Keynote speech given to the Conference of the Society for Ecumenical Studies, the St Albans Christian Study Centre and the Hertfordshire Newman Association at St Alban’s Abbey, Hertfordshire, England on May 17, 2003