Although Jesus himself never treasured nor even accepted the title “king,” this royal identity is a logical result of centuries of Christian belief. Jesus was born into the line of King David. Jesus was worshipped by the three Persian noblemen.
Jesus was called “Son of God” and “King of Israel” after the briefest encounter with Nathaniel. Jesus was celebrated by the crowds eager to crown him after the multiplication of the loaves. Even Jesus’ enemies had suspicions about his regal status. The assembly before Pilate frankly accused him of maintaining that he was the Messiah and “a king.”
Pilate himself had his fears about Jesus’ grand status: “So then you are a king?”
The Christian world accordingly took up this inclination to enthrone Jesus, often portraying him victorious on a jeweled cross. Later theologians reached for Christ’s fullness by referring to him as priest, prophet and “king.” And the latest in this litany of majestic tributes was accorded to Christ by Pope Pius XI when the pontiff instituted the “Feast of Christ the King” in 1929. Overwhelmed by the loss of traditional authority among the nations of Europe after World War I and fearful of the rise of the dictators who would fill that void, Pope Pius called the world’s attention to the one authentic source of law and order, Jesus Christ.
As the preface for the solemnity promises, Jesus would establish “a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.”
These thoughts are exactly what the Catholic worshipper expects to hear from the pulpit on this last solemnity of the church’s year. And indeed they would be well-spoken. The first and second readings for this year’s solemnity confirm this majestic portrait of Jesus Christ. The first reading relates Jesus to his royal Davidic lineage. The second reading goes a step beyond Jesus’ right to an earthly kingdom and proclaims him to be none other than the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” He is acclaimed as greater than “thrones or dominions or principalities or powers.” He is “before all things”; he is “the head”; he is “preeminent”; in him “all the fullness was pleased to dwell.” St. Paul certainly appreciates the royal, or one may even write, the imperial status of Jesus Christ.
It is all the more curious then that the Gospel passage from St. Luke chosen for this solemnity aligns Jesus with the criminal element of his day rather then with his royal Jewish roots or even his heavenly pedigree. St. Luke wants his readers to know that the true kingship of Jesus Christ consists neither in earthly supremacy inherited from David nor in the ethereal dominance of an ancient god. The most revealing sign of Jesus’ kingly status is his obedience to his Father. One criminal mocks Jesus, taunting him to expose his true nature by freeing the three of them from the horror of the cross. But Jesus knows that his kingship is characterized not by freedom, but by fidelity. The second criminal appreciates that Jesus’ kingship does not reflect mere earthly advantage but it reflects Christ’s submission to the heavenly Father: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” the insightful thief begs (the only time in the Scripture when Jesus is addressed solely by his given name, without any title). Jesus’ familiar answer, “… today you will be with me in Paradise," sheds perfect light on the nature of Christ’s kingship and kingdom.
Christ’s kingship does not consist in lording it over his subjects as is the prerogative of earthly royalty. Christ’s kingly role consists in leading his followers into intimate union with the Father through him which is “Paradise.” Christ does not merely promise the man heaven — although that would not be a shabby pledge. Rather, Christ reveals to the man — and to all believers — that the very goal of the Christian life is not just to learn from Christ or to imitate Christ or to ride on Christ’s coattails into heaven. The goal of the Christian life, the prize to which the Christian aspires, is personal intimacy with God through Christ. Christ will not only remember his brothers and sisters when he comes into his kingdom, they will actually share that kingdom with him: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus’ kingship is not a stand-offish regency whereby he receives tributes from his subjects. Jesus’ kingship is a loving embrace of his brothers and sisters in which he shares with them the heavenly fruit of his enduring fidelity toward the Father.