Saturday, November 20, 2010

A king who has chosen to veil himself in the abjectness of the human condition (Reflections on the Solemnity of Christ the King)

The closest I ever got to a real king was when, as a student in Belgium, I saw the funeral of King Boudouin who is somewhat of a personal hero. Boudouin was a very devout and faithful Christian.

On the 4th of April 1990, when the Belgian government passed legislation to legalize abortion, Boudouin declared that he could not, in conscience, sign the law. So he decided to abdicate rather than agree with something his Catholic faith told him was wrong.

The Belgian parliament passed the law without him, but because of their tremendous respect and love for him, they reinstated him as king the very next day. And admiration for him just grew.

But during Boudouin’s funeral in August of 1993, something even more unusual happened. There were several eulogies that were made by heads of state and close personal friends at the end of the liturgy. The most memorable, however, was done by a woman who stood up at the cathedral pulpit and said, “I was a prostitute”. You could hear the entire congregation gasping. Whose idea was it to pick her to give a eulogy?! Then the woman spoke of how she came to Belgium looking for a job in order to provide for her poor family, but instead found herself sold into prostitution. King Boudouin learned about her case and saved her.

While her story was compelling, you could tell people were uneasy that a former prostitute was standing in front of them, telling them how thankful she was to their King who to her was simply this kind man who had rescued her. Men of dignity and power do not normally associate with these kinds of persons. I can tell you that it was an even more uneasy moment for me to listen to her speak—because she was from the Philippines! We ourselves don’t normally want to be associated in any way with such types of persons.

And yet Boudouin was a different kind of King. He was more like Christ in today’s gospel. Perhaps only ‘real’ kings can do what they did.

It is perhaps one of the strangest things about Jesus that one of the very last recorded exchange of words he had before he died, was a conversation, not with a decent and respectable person, but with a criminal, with Dismas the thief.

“Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom”, Dismas says; to which he replies, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise”.

In life, Jesus associated with sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers and with other undesirable persons in his society. He always looked out for those who were lost. In the final moments of his life, the last person he chose to associate with was also an outcast.

Our gospel reading today puts before us and celebrates a totally different kind of King: one who refused to identify himself with the powerful, the wealthy, and the self-righteous of this world, but with the poor, the sinner and the undesirable.

The life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus turns the worldly idea of kingship on its head and demolishes it completely—at least for those who wish to identify themselves as his true followers.

"And Jesus called them and said to them: "You know that those who are considered the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; for whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be the first among you must be the slave of all. For the Son of Man came not be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many"."

Today’s Solemnity reminds us that Christ often reveals himself in persons, circumstances , and events we least expect to find him, concealing himself in those we sometimes find undesirable and unlovable: the outcasts of this earth who are yet the “sacraments” of a God who has chosen to veil himself in the abjectness of the human condition.

And so we have to open our eyes, but also our hearts. For Jesus is there, in the poor, the needy, the sorrowing, the outcast, the unloved, the unlovable, the difficult, the pained and wounded.

He is there in anyone who is in “need”. He is in that difficult co-worker you try to be kind to. He is in your spouse when he or she has had a bad day and isn’t being his or her best self. He is in your children, even when they act up or disobey. He is in that student of mine who’s having a tough time in class or is indifferent, or sometimes even disruptive. He is in your teenage son or daughter who often finds his or her stage in life confusing. He is in that superior or parishioner who’s giving you a hard time. And he is in that poor family you might consider giving some cheer during the coming holidays.

Christ the King, identified himself with a sinner in today’s gospel, so that we sinners can in turn, identify him in each other, especially the weakest among us. And he identifies himself with the weakest among us, so that one day, when we see him face to face, he can say to us:

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was in prison and you visited me. Come, then, you who have been blessed by my Father. Inherit the Kingdom I have prepared for you. For whatsoever you have done to the least of my brothers and sisters, this you have done unto me”.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)