Saturday, November 25, 2017

OF KINGS, PROSTITUTES, THIEVES, AND PAUPERS (Reflections on the Solemnity of Christ, a Different Kind of King)

It is perhaps one of the strangest things about Jesus that 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 this crucified king replies, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” 

Perhaps Jesus was just being consistent, simply being himself, merely being true to what he had been sent by his Father to do.

After all, the very first words that came out of his mouth, the very first utterance from his lips when he began his ministry were: "I was sent to bring glad tidings to the poor". 

How often do we, his followers, forget that!

And all throughout his life, it was to them that he felt especially close: the poor, the hungry, the sick, the sorrowing, the lonely, the lost, the unclean, the unacceptable, the shunned, the forsaken - all those at the margins of society.

And he tells us that at the end of ours, there will be one, and only one, litmus test of our commitment to him: 

"I was hungry and you gave food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed 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". 

How often do we forget! Tomorrow, Sunday, we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King. What kind of king? Not the kind we too often celebrate. 

Of course, he conquered sin, of course he was victorious over death, of course he reigns in the hearts and minds of those who seek to follow him. Yet sadly, our imagery often remains mired in the very kind of kingship he rejected and had asked his own disciples to shun.

When I was new in seminary, I will never forget what my old spiritual director said to me, partly in jest perhaps, though hiding a reality he probably found rather uncomfortable, even inconsistent. 

"Tomorrow is Christ the King", he said. "Notice all the gold and shiny things in the sanctuary", he added with a grin. I knew what Father John meant. I see it to this day.

Jesus was a different kind of king. Yet, how often we forget!

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

On April 4, 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 faith and his conscience told him was simply 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 people like that.

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

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.

The Parable of the Last Judgment 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 and death 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.

The Solemnity of Christ the King reminds us that a lot of the times, Jesus reveals himself in persons and circumstances we least expect to find him, concealing himself in those we sometimes find unlovable. The outcasts of this earth are his “sacraments,” veiling him in the abjectness of their condition.

Consider the revealing ‘twist’ in the parable—something seldom noticed even in homilies. The gulf that separated the righteous from the unrighteous on Judgment Day, that thing that made them so different from each other, was paradoxically, one and the same: both failed to recognize that it was the King they were aiding. In that they were the same. 

But whereas the righteous aided despite their failure of recognition, the unrighteous failed to aid precisely because of their failure to recognize. Whereas the former would have aided, even if it had not been Christ, the latter would only have helped, if it had in fact been Christ.

What makes us acceptable to the King on that day when we shall see him face to face, is not how strongly we fastened ourselves to Him in this life, but how strongly we fastened ourselves to those in whom he dwelt hidden from our eyes.

The poor are the incognitos of Christ, veiling his glory with their pained and suffering humanity. Each time we wipe their tears, bind their wounds, and make life a little better for them, it is Christ’s tears we wipe, his wounds we bind, and his life we continue in the here and now.

And so we have to open not only our eyes, but most especially 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 the lowliest of the low so that we 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, naked and you clothed 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)