The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe – November 20, 2022
St. Paul – Lyons, KS
2 Samuel 5:1-3; Psalm 122:1-5; Colossians 1:12-20; Luke 23:35-43
José Sánchez del Río
I want to start today by telling a little story about a kid named Joe. In the early 20th century, a persecution of the Catholic Church in Mexico broke out when the newly elected Mexican president decided to enforce the secularist and anticlerical laws of the 1917 Constitution with brutal force. And so in an attempt to extinguish the Catholic faith in Mexico, the government got to work persecuting the Catholic Church by seizing property, closing churches and schools and convents, and imprisoning and executing the priests. And the people of many of the central and western Mexico rebelled—they rebelled against the government, calling themselves Cristeros. And so began what is known as the Cristero War.
Among them was a twelve year-old boy named Joe, or José or Joselito, or José Luis Sanchez del Río.
José was born in Sahuayo, Michoacán, México. He was the third of four children. And he loved his faith and grew up with a strong devotion to Jesus Christ and Our Lady of Guadalupe. He was an altar boy at Mass. And even though he was just a kid, José joined the rebellion as a flag bearer. During one battle José was captured by the government troops and imprisoned in the sacristy of the local church. There in captivity, José was ordered to renounce his faith in Jesus Christ, and he refused. They threatened to kill him, and he still refused. He was forced to watch the hanging of another Cristero, and he still refused.
So in February of 1928, when José was only 14 years old—after realizing they were not going to break his faith, the troops cut the bottom of his feet with machetes and forced him to walk around the town barefoot toward the cemetery. During this torturous walk, they told him if he shouted, “Death to Christ the King,” they would spare his life. Instead, in excruciating pain, José continued to shout, “I will never give in. Viva Cristo Rey y Santa Maria de Guadalupe!” His last words before they shot and killed him, “Viva Cristo Rey! Long live Christ the King.”
When Pope Pius XI established this solemnity we celebrate today, the Solemnity of Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe, he did it in large part because of this Cristero War and the extraordinary witness of the Cristeros. Pius wanted to call us, each and every one of us, to give our lives to Christ who is our King.
Lenses of “Kingship”
But we need to be honest about something: we don’t like the idea of kings. We’re Americans, by golly. We overthrow kings! Our country is founded on kicking the king’s butt, and the post-enlightenment and post-revolution ideals of democracy and personal autonomy. Kings? Kings are outdated, archaic, problematic. And so this is an issue for us if we’re trying to celebrate Christ as our King: we don’t have a cultural or personal engagement with the idea of kingship, and the one we do have is an outright rejection of the idea of kingship.
So a king. What is a king? Historically and biblically, a king is the living embodiment of the people, all of the people. The king is the head of state, but also the head of religion, the head of finance, the head of culture. What the king says goes; his word is the law. Again, we think in terms of democratic process and personal autonomy. But with a king, no. The king is everything.
So why do we reject this? Obviously, because it has “corruption” and “abuse of power” written all over it! And fair enough. Throughout history kings have been incredibly corrupt and abused their power left and right. Ok. But also, look at it from the other angle: the other extreme is that everyone is a king unto themselves. The Book of Judges recounts the time before there was a king in Israel, and it laments how chaotic and lawless and dangerous that time was. Why? Because, “everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). That is a recipe for disaster. That is chaos. Sound familiar? That’s just life today.
In scripture, if you are talking about the king, your mind is immediately drawn to David. David is the king, the figure everyone looked to. David: was a heroic leader; he delivered the people from their enemies and the powers of darkness; he was incredibly faithful to God, a man after God’s own heart; he, more than anyone else, gathered and united the people; and most of all, he brought peace. When that is your king, then what we heard in our first reading makes more sense. We were told that “all the tribes of Israel came to David…and said: ‘Here we are, your bone and your flesh’” (2 Samuel 5:1). Does that make sense? The people aren’t just “holding their nose” and reluctantly accepting David as the king. They see him as the embodiment of everyone. He is the head. They are the members, the parts of his body, his flesh and bone. With a king like that, everyone can get on board!
But as the story goes, we discover that David is flawed. David falls from grace. And generation after generation, the people fall back into everyone doing what is right in their own eyes. Without a good king, there is no hope.
That’s why the people’s hope, the prophets’ hope is for? A new king! Specifically, a New David, a king that is without flaw. And this is precisely how Jesus is portrayed! The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t waste time; it begins by saying, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David” (Mt 1:1). Mark opens by saying, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1)—“Son of God” is the title for the Davidic King. As Jesus enters into Jerusalem before his death, the people are crying out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” And Pilate places above his head the sign, “This is the King of the Jews.”
All throughout the gospels and the rest of the New Testament, Jesus is portrayed as a heroic king and leader. “He delivered us [rescued us] from the power of darkness [from our enemies, from the Enemy] and transferred us to [his] kingdom” (Col 1:13). He is eminently faithful, the embodiment of God’s heart. His mission is one of gathering the people into his kingdom. And in all of this, he brings peace, “peace through the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20).
The Church: He Is Our King, We Are His Body
And where is all of this leading? Well, remember the context of David and his kingship: it’s leading toward our acceptance of him not as a nice guy, or a good teacher, but as our king! Our second reading puts it this way: “He is the head of the body, the church” (Col 1:18). He is the head, we are his body. It’s exactly what the people said to David and that we are meant to say to Jesus, “Here we are, your bone and your flesh.” This is why baptism and the Eucharist aren’t just nice things. By Baptism, we are incorporated into the Body of Christ, the Church. Through the Eucharist, we become more and more his body. Being a Christian by definition is to be one who proclaims that Christ is king.
This is why—and you’ve heard me get on my soapbox before—this is why the Church isn’t just nice people who believe that God exists and agree with “Christian values” and vote a certain way and read a Bible every now and again. To be the Church, to be members of the Body of Christ—the Church are those who have handed their lives over to the king; our very life, our very body is his; our lives have been surrendered, handed over, entrusted to him; our lives find their meaning and purpose in serving and praising him (as our opening prayer said). This is a totally different lens! This is a radical embrace of Christ! This isn’t “nice people being nice to each other.”
I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week, and what this looks like for us individually and for our parish. I’ve been doing a lot of praying and thinking and researching about what a healthy parish looks like. Because the easy way to think about it is to think, “Well, our parish is healthy if Mass is full, and we have no places to sit, and we’re super super busy.” But really, the parish is healthy, the Body of Christ is healthy when its members are. Think of cancer: when a part of the body becomes cancerous, it threatens to kill the entire body. The question we have to ask is, “Are we healthy members of the body?” We love to project the problem onto others: “If only so and so was a better Catholic. If only the culture and the government were better! If only…” But no. The question is: Are we, am I, are you a healthy member of the body? In other words: Have you surrendered your life to Christ and his Kingship? Can you say that your life and your body are his? There is this scary parable Jesus tells where the people continue to cry out, “We do not want this man to be our king!” And it doesn’t end well for them. Are we crying out “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Or are we crying out, “I do not want this man to be my king!” Are we surrendering our life to him and his Church? Or are we saying, “I’ll follow Jesus however I want,” and making ourselves our own king, doing what is right in our own eyes?
The Prophet Isaiah spoke of the day that the king, the Christ, the New David would come. And he spoke of how one would come making the announcement of his arrival, running toward us to announce this good news of his arrival and his kingship. And he famously said, “How beautiful…are the feet of those who bring good news” (Isaiah 52:7). The messenger running to announce the good news of the King’s arrival, how beautiful are his feet. It makes me think of Saint José Sanchez del Rio—his feet cut with machetes, forced to walk to his own death—there he announces, “Viva Cristo Rey! Long live Christ the King!” José, even in the face of brutal persecution, even when there was no support for him, even when it meant it would cost him his life—he surrendered his life to the King, announcing his kingship.
Do we? Do we cry out, “Long live Christ the King!”? Or do we say, “I do not want this man to be my king. I will do what is right in my own eyes”? I hope the witness of this fourteen year old boy inspires you. And I hope that our parish becomes healthier each and every day not by just swelling our numbers, but by having members that have surrendered their life to Christ, that pledge their allegiance to him and his kingdom, and that announce by word and example that Christ is King.