Christ the King

The last Sunday of the liturgical year is the Feast of Christ the King. To mark that, the Church reminds us that history, like the year, ends in triumph and a crown. But what a strange triumph! And what a strange crown!

In the first reading for that Feast for Year C cycles, from the book of Samuel, we find what we imagine is a proper crowning. This is what it should look like when the King is crowned, we fancy. It combines the pomp of an ancient Oriental court, the divine smile of approval, and the popular grassroots democratic hue we Americans like to see. Here is no secret double-dealing engineered in a smoke-filled backroom. On the contrary, “all the tribes of Israel” come to David and willingly bow before his royal Majesty saying, “In days past, when Saul was our king, it was you who led the Israelites out and brought them back.” David, the war hero, is Mr. Popularity. Everybody loves him. And they love him all the more for his contrast with bad King Saul, who is principally remembered as a tragic failure. Saul, after all, had been handed the kingdom of Israel on a silver platter by the prophet Samuel (in response to Israel’s adolescent whine to have a King “like the other nations do”). Success went straight to Saul’s head and he became, over the 40 years of his reign, progressively more moody, paranoid, violent, and estranged from God. At the end of his life, he was consulting mediums shortly before his death by suicide (which was about as low as you could sink in Israelite culture). And in the years before that, he had spent his time attempting to hunt down and kill his staunchest defender, David.

David, for his part, had acquitted himself with all the daring-do of Robin Hood, outwitting all the King’s horses and all the King’s men time and again, yet refusing to do any harm to Saul, the Lord’s anointed. When Saul finally did die, the popular acclaim for David was thunderous. And small wonder, for as the prophet Samuel had made clear, God himself had chosen David.

And so Israel comes to David in 2 Samuel 5:1, using language that is, significantly, marriage language. As Adam described Eve in Genesis, so Israel describes itself as David’s “bone and flesh.” The crowning of David is also a kind of wedding.

But they did not live happily ever after. For David soon commits adultery and murder and God promises him the sword will not depart from his house. This primal sin of adultery pervades the rest of the history of Israel under their kings. When the king refuses to render worship to God and leads Israel to do the same, the prophets refer to the sin as “adultery.” David, for his part, seeks forgiveness and God promises that one of his descendents will sit on the Throne forever. But just how this will happen is not clear, especially when the House of David ceases to occupy the royal office a few centuries later. Has the promise of God failed? Where is the Son of David?

These are the questions that trouble the minds of the faithful Jews of our Lord’s day. And, not surprisingly, their minds are still full of an earthly King, with swords, banners, and armies arrayed across the landscape. But the Son of David is not David, for he is greater than David (Psalm 110). Rather than being numbered among the outlaws as David was, Jesus is crucified among the outlaws and even reviled by the outlaws themselves. Like Robin Hood, he comes among thieves to steal our hearts and give riches to us who have been impoverished by sin.

Rather than a crown of gold, Jesus seeks a servant’s towel and is rewarded by an adulterous human race who presses down on his head a crown of thorns. We “lift up” the Son of Man to mock him, but God exalts him. And in exalting him, he exalts us, even those of us who share the humiliation of death with him.

For rather than a fleeting moment of political exuberance from a momentarily pumped-up crowd, Jesus offers us the solemnity of blood and water, gushing from his pierced heart and soul so that His Bride, the Church, might be drawn from his side the way Eve was drawn from Adam’s. Now, in deed as well as in word, we are his bone and flesh.


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