Following the King for the Holidays
November 21, 2004
The holiday season begins this week with the feast of Thanksgiving. And today’s feast, the feast of Christ the King, comes to us just in time. Because what we celebrate in this feast is our belief that Jesus is the Lord of all things, the King of the universe. We who follow Christ intend to live our lives according to the principles of Christ’s kingdom. What is this kingdom about? Today’s second reading states it clearly. God is reconciling all things to God’s self through the blood of Jesus’ cross. The kingdom of Christ is a kingdom of reconciliation, of pulling us together. Therefore as we approach these upcoming holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas we should live them through the viewpoint of the kingdom. We try to live them as followers of Christ the King.
But how do we do this? In what way is approaching the holidays different for those who follow the king of the universe? I want to address this question differently in my homily today. I would like to talk directly to young people. By “young people” I mean everybody from kindergarten through college, anyone who has not yet set up their own household, whose celebration if Christmas is still directly connected to their parents’ celebration. Although I’m going to be talking to the young people, I would encourage everyone else to listen. Because my hope is that what I say will relate to you as well.
Here’s what I would say to young people. In the next few weeks you are going to be celebrating a number of special meals, long meals, meals at which you will be asked to sit at table for maybe upwards to an hour. Some of you will have to travel to reach those meals. Many of you will share those meals with people you do not see that often: perhaps your grandparents who come in from out of town, or an uncle or an aunt or a friend of your parents. Some of these people that you don’t see that often might be a little strange. Some of them might be loud and asserting, others quiet and difficult to talk to. Some of them might keep saying to you, “Oh, how much you’ve grown.” Perhaps others there will pretend that they know you very well although they really do not know you much at all.
Here is where being a follower of Christ the King is important, because we believe that all the people in our lives are a part of God’s plan. This makes a difference. In this perspective we should attempt to approach the people we will meet with respect and a desire to understand them. We believe that all the people in our life, all the people who gather around your Thanksgiving and your Christmas table, have been put into your life by Christ the King. Therefore, whoever those people are, they should be treated with respect.
So when your grandmother puts brussel sprouts on your plate which you hate, instead of making a face or insulting her, you might want to respect the work that she has done and find a pleasant way of saying that you appreciate her, even if you don’t eat the vegetables. When Uncle Larry starts telling the story about his baseball adventures as a youth, which you have heard hundreds of times before, instead of embarrassing him, perhaps you should show him the respect to listen and maybe look for an opportunity to change the subject to a story you haven’t heard as yet. It might be a good thing to turn off your cell phones, because taking calls from your friends during the meal does not respect the people at the table. And if something embarrassing were to happen, instead of looking the other way or making fun, you might be the first to ask, “How can I help?”
You see, when we are followers of Christ the King, all the people in our lives deserve respect, because none of them are there by chance. It is also important for us to try to understand who these people are. As you were growing up, it was easy to take the people who showed up on holidays for granted. They were just there. Perhaps this holiday, you might want to ask members of your family who these people really are and how they became a part of your family’s life. You might ask your dad or mom before Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, “Was Uncle Pete always so loud?” Or “Why is it that Aunt Sally cries so easily?” And “When was it that we started to invite Mr. Wilson over for Thanksgiving dinner?” You might even think of people who you know are a part of your family but are not with you that particular holiday. You might ask, “Why doesn’t Aunt Mary eat with us any more?” Or “What was Grandpa Sal like, and do I have any of his qualities?”
I would, of course, suggest to both parents and grandparents to encourage these kinds of discussions. Rather than seeing the holidays as something just to get through, we should see them as opportunities to understand who the people are in our lives and who they have made us to be. In doing that, we will be acting as followers of Christ the King.
The holidays are coming, and shortly we will be traveling over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house or Aunt Sally’s house. I encourage all of us to go to these places as followers of Christ the King, to see that the people we meet there are treated with respect, and that we seize every opportunity to understand who those people are. I promise you that, if you approach these upcoming weeks with that attitude, you will not only celebrate the holidays, but you will actually appreciate the meaning of what we celebrate. You will understand more deeply who Christ our King is, who both challenges us and blesses us with the people in our lives.
Where We Find Our King
November 25, 2007
Luke 23:35 – 43
Today we proclaim Jesus as savior of the world, as our king. But just as it is important to proclaim Jesus as our king, it is equally important to know where our king is to be found. Jesus is not found in the places that kings are usually expected to be. He is not found in a royal palace, or in the halls of power where our politicians sit. Jesus is found on the cross. That is good news for all of us who struggle with evil in our world.
The fact that the king of the universe is found on a cross is good news to the thief in today’s gospel. Now we know almost nothing about this thief. We do not know how old he was or if he was married. We do not even know the crime for which he was crucified. But we know that as he hung on the cross next to Jesus, his life was coming to a violent and a cruel end. We know that as he hung in agony, his mind must have gone back to earlier times in his life when he missed certain opportunities, when he made decisions which he wished he could have made differently. He certainly thought of past choices which might have brought him to a different outcome other than this brutal execution. Now that he was crucified, his death was certain and his hope was gone. There were no more choices that he could make. There was no way to find salvation at this last moment. Where could be possibly find reason to hope on that bloody hill of Calvary?
The joy of today’s gospel is that the thief at the last moment found salvation. He recognized that the King of the Jews was hanging on the cross next to him. He recognized that the king of the universe was suffering with him. If that was the case, then salvation was near. In a remarkable mixture of surprise and faith the thief posed the ultimate request, “Jesus, remember me when you enter into your kingdom.” And the king replied, “Truly I tell you, this day I tell you will be with me in paradise.”
In his darkest hour the thief was able to find salvation because the king of the world was with him on the cross. That experience of the thief is good news for us, because every time you or I need to face a crisis in our lives, every time we must endure trouble or suffer pain, we know that our king is with us. Jesus is not aloof or unconcerned. In our troubles Christ is with us. He walks with us through the valley of death.
Now this truth that the king of the universe is with us does not eliminate evil from our lives. It does not allow our pain to evaporate. We believe one day Christ will return and establish the kingdom, and at that time every evil will be destroyed and every tear will be dried. But that time is not yet. For the present, evil is real and continues to touch our lives. The innocent suffer, cancer kills, our hearts are broken by rejection by loss. The victory of Christ has not yet destroyed the evil which surrounds us. But until that day when it does, Christ the king is with amidst the evil. This presence of Christ can make a fundamental difference in our lives.
Although evil continues, if Christ is with us in that evil, then we can find the strength to fight it. We cannot avoid suffering or pain. But if Christ is with us, we need not suffer alone. Death is inevitable. But if Christ is with us, then we like the good thief can hear the promise of life eternal. Christ is our king and we know where to find him. We find him in the midst of the struggles of our lives. So as we look forward and anticipate the fears, the troubles, the pains of this upcoming week, let us remember that we are not alone. As we cope with issues in our family, in our work, in our world, let us remember that strength is close at hand. As we deal with doubt and discouragement, with rejection and pain, let us recall that our king is near. Christ is with us. Christ not only recognizes our need. He stands with us in the midst of the evil in our world. We must know what the good thief knew. Our king is near us. Our king and our salvation is hanging on the cross next to us.
It Is Never Too Late
November 21, 2010
Today we conclude our liturgical year with The Feast of Christ the King. During the last year our gospels have generally been taken from the Gospel of Luke. Today’s gospel, the story the Good Thief, is an appropriate conclusion to the year because it is the climax of Luke’s Gospel. It perfectly summarizes Luke’s major concern. If we were to take all the material that is only found in Luke’s Gospel, it would pull in a clear direction. It would emphasize that God is the one who saves the lowly and the unworthy. This theme begins early in the gospel as we hear Mary’s Magnificat in which praises God as the one who lifts up the lowly. We see it again in Luke’s Parable of the Prodigal Son, when the unworthy son returns he is welcomed by his father’s embrace. We recognize it also in the story of the poor beggar Lazarus who is raised up to glory in the bosom of Abraham. Most recently we recognized it in the story of Zacchaeus. There Jesus insists that he is going to stay at Zacchaeus house even though Zacchaeus was a despised tax collector.
But there is no character in Luke’s gospel who more perfectly captures this theme than the criminal in today’s gospel. We know almost nothing about this man. We do not know his name. We do not know his age. We do not know whether he was married or single. The one thing we know is that he was unworthy. From his own lips he admits that he had committed crimes for which he is justly being punished. It would be hard to find a more hopeless character. He has committed crimes worthy of death. He has made a mess of his life. Now his life is coming to an end. We meet him literally in the last minutes of his life and it seems almost certain that there is no hope left. It is too late to turn things around, too late to ask for forgiveness, too late to make amends, too late to learn to love.
Yet in his desperation, he sees one last chance. It’s a long shot for sure, but he takes it. With his dying breath he asks the man hanging on the cross next to him to bless him. We do not know if this man knew anything about Jesus, whether he ever heard him preach, whether he even had any faith in him. But as his life draws to a close, he says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Then with a graciousness beyond all expectation, Jesus says to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” We hear from the very lips of Jesus who will be the first saint, who will be the first person to enter with Jesus into eternal glory. It is not who we expect. It is not St. Peter. It is not Jesus’ mother, Mary. It is not even someone like Zacchaeus who turns his life around. It is this convicted criminal who turns to Jesus only as his last hope.
Luke could not be more clear. He insists that our salvation does not depend on our goodness—only on God’s goodness. Our salvation does not depend on our worthiness—only on God’s love. This story emphasizes that it is never too late to find that love.
You might be a person who for years has carried a hurt in your heart, a resentment against a family member or a friend that has alienated you from that person. That anger might be so much a part of you that you that you cannot imagine truly being able to forgive or to be forgiven. This gospel tells you it is not too late. Turn to Jesus and ask for mercy and believe that Jesus has the power to grant it.
You might be a person who for most of your life has struggled with a habit of sin. It might be prejudice or selfishness or some kind of addiction. As much as you have struggled against it, you have never been able to conquer it. Now seems that you can never change. It is not too late. Turn to Jesus and ask him to remember you. Believe that he has the power to save you.
There might be someone in your life who you love and who you worry about all the time. You worry because this person is depressed, has made a mess of things, or lives without hope. Despite your prayers and efforts, that person has never been able to find happiness. It is never too late. Believe in a God who seeks out the lost and forgotten and will save even those who have no hope.
If Jesus could save a convicted criminal in the last moments of life and make him the first to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, then none of us can limit God’s power to save and to heal us. So turn to Jesus. Call out his name. Believe that despite our desperation, our doubt, and our unworthiness, he wants to share life with us. He intends to welcome us into paradise.
Christ’s Way of Loving
November 24, 2013
Luke 23: 35 – 43
It happened this August in Atlanta Georgia on the first day of school. A twenty-year-old man with an AK-47 and 500 rounds of ammunition slipped through security at a suburban elementary school and fired a round of bullets in the main hallway. He then took hostages and demanded that someone call the television station.
Antoinette Tuff, the school accountant, placed the 911 call, but she kept the dispatcher online. Because she did so, we have a recording of the following conversation. What is remarkable about this conversation is that Antoinette begins it with asking the gunman his name.
“Michael,” was the reply. “And, I’m going to die today.”
“Oh no,” said Antoinette. “You’re too young. You have your whole life ahead of you. Yes, today is a bad day, but you can get over this. You have a lot to live for.”
“No I don’t.” said Michael. “No one ever listens to me.”
“I’m listening to you.” said Antoinette. “And, I’m willing to sit here and listen for as long as you want to talk.”
In the 911 recording you can hear the conversation growing calmer. Michael tells Antoinette that he is off his medication for serious psychological disorders. Antoinette then shares how her own son has multiple disabilities and she knows how difficult it is being dependent on medication. Minute-by-minute, trust is built between these two unlikely people. When the police arrive, Michael’s intention is to make a stand and fight it out, but Antoinette convinces him to do something else.
“You don’t want to die,” said Antoinette. “You want to live. I know that when my husband divorced me last year I wanted to die, but I got through that and now I have this job and things are okay. Yes, today is a bad day, and you might think there’s nothing to live for, but you have something to live for. It can all be made well if you just put down your gun.”
Step by step Antoinette is able to have Michael empty his pockets, take off his backpack, and lay face down on the floor with his hands behind his head. The police find him that way when they enter the room. They arrest him without incident. No one in that school that day—staff, faculty, or students—was harmed. Antoinette Tuff saved the lives of 800 people including her own. But she did so by first saving the life of Michael, the gunman with the AK-47.
There is a remarkable parallel between the action of Antoinette and that of Jesus in today’s Gospel. Both saw a value in another person. Both tried to save someone who society would recognize as a criminal. In today’s gospel, a few moments before his own death, we find Jesus not thinking of himself. As he hangs on the cross he reaches out and grants salvation to the thief who is hanging on the cross next to him.
The challenge for us today on this Feast of Christ the King is to imitate Christ’s redemptive love. To love people not because we like them, not because they deserve it, but to love others because that is what Christ asks us to do. Common wisdom tells us to love those who love us, to love those close to us. But Christ is always pushing us to love wider and deeper. Parents know how they would do anything for their children out of love. Close friends would lay down their lives for one another out of love. But Jesus pushes us to broaden our love, to love those we do not know, to love those who have no claim on us, to love even our enemies. We are to love in this way, not because people deserve it, not because we expect to be loved in return, but because love is its own reward.
This is an unusual and challenging way of loving. But, there is a part of us that knows it is true and powerful. We can see it in the love of Saint Francis of Assisi, who loved not only people, but animals and all of creation. We can see it in the love of Mother Theresa of Calcutta who loved the poor who were dying on streets of her city. The more we love, the more we are like Jesus. The more we love, the closer we are to God.
By love Antoinette Tuff saved her school.
By love Christ saved the world.
By love we can show ourselves to be Christ’s disciples.
We can save others, and we can save ourselves.
Jesus, Remember Me
November 20, 2016
Today’s gospel presents us with the story of the criminal who was hanging next to Jesus on the cross, the good thief. The story lasts only a few verses, but it is one of the clearest and most powerful expressions of the gospel. It assures us that God is present to us in every situation. It is easy to see how God is present to us in times of joy or success. When we experience the birth of a son or a daughter, when we celebrate a fiftieth wedding anniversary, when we receive a promotion we have been working on for a long time, we can quickly say God is here, loving me. But today’s gospel assures us that God’s presence is not limited to the good times. God is present to us also in times of pain and despair.
It would be hard to imagine a more hopeless situation than that of the thief hanging next to Jesus. His life is a waste, a life of crime. By his own admission he acknowledges that he has been justly condemned to death. Hanging on the cross, wracked with pain, we would expect that the last minutes of this man would be consumed by his suffering and despair. Yet, this criminal is able to see that which no one else on Calvary sees. He sees that the man hanging next to him is good and innocent, that the man hanging next to him has power, a power that extends beyond this dreadful moment. So he turns to Jesus and says, “Remember me.” Notice that he does not ask Jesus to save him. He does not even ask Jesus to help him. He simply says remember me—remember me in your goodness, remember me in your power. And Jesus responds in a way that goes beyond any expectation. Jesus gives this criminal Paradise.
God is present to us in every situation, even those that are dark and hopeless. When we find ourselves in such dire circumstances, it would be wise for us to follow the example of the good thief. Often in those difficult times we cannot find words to pray. We are not even sure of what to ask for. So, like the good thief, we should simply claim that God is here and ask God to remember us.
When someone we love walks out of our life, when a marriage in which we invested our life falls apart, we often do not know what to do or how to live again. In those circumstances we can simply say, “God, I know that you are here. Remember me.” When a child or a friend’s life is in disarray, when violence or drugs compromise their future, we do not know how to help or what to say. It is then that we should claim the truth that God is standing close to us and pray, “Jesus, remember me.” When you receive a bad diagnosis, when you know that you have to face months of treatment and pain, do not conclude that God has abandoned you. God is suffering next to you. Pray, “Remember me.”
Some would claim that the prayer of the good thief is weak, because it does not clearly or aggressively state what we need. But the strength of “remember me” is its trust. It believes that God is good and powerful and that God will do what is best. And if there is any truth to the gospel, it is the truth that God’s best is beyond our expectation and imagining. God gave Paradise to the good thief. So we should have confidence that we will not be disappointed when God remembers us.
The Last Will Be First
November 24, 2019
In several places in the gospels, Jesus says, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first”. We could find no better illustration of this saying than the scene in today’s gospel. As Jesus hangs dying on the cross, a man hangs on a cross next to him. We know almost nothing about this man. We don’t know his name. We don’t know his age. We don’t know if he’s married or not. We don’t know if he earned his living by working with his hands or by some professional skill. The only thing we know about him is that he is the last one among us.
He is a criminal, and by his own admission, he is guilty of his crimes. When he appears in the gospel, we find him in the last hours of his life, experiencing a horrific death. Any of the good things may have done prior in his life, any of the successes he may have achieved are irrelevant now. His life is coming to a horrible and meaningless end. But it is to this man, the last one, that Jesus offers eternal life. When the man asks Jesus to remember him, Jesus says, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
These words of Jesus are meant to remind us that our relationship to God and our hope for eternal life do not depend on our own accomplishments or achievements. They depend only on the mercy of God, and God extends that mercy to the least and the last. It is as if God’s mercy compensates for human weakness and sin.
Now this is good news to all of us who struggle and to any of us who have failed. You might be in a situation where you watch your children cope with life. They struggle to find a job, to establish a stable and deep relationship, to find real happiness. And you say to yourself, “I could have done a better job as a parent. I should have done more of this and less than that.” But the good news is this: When the line of parents forms to enter into heaven, Jesus will welcome those at the back of the line, before he welcomes those at the beginning.
Because of advancing age or some sickness, we might find ourselves losing our abilities and energy. We are no longer able to do the things that people need us to do or the things that we want to do. Our life loses direction and we begin to question whether we are still people of value. The good news is this: when Jesus opens the doors to paradise, he will embrace the weak before he embraces the strong.
We may have been struggling for years to conquer a habit of prejudice, prejudice against someone of a different race or a different sexual orientation. But try as we might, we still discover that we are judging others the way that we always have. Or we might be struggling for years to forgive someone who has hurt us deeply. But despite our best efforts, we recognize that our heart is as hard as ever. When we see ourselves in this negative light, it’s easy to wonder, “How can I be a follower of Jesus? How can I hope for eternal life?” But the good news is this: when Jesus comes to show mercy, he begins with those who need it the most.
In the last hours of Jesus’s life, he announced who would be the first saint, who would be the first human being to share eternal happiness with him in paradise. To our surprise, it was not one of the twelve apostles or John the Baptist or even his Blessed Mother. It was a nameless criminal, dying without hope. Jesus wants to make clear that it is always and only about God’s mercy. That is why he chose the last one to be the first one to enter heaven.