Scripture and the Liturgy

Vote for Monarchy: Feast of Christ the King!

Here in Steubenville one of my co-workers has a clever bumper sticker that reads: “I’m a Monarchist.  And I Vote.”

The day after the surprising election of 2016, then-President Obama took the high road by reminding us, “We’re not Democrats first, we’re not Republicans first, we are Americans first. We’re patriots first.”  In the political sphere, that’s true.  But there is a first that comes before that first.  We are Christians first, ‘monarchists’ who are loyal to Jesus Christ the King.  And better citizens for being so.

The Church year comes to an end this Sunday with the Solemnity of Christ the King, one of my favorite feast days.  The Readings focus heavily on the theme of the kingdom of Christ, which was typified or foreshadowed by the Kingdom of David in the Old Testament.

1.  The First Reading is 2 Samuel 5:1-3:

In those days, all the tribes of Israel
came to David in Hebron and said:
“Here we are, your bone and your flesh.
In days past, when Saul was our king,
it was you who led the Israelites out
and brought them back.
And the LORD said to you,
‘You shall shepherd my people Israel
and shall be commander of Israel.'”
When all the elders of Israel came to David in Hebron,
King David made an agreement (Heb. “covenant”!)
with them there before the LORD,
and they anointed him king of Israel.

Here is recorded one of the pivotal points in the history of salvation, indeed, a pivotal point in the history of human civilization.  David had been Saul’s son-in-law and commander of the army.  Upon Saul’s death, David was made king of the sprawling southern tribe of Judah, but the northern tribes remained loyal to Saul’s son Ish-ba’al (a.k.a. Ishbosheth).  Ish-ba’al was assassinated by his own men, however, making David the last viable successor to Saul.  The northern ten tribes then came to David and make him their king.

We want to observe several features of this text and the historical events it narrates.  First we note the phrase the Israelites use to approach David: “Here we are, your bone and flesh.”  Literally: “Look here! Your bone and your flesh we are.”

These words recall the statement of Adam to Eve in Genesis 2: “Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh, she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man.”

The parallel is not accidental, nor is it without significance.  Many scholars agree that the phrase “Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (or variants thereof) was a performative utterance used in covenant making rituals.  It was not so much a recognition of a physical relationship as a declaration that from now on a kinship relationship exists between the two parties.  Adam is declaring Eve to be his family.  In other words, he is taking her as his wife at the end of Genesis 2.  That is why the text immediately goes on to discuss the practice of marriage in human society thereafter.

Based on the echo of Genesis 2 in 2 Samuel 5, we can say that there is a nuptial aspect to the covenant that is formed between David and the people of Israel.  The people of Israel present themselves as David’s “bone and flesh”, that is, as Eve to his Adam, as Bride to his Groom.  Notice that they do not “claim” David as their bone and flesh, but “offer” themselves as his bone and flesh.  Thus, they adopt the bridal role, desiring to be claimed by David as their bridegroom-king.  This introduces a subtle nuptial dynamic in the relationship between David and the people of Israel that will continue through Scripture (cf. 2 Sam 17:3), influencing the reading of the Song of Songs, and culminating with the frequent bridegroom images that are applied to Jesus Christ, the successor of David, in the Gospels, the Book of Revelation, and other parts of the New Testament.

We should also note that the people of Israel make a covenant with David that he should be their king.  This is the only kingdom in the Bible or in the ancient Near East (at least of which we are aware) that was formed on the basis of a covenant.  This is not an inconsequential fact!  This reality of a kingdom established on the basis of a covenant resonates through Scripture, and finds expression during the drama of the Last Supper, where Jesus says to the apostles:

Luke 22:28 “You are those who have continued with me in my trials; 29and I covenant (Gk: diatithemi) to you, as my Father covenanted (Gk: diatithemi) to me, a kingdom, 30that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

In the Septuagint and the New Testament, the Greek verb diatithemi typically means “to make a covenant.”  Most English translations of Luke 22, however, do not so render it in v. 29, probably because translators cannot make sense of the idea of “covenanting a kingdom.”  However, in light of the reality of the Davidic Kingdom, which was established on the basis of a covenant, the passage becomes intelligible: Jesus is establishing on the shoulders of the Apostles the Kingdom of David, which is also the Kingdom of God, because the two have become united in the person of Christ, Son of David and Son of God.

So we see that it is both powerful and appropriate to recall, on the Feast of Christ the King, the covenantal establishment of the Kingdom of David, to which Jesus of Nazareth is the heir and successor.  We recall also that David was promised by God kingship not merely over Israel but over all the nations as well:

Ps 2:6 “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.” 

7 I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son, today I have begotten you. 

8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession

9 You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Ps. 89:20 I have found David, my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him …

25 I will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers. 

26 He shall cry to me, ‘Thou art my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’ 

27 And I will make him the first-born, the highest of the kings of the earth

Is. 11:10   In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious. …12   He will raise an ensign for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel ….

Raymond Brown once called the Kingdom of David the closest analogy to the Church in the Old Testament. I think he is correct.  But it’s stronger than an analogy: it’s a type, a pre-figurement, almost a sacrament.  The Church really is the restoration of David’s Kingdom, now become a spiritual empire that claims subjects from among all the nations of the earth. 

2.  The Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 122:1-2, 3-4, 4-5:

R. (cf. 1) Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.
I rejoiced because they said to me,
“We will go up to the house of the LORD.”
And now we have set foot
within your gates, O Jerusalem.
R. Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.
Jerusalem, built as a city
with compact unity.
To it the tribes go up,
the tribes of the LORD.
R. Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.
According to the decree for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the LORD.
In it are set up judgment seats,
seats for the house of David.
R. Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.

This beautiful psalm reflects the golden age of Israel under the reign of Solomon, David’s successor.  The Temple, the “House of the LORD,” has been built in Jerusalem, and all twelve tribes of the Kingdom of Israel are able to go up to the royal city to worship and seek justice from the princes of the House of David.

The Church is the Heavenly Jerusalem (see Heb 12:22-24), so we may understand this psalm to speak of the joy of entering the Church and being a part of the Church.  We “give thanks to the name of the LORD” every time we offer the Eucharistic (lit. “Thanksgiving”) Sacrifice in the midst of the New Jerusalem.  The “judgment seats” for the House of David refer to thrones for judging cases set up for royal princes and viceroys.  Jesus alludes to this verse of the psalm when speaking to the Apostles at the Last Supper:

Luke 22:28   “You are those who have continued with me in my trials;  29and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom,  30that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

The Apostles “enthronement” over the twelve tribes of Israel is manifested already in the Book of Acts, when they sit in judgment over the early Church.  Now the successors of the Apostles sit on their kathedras judging all the “tribes” of the New Israel:  the tribes of New York, Los Angeles, Peoria, Fort Wayne-South Bend, Corpus Christi, etc. The ancient authority structures of the Kingdom of David are restored and transformed in the Church.

3.  The Second Reading is Colossians 1:12-20:

Brothers and sisters:
Let us give thanks to the Father,
who has made you fit to share
in the inheritance of the holy ones in light.
He delivered us from the power of darkness
and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,
in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation.
For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth,
the visible and the invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers;
all things were created through him and for him.
He is before all things,
and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church.
He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
that in all things he himself might be preeminent.
For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell,
and through him to reconcile all things for him,
making peace by the blood of his cross
through him, whether those on earth or those in heaven.

This text of Paul emphasizes the cosmic nature of Jesus’ kingship.  Christ is at the beginning of creation, and he is the principle of creation.  All visible authorities (presidents, generals, dictators) and invisible authorities (angelic and demonic hosts) owe their existence to him and only rule with his permission. 

The implication of this teaching is that Christianity is the universal religion.  If Christ is the one through whom all things were created, then his claims rest on all human beings.  There is no compatibility of this teaching of Paul with religious relativism.

In this passage, Jesus the Davidic King is shown to be king of all creation.  This juxtaposition of the Davidic covenant with the covenant of creation can be found already in the Old Testament.  Striking examples include Psalm 89, which praises God for his covenant faithfulness both to David and to all the creation.  Another is Jeremiah 33, which emphasizes the parallelism of the covenants with creation and with David:

Jer. 33:20 “Thus says the LORD: If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night will not come at their appointed time,  21 then also my covenant with David my servant may be broken, so that he shall not have a son to reign on his throne …

This cosmic kingship of Christ is a good topic for reflection for those of us in the United States, as we prepare for another vicious and unedifying presidential election cycle. Whatever the result, the outcome is going to be neither as rosy as some hoped nor as dark as some feared.  Regardless, our hope is not now nor will it ever be in the American political system, nor in that of any nation.  We can be absolutely loyal to our country—in fact, true piety demands it—but we don’t “believe in America,” we “believe in God the Father Almighty, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.”  Fixing immigration and health care will not usher the final age of peace, nor will it satisfy the deepest desires of the human heart.  We seek more than a “great America,” we seek eternal life in communion with the Holy Trinity and with all the saints.  Nothing less will do.  Nothing less will satisfy.

4. Gospel Luke 23:35-43:

The rulers sneered at Jesus and said,
“He saved others, let him save himself
if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God.”
Even the soldiers jeered at him.
As they approached to offer him wine they called out,
“If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.”
Above him there was an inscription that read,
“This is the King of the Jews.”

Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying,
“Are you not the Christ?
Save yourself and us.”
The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply,
“Have you no fear of God,
for you are subject to the same condemnation?
And indeed, we have been condemned justly,
for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes,
but this man has done nothing criminal.”
Then he said,
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
He replied to him,
“Amen, I say to you,
today you will be with me in Paradise.”

At first this Gospel reading seems like a sharp contrast with the previous Readings, which emphasized the glory and power of the Son of David.  Here we see the Son of David mocked, reviled, humiliated, and killed.

Yet there is paradoxical truth here.  The cross is Jesus’ throne.  His kingship is expressed in his death.  He reigns from the cross.  His is a kingdom of “redemption, the forgiveness of sins,” and sins cannot be forgiven unless he pays the price for them with his own blood.  So here the king pays for the offenses of his subjects, in order “to make peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20).

As Jesus said to Pilate, his kingdom is not of this world.  In is in the world, but not of this world.  The repentant thief held out hope that Jesus might still be the Messiah, might still pull off a miracle from the cross and begin his supernatural reign.  What has he got to lose?  He throws in his lot with this Rabbi from Nazareth: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.  Remember that I spoke up for you when you were reviled and in your hour of death.”

Earlier in the Gospel Jesus promised a reward even for those who “offered a cup of cold water” to the least of his brethren.  The repentant thief has done what he could—he had no water, but he offers solidarity to Jesus in the midst of cruel abuse.  And he gains a reward beyond what he probably imagined: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

This Gospel reminds us, as we celebrate Jesus’ Kingship, that his Kingship and Kingdom in this world are perpetually persecuted and in suffering.  Did he not tell us, “Whoever would come after me must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me?”  Jesus’ throne is his cross.  Likewise our thrones are crosses, too.  We only rule from the cross in this life.  It is only through the loving embrace of suffering that our power and authority as viceroys of Christ will be made real and effective in this world.   As St. Paul famously says at the climax of his letter to the Romans, we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:17).

This is as important a truth to remember in times of apparent political eclipse for the Church, as in times of apparent political success.  The Gospel cannot be imposed, and government policies—while they can help or hamper the efforts of the Church—will never bring about true conversion of heart.  The Gospel always remains a challenging call: “if anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.” There is no way to sugarcoat this challenge by embedding it in a cool rock song or a slickly-produced TV series.  Eventually, every person must decide whether they are going to lead their life by following their own desires, or surrender their lives to Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe, the suffering King who will judge at the last day.  What is your choice?

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