Since I am in my fourth year of Theology, my last year at St. Mary’s Seminary here in Baltimore, every day that passes is one more day closer to… Comprehensive Exams. These are a series of oral and written exams that is meant to test how well we have integrated all four years of theological studies. The Comprehensives are in February and I’m beginning to get a little nervous. They remind me of a similar experience I had in college, before I entered seminary. Then, in my senior year, I had to do what was called a “capstone project,” a project that summed up the four years of study in my major.
A capstone is a crowning achievement. In architecture, it is the top stone of a structure or wall, like the top stone of the each of the grand arches in our Cathedral. As much as we have been looking forward to the day when the construction equipment will finally be removed – in a way, I’m glad to see it, even if it is a bit of an eyesore. I’m glad because I know work is being done to keep the roof from falling down around us! But I’m also glad because it has a deeper meaning too. It means that this Cathedral is working, one arch at a time, to make sure that its capstone – it’s crowning achievement – is in place. That crown for us is the crown of Christ, whose kingship we celebrate today: the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King. This very building itself, like each one of its many windows and sculptures, is teaching us to maintain the Crown of Christ as the crown of our lives and if it begins to fall away, it must be restored.
We celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King on the last weekend of Ordinary Time, at the end of another Church Year. Next weekend marks the beginning of Advent, the beginning of a new Church Year as we wait with joyful hope for the coming of our Savior at Christmas. We celebrate Christ the King at the end of the Church year because the Church wants to teach us that by putting his Kingship at the end, we can see that His Crown is the Crown of the year, the capstone. All of the action of the Church Year moves forward and up to His Kingship and is summed up by it. He is the King of all we have done and all we have celebrated. Everything from his Incarnation to his Ascension is both a sign of and a testament to his Kingship. This building teaches us this as well. Make a point as you walk outside and down the steps after Mass to turn and look back at the façade. Beneath the first of our arches that forms the façade is a 20 foot tall statue of Christ the King. His crown is almost literally the capstone of that arch. You will be able to see this statue facing the inside too, surrounded by stained glass, once the plastic protecting the choir loft is removed. This statue stands at the top of our Church, looking both inside and outside, as the summit of all of our prayer in here and of all of our ministry and work out there. He is our king in here. Is he our king out there?
Luke’s Gospel today puts us into a terrible scene: Jesus is dying of his crucifixion while the rulers, solders, and criminals around him mock and jeer at him. Over his head hung the charge for which he was found guilty. It was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin so that all who passed by could read it. The Latin read, “I.N.R.I.” (“Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum”) – Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. He claimed to be king, but the Jews and the Romans already had their king, King Herod. Therefore, Jesus was killed. “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God,” they shouted. “If you are King of the Jews, save yourself,” they jeered. One of the criminals mocked him: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us” His persecutors were so blinded by their sin and hatred that they could not see Him for Who He truly is. They were expecting a worldly king with worldly power. They could not see that here hung before them the King of kings and the Lord of lords, the King of a kingdom not of this world, the King of the kingdom of God. This he told Pilate only hours before when Pilate asked Jesus if he was the King of the Jews. “Jesus answered, ‘My kingship is not of this world… For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth.”
Upon the throne of his cross, Christ the King achieved much more than a mere escape from their torture, he achieved for all mankind of all times freedom from the torture of sin and death. Jesus always gives us more than we ask for and more than we expect. The good thief who hung at his right was moved to conversion by Jesus’ courage and resolve and by the prayers of forgiveness that He offered for those who persecuted him. He recognized Jesus for who He truly is. And so he asked Jesus only to remember him when he comes into his kingdom. But Jesus gave him infinitely more; He gave him everlasting happiness with him in Paradise. This was given to the good thief because he saw rightly, he acknowledged Jesus as his king, he repented of his life of crime, and he prayed that Christ the King would be mindful of him.
Is Christ our King, not only in this mighty Cathedral, but in the rest of our lives as well? His kingship is easily recognized in this Church. Can others recognize his kingship in the temple of our hearts? The Israelites in the Old Testament knew a king when they saw one. Our first reading described how the elders of Israel chose David to be their king because he “led them out and brought them back”, he shepherded them, he fed them, and he successfully commanded them in battle. And so the elders anointed David king of Israel. Can we recognize a king when we see one? Have we forgotten what the angel Gabriel proclaimed to Mary about her newborn Son? “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Have we forgotten what Paul reminds us in our second reading, that at our Baptism and every time we went to Confession, “God 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”? Upon further reflection, we might be surprised.
Let us treat this week, the end of the Church Year, like we often treat the end of the calendar year. Often the rolling of one year to the next causes us to look back and see how we have done. We may check our budget for the year and see how it panned out. We may check our expenses to see where we might save a little in the new year. This week, let’s look back on our spiritual year. Let’s call to mind how well we have been servants of our good and merciful Lord and King. Have we acknowledged him as our King? Or have we anointed another to be king in his place? Have we placed on the throne of our hearts a tyrant? Have we preferred King Herod over Jesus Christ? Has our homage been to our work, our money, or the latest technology? Have we adored our reputation, our appetites, or our passions? Have we bowed down before our anger, our jealousy, or our laziness? So many things, people, and spirits are masquerading as our king, vying for our devotion. The more we choose Christ as our King, the easier it will be to recognize him, and to choose rightly every time. It is similar to the way inspectors can tell when a dollar bill is counterfeit. The best inspectors know the real bills because they have handled the them by the hundreds. Hundreds of real bills, one by one, have passed through their hands until they almost know by instinct which one is a fake. The more we choose Christ, the easier it will be to recognize when a fake presents itself.
Let us choose Him again today. The good thief in our Gospel – this very building! – tells us that it is not too late. If His Crown has fallen away from your life, restore it to the summit of your heart through the Sacrament of Reconciliation at your first opportunity. Consider when you receive Communion that what looks like bread and tastes like bread is not really bread at all but is instead your loving, forgiving, merciful King, waiting to be chosen by you, wanting to lead you out and bring you back, to shepherd you, to feed you, to successfully command you in your daily battle toward union with him and the good thief in Paradise.