Feast of Christ the King
November 22, 1998
“Into Your Hands”
First Reading: Second Samuel 5:1-3
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 122:1-5
Second Reading: Colossians: 1:12-20
Gospel: Luke 23:35-43
Our familiarity with monarchs is mostly from history books. In today’s world where monarchies still exist, the role of the king or queen is mostly ceremonial. Still, on the feast of Christ the King, it might be worthwhile to examine what makes a good monarch, but to approach it from an unusual perspective. There is a custom we have in this country. It used to be common in other countries as well, but has been eliminated in those societies that are less barbaric than we, those societies that no longer execute their criminals. Some people have heard me speak against capital punishment before, and with some frequency. The reason is that capital punishment remains a vile cancer eating at the life cells of American society. Argue as one might, capital punishment is alien to everything that Jesus stands for and it tears apart the very fabric of the kingdom.
The custom I refer to is asking if the condemned person has any last words to say. On the surface I find it a sadistic practice. Here we are about to take away the person’s ability to ever speak again, and we want to know if they have anything to say! On a deeper level, I suppose that the executioner or the state is hoping that the person will admit his or her crime and express some remorse. Of course, considering that we have documented proof of at least 25 innocent people who have been executed in the U.S. during this century alone, we can hardly expect them to admit to or show remorse for something they did not do. Still, we can learn a lot from a person’s last words, whether a criminal or not.
Toward that end, Patricia Datchuk-Sanchez collected the following quotes from famous people of history. When she lay dying, Queen Elizabeth I of England was said to have wished, “All my possessions for a moment of time.” Charles IX, who in 1572 had ordered the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of the Huguenots throughout France, met death with despair, “What blood! What murders! I am lost forever. I know it.” Philip III of Spain (1578-1621) who proved himself to be an unfit king and indifferent to the plight of his people breathed his last wishing, “Would to God that I had never reigned. What does all my glory profit but that I have so much the more torment in my death?” Cardinal Mazarin (d. 1661), a French statesman and successor to Richelieu, had acquired such an extensive art collection that he dreaded being eternally separated from it. Just prior to his death he dragged himself from room to room of his opulent palace, taking a last lingering look at his treasures. “All these must be left behind,” he moaned. “What trouble I have had to obtain these things and I shall never see them again! Where am I going?” When Emperor Napoleon III (1808-1873) lay dying, his only thoughts were of a lost battle. “Etiez-vous à Sedan?” Were you at Sedan, he inquired. It was the battle of Sedan that had cost him his crown and left him filled with regret at his death.
Talleyrand (1754-1838), the French cleric and statesman who helped to depose Napoleon, greeted death with these words, “Behold eighty-three years passed away. . .and all without other results except fatigue of mind and body and a profound sentiment of discouragement as to the future, and disgust as to the past.” Nearer to our times, the death of Josef Stalin (1879-1953) was described by his daughter as difficult and terrible. Silenced by a stroke shortly before he died, Stalin’s “last words” were more visual than audible. Newsweek magazine quoted Svetlana Stalin who said, “At what seemed the very last moment, he cast a glance over everyone in the room. It was a terrible glance, insane, angry and full of fear of death. With one final menacing gesture, he lifted his left hand as if he were bringing down a curse on us all.” These quotes are neither filled with hope, nor do they inspire. They are filled with despair and reflect lives that in retrospect were of little use. Not that these people never did anything good, but by their own admission, their lives were twisted and their deaths tormented.
Contrast those sayings with what Jesus says. In Christian tradition, the last words of Jesus are collected from the four gospels and called the “Seven Last Words.” Many people use them as part of their Good Friday reflections. Composers like Joseph Haydn even put them to music for the benefit of people who are inclined to such art. Like the people I quoted, Jesus’ last words indicate the sort of life he led. The events surrounding Jesus’ death sentence are the first time he is referred to as a king. And when Pilate had the words inscribed above his head, it was a form of mockery. But Jesus makes the cross his throne, and gives us a new image of king.
Like every king, he had power. But rather than use it to destroy his enemies, Jesus uses his power to ask forgiveness for his persecutors. Rather than use his authority to condemn, Jesus uses it to offer salvation to a criminal, a man who, in that society’s way of life, deserved only to die. That is a far cry from us. We are not taught to forgive or to heal. We are taught to seek revenge and get even, if at all possible. We are taught to seek death for the really bad criminals. And when we cannot find revenge, we learn how to grow cold and hard-hearted toward those who have offended us. But here is Jesus, offering forgiveness and salvation, healing and peace--and life--to a criminal whom the law said should die.
Jesus teaches us that real power is not demonstrated by controlling other people’s or even one’s own destiny. Authentic power is used to serve. Jesus teaches us that authority is not demonstrated by condemning others. Genuine authority is used to bring healing and unity. But Jesus, the King, taught with more than mere words. He not only talked the talk, he walked the walk. Ultimately, because Jesus lived a life of service and gave himself over to the needs of others, he was able to make the last remarkable leap of faith. Though not contained in the brief passage today, a little farther in this chapter we read the very last words Jesus speaks in Luke’s gospel before dying: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Those words can only be spoken by one who has learned to love, by putting other’s needs first and trusting in God to direct his life.
This idea of surrendering our lives and their future to God does not set well in a society that worships at the altar of individualism, of self-determination and self-sufficiency. But that is the wrong altar. The real altar at which we should worship is the altar of Jesus. It is here that we learn of Jesus’ great love that led to the only sacrifice that could ever be pleasing to God--the gift of life in the service of others. It is at this altar that we learn of a world of forgiveness and compassion, mercy and peace. It is at this altar that we learn to trust the presence of the Spirit and the power of God in our lives. And it is at this altar that we finally find fulfillment and peace.
Earlier in his life Jesus cautioned us about the difficulty of being a disciple. He told us that anyone who wants to be great must serve the needs of all, and anyone who wants to be first must come last. If all this sounds a little idealistic, I would suggest that there are others who have tried to live as Jesus calls us, and whose lives did not end in the awful misery reflected in the words of the historical persons quoted earlier. The most obvious and ready example in our own day is Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Here was a woman with little power and authority. But she used it in service of the poor and outcast, the marginalized and discarded. She used her power to serve the poor and used her authority to challenge civil and worldly powers. In an ironic twist, the more she used her power and authority for these purposes, the more power and authority she gained. Still, she never used it for her own self-aggrandizement. She was eventually able to stand before all the powers of our world and speak with unchallenged authority about the needs of the poor. Even if they did not act as she suggested, everyone listened. Although I do not know what Mother Teresa’s last words were, the end result is that she died as she lived, putting other people first, serving the needs of the poor. As if to verify what Jesus said, she is the only non-Indian ever to have been given an Indian state funeral, and only the second non-politician, the first being Mahatma Ghandi.
Hopefully all of us have many years ahead of us. How we choose to use them will impact the way we die. Jesus, the King, has shown us the way. But I wonder. How many of us will be able to end our lives by speaking the last words of Jesus: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit?”