Christ the King is a perplexing figure, full of seeming contradictions. Let’s jump right to the beginning of the climax of his story to see why.
Hailed as King only a few days earlier, welcomed into Jerusalem with shouts of Hosanna and palm branches laid before Him, Jesus rode upon a donkey, a callback to a regal prophesy that surely would have occurred to his Jewish disciples, but was probably lost on their Roman occupiers. Yet Jesus had notably refused a crown before (John 6:15), publicly repudiating the idea of kingship. Now he stood before Pilate, already beaten and denounced by some of the leaders of those who had acclaimed him.
“Rex es tu?” The Roman governor asked of Our Lord (John 18:37). “Are you a king?”
In his typical fashion, Jesus does not deny it, but doesn’t clearly confirm it either. He had just before told Pilate that if his kingdom was of this world, then his servants would be fighting to keep him from being handed over. Yet again, this seems like a contradiction; hadn’t Jesus just a few hours before (John 18:11) told Peter to drop his sword and not fight to prevent Jesus’ arrest?
A worldly reading of the gospel will lead us to believe that Jesus was a madman.
“And it is the Son of God who is passing by, a madman … madly in Love!” St. Josemaria Escriva, The Way of the Cross, Sixth Station
If we look in faith at Jesus on the Cross, we begin to see our King as he truly is: a King who loves and serves.
When he refused the crown in John 6, it was because he was offered the small trinket of worldly rule by a fickle crowd that only wanted to use him. The same disciples would reject him only a short while later when he spoke to them of his banquet feast, the Eucharist. Christ knew their hearts, he knew they wanted a worldly king, but not a godly one. They wanted a king who would drive out the Romans and give them prosperity. That was not Christ the King.
Some scholars have suggested that Judas betrayed Christ to force his hand, to compel him to act out and rise up and conquer the oppressors. Certainly, many thought he would do so. That’s the light in which I read about the struggle in Gethsemane. Peter, taking his sword, was trying to seize the moment, thinking the time had come for Christ at last to rise up and resist the oppression of their worldly overlords, the Romans, the puppet regime of Herod, and the false-hearted leaders of the people. They wanted a king who would liberate them from worldly powers. Peter’s courage was misdirected; it could not serve Christ’s mission. That was not Christ the King.
Christ’s kingship consists of service, of love. Although it is true that he is king of all things, including the world, he conquers in a specific, strategic order: first, our hearts. Then, our lives. Then, everything our lives touch. As we proclaim the gospel, as we live out our faith, the kingship of Christ grows, and we become his nobles, who reign with him. That is his plan.
So Jesus rode into Jerusalem, acclaimed the King of the Jews, because after years of teaching, he had finally come to conquer their hearts. Yes, many of them in the crowd were still fair weather fans, they would fall away soon enough. Certainly, they still hoped for Jesus to rise up against oppression. Indeed, it seemed he might; it was not long after that he fashioned a whip out of cords and cleared the Temple of its defilers. But Christ was setting the stage, coming to make his kingship clear. Although he certainly could have taken over the government, he allowed their worldly hopes to build and then dashed them all. Jerusalem woke up Friday morning to find Jesus a condemned man, to see him walked the cruel road to Calvary, to watch him bleed out on a cross, looking not at all regal, but still serving, still loving, and still having the final word. This was Christ the King, so kingly that he can stoop to the very depths of a grisly death for his servants. He loves us so that we will love him and give him everything back.
The question for us is: do we love Christ the King? Do we make the King of all hearts the King of our hearts? Do we extend the boundaries of his kingdom to include our loved ones, our families, our friends, our coworkers? Do we give him all that we have and all that we are?
Or do we just want him to be the king who throws off our oppressors and makes our lives on this earth a bit better?
I know I’m often guilty of the latter.
Christ the King, reign in our hearts, reign in our lives.