The Chaos at the Crucifixion: A Model for Church and Nation?
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
November 25, 2019

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the Solemnity of Christ, King of the Universe (Year C) on November 24, 2019 at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: 2 Samuel 5:1-3; Psalm 122; Colossians 1:12-20; and Luke 23:35-43.

Today we celebrate that Christ is King of the Universe. All of our readings speak of kingship, but not necessarily in the ways that we expect. 2 Samuel recounts the crowning of David as the great king of Israel. And while David was favored by God and usually strived to walk with God, let us not forget that he was also a violent man and an adulterer.

One common title for Jesus is “Son of David.” But where David tried to rise above his instincts to be a great king, Jesus had to restrict and humble himself to become our king. Our second reading – quoting one of the oldest hymns of Christianity – reminds us that Christ is so much more than just the human Jesus of Nazareth: Christ is the totality of the second person of the Holy Trinity.

Our gospel today presents Jesus as our king, at the very moment that the world views him as helpless. Yet, even in that moment, Jesus promises paradise to a repentent thief.

On this last weekend of the Church year, let us celebrate that we, too, are recipients of God’s mercy.

Imagine being at the crucifixion as described by St. Luke. It is a scene of chaos. The faithful women who have accompanied Jesus are sobbing as he bleeds and asphyxiates on the cross. People are mocking him, laughing at this man who is called “the son of David,” betrayed by a disciple, abandoned by his closest friends, the pawn in a political battle for survival between secular Romans and religious Judeans. Darkness covers the land. Yet amid the noise, amid the chaos, amid the darkness, Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, in his last breaths, assures a repentant thief of Paradise. 

Oh, the irony! The other thief also asks Jesus to save him. But that thief is mocking Jesus – he doesn’t recognize that the man on the cross next to him actually has the power to save them. Before time began, all thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers were created in him and for him.

At the crucifixion, we see a reality of the world: holiness and evil exist in all places together. This reality permeates us as individuals. We are God’s children, yet each of us falls short of the holiness God invites us to share. This reality also permeates every group of people. The Catholic Church has done more than any institution in the world to heal the sick, feed the hungry, educate the poor, and provide moral guidance, but it has also perpetuated prejudice, oppression, pedophilia, and slavery. Likewise, the United States is a land of opportunity, freedom, and justice, yet the system seems to benefit some by oppressing others.

In 1999, Fr. Ron Rolheiser, O. M. I. – currently the President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio – wrote a great book called The Holy Longing. It’s one of the few books that I think is too short: Rolheiser has many wonderful insights, but he quickly jumps from one to another. He explains the nature of the Church by referring to today’s gospel passage. He says: “Jesus dies between two criminals. Anyone at the time, looking at that scene, would not have made a distinction between who was guilty and who was innocent.”

In the hyper-partisan United States of late 2019, people are clashing against each other with ferocity. But who is on which side? Whatever we think about this highly divisive constitutional crisis gripping our country, too many of us seem to believe our position perfectly aligns with Christ crucified and the other side is completely embodied in the mocking, unrepentant thief. 

And no matter where people sit on the political spectrum, there’s a temptation to rail against the other: “Why do I need to try so hard to understand them, when they are making no attempt to understand me?” Until a few days ago, I truly believed that were plenty of people genuinely trying to understand each other. But now, I’m shocked at how many of us find solace in the facts that support the narrative we’ve already constructed, yet dismiss the facts that challenge our narrative. 

Christ is always being crucified between two thieves. But none of us are Christ, and very few of us are the unrepentant thief. On Calvary, most of us should identify with the other thief, the one who has committed grievous sins, but is also striving to follow God’s will. 

The Church, like our nation, is composed of flawed individuals. When others look at any of us from the outside, they cannot know for certain what combination of innocence and guilt we carry in our hearts. But as Christians, we believe that the Church, despite its many flaws, is guided by the Holy Spirit. Today, let’s try to think of our country in the same way. 

As a Church, we pray for one another. As a nation, we need to do the same. Our prayers are to Christ, King of the Universe. At the crucifixion, Christ had the power to come down from the cross and save himself. But if he had done so, he would have rejected the Father’s plan for redeeming the world. In this time of bitterness and division in our country, we must continue to see Christ in everyone, especially in those who disagree with us. As our King and Prince of Peace, Christ does not always appear as a small child born in poverty in a manger. Sometimes, Christ looks like a thief condemned for a serious crime.

May the Holy Spirit provide us – and our political and religious leaders – with the courage and wisdom to make the decisions that will best advance the kingdom of God upon the earth!