Driving around in college towns, you see a lot of odd bumper stickers. Some are crude, some are funny. I think my favorite one must be the one that says, “I love animals—they’re delicious.” There is another bumper sticker out there that says, “I’m a monarchist—and I vote.” Obviously, it was intended to be ironic. Subjects in a monarchy don’t vote.
It reminds me of that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when King Arthur comically gallops over to some peasants working in the field. The peasant says,
“Who are you?”
“I am Arthur, King of the Britons.”
“King of the who?”
“Who are the Britons?”
“We are all Britons, and I am your king.”
“Well I didn’t vote for you.”
“You don’t vote for a king.”
My point exactly. But I bring this up because, of course, we just had an election. I know many are already long-past tired of hearing about the election. But with all the build-up to it, and then all the news coverage on the day of, it makes me wonder: why are we as a nation so fascinated by presidential elections?
I think it’s because there is something deeply ingrained in us that wants a king. After all, we humans are social beings. And societies only work under some kind of government with some kind of hierarchy. And in every hierarchy, there’s someone at the top. And we want to know who that is.
Take the Church hierarchy for example. As Catholics, we have a bishop. We may not see our bishop but once a year (or longer) but we know we have a bishop. It’s part of being Catholic. And every time a pope dies or resigns, the world seems to stop turning until the conclave chooses the next successor of Peter. We just want to know who’s in charge—even if we rarely get to see them. This longing for a king is in every human heart. Even for those of us who live in a democracy.
In the first reading today, the tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel are longing for a king. It helps to know a little background here. Israel was split into a northern kingdom and a southern kingdom. The northern kingdom had begged and begged God to give them a king, and finally, God relented, and the prophet Nathan anointed Saul as king. But Saul was not such a good king. He was a man of wild temper, and not a very good Jew. He visited fortune tellers and was murderously jealous of young David. Then Saul died, and the northern kingdom needed a king. At first they were loyal to Saul’s son, Ish-ba’al, but then Ish-ba’al was assassinated by his own men. So, in the absence of an heir, they went down to the southern kingdom of Judah to “borrow” their king, King David, and make him king of the north and the south. That’s where the story picks up in the first reading. The tribes of the north make David their king, and now all Israel is united under him. They finally had the king they were waiting for.
And so it goes with us today. Even in a representative democracy, we have our hierarchy, we have our leaders, and there’s one person at the top. Whether you like him or not, we have a President. And every four years the world seems to stop for a day as the votes are tallied.
At this point, I can’t help but get a little specific about this month’s election. Some were shocked and dismayed at the result of the election, and some were jubilant and triumphant. Some are saying, “he’s not my president,” and some think he is the long-awaited one who will finally solve every problem facing the country. I’ve heard both sides give me their opinions. And yet, love him or hate him, both of these attitudes are equally dangerous, because we risk placing our political leanings ahead of our Christian faith.
For those who are over the moon, thrilled about the results of the election, I would say, just wait and see. No politician, no president is perfect, because no man is perfect. Sooner or later, he’s going to do something that upsets you. Or something that goes against our Catholic faith.
For those who are shocked and despairing, I would say, why so worried? Is it because of what he said during the campaign? Because if he actually does all of those things he said, it will be the first time in the history of the world that a politician kept all his promises. Wait and see.
And to everyone I say, accept the good things he does, and be thankful. But oppose the bad things he does, and stand up for what is right.
The thing is, as much as our hearts long for a good king (or a good president), no human will ever measure up. No human gets it right 100% of the time. That is, except for one man who did—Jesus Christ.
Today is the solemnity of Christ the King, and I love this feast. It’s one of my favorites in all the Church year. It is the end of the liturgical year, when we are reminded of the eternal reign of God that lasts forever. I love thinking of Jesus as my King, sitting on his heavenly throne, with all the blessed souls and angels all around him. I imagine the triumphant, blaring music announcing the glory of the Lord. Christ the King. After communion, I frequently say the short prayer, “praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ, king of eternal glory.” Jesus is the King who will never disappoint us, never judge unfairly, and his reign will never end.
But here on this earth, Jesus had no throne of gold or precious gems. Instead, our king’s throne was one of simple wood. We have in this church, just as in most Catholic churches the world over, a crucifix—our King upon his throne. Normally, we look up at the crucifix and focus on the body of Jesus suspended there, and well we should. But today the gospel draws our attention to that little inscription over the Jesus’ head. It says INRI, and that stand for a Latin phrase: “Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum.” Or in English, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” The title was placed up there to mock Jesus, and to serve as a warning to passers-by. Here is your king, Jews. Doesn’t look like much of a king, does he? Still want to follow him? You might end up on a cross too.
Even the thief on the cross beside Jesus mocked him, stubborn and impenitent to the bitter end. But in this moment of grief, when all seemed to be lost, the other thief recognizes his king. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Yes, Lord, remember all of us when you come into your kingdom.
In that kingdom, from his heavenly throne, Christ, the head, rules over his body, the Church. That’s what we heard in St. Paul’s epistle today. And there’s a transformation that happens when we become a part of that body, that kingdom. He writes,
“He [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.”
It’s a kingdom for those who have been set free from sin and have been forgiven, like the repentant thief. And that forgiveness ought to give us great joy, because it answers another longing of the human heart, the longing for freedom. We try in so many ways to seek freedom, to feel free, to defend our freedom, but freedom from what? It’s freedom from our sin that enslaves us. It’s freedom for excellence and flourishing. That’s the promise of the kingdom to come.
The even better news is that the kingdom is already here. The kingdom is already here on earth in seed form. We call it the Church. And at the end of time, it will have come to perfection, and it will last forever. No more war, no more strife, no more suffering, no more death. Only the freedom of the sons of God.
Are you living the life of freedom? In your life, is the kingdom already present, here and now? Is Jesus the King of your life?
I once ran into a man on the street who was begging for money. Now, as a rule, I don’t give cash to people on the street, but I did stop and talk to him. In our conversation, I mentioned something about God, and he said, “I don’t believe in God.” I said, “Then who do you believe in?” “Me,” he said. The conversation continued, and it became clear that a series of selfish decisions were keeping him living on the street. What a sad, selfish existence. To be so turned in on oneself that he destroys the very gift of life given to him. This man had chosen his king, and it wasn’t Christ.
This was a pretty obvious case, but there are many more who reject Christ in more subtle ways. In a recent Pew study released last year, it was noted that the number of “nones” in America is on the rise. Now, sadly I’m not talking about religious sisters in habits—I’m talking about those who check the “none” box next to religion. These “nones” are increasing in our society while the number of Christians slowly declines.
Some of these “nones” are atheists, some agnostics, but a great number of them are formerly practicing Christians who have adopted the slogan, “I am spiritual but not religious.”
“I am spiritual but not religious” means that you want the benefits of Christ without any of the rules of being his disciple. It’s like saying, I want a gold medal, but I’m not willing to set foot in the gym or on the field. To desire comfort over excellence—that’s being “spiritual but not religious.”
Now, many will say, “Oh Father, I’ve never said those words before.” Well, there are many words like it.
- I go to Mass every once in a while, but not every Sunday. God’s not going to be angry with me as long as I acknowledge him.
- I listen to Mass on TV. I feel like I’ve fulfilled my Sunday obligation. I’ll take communion some other time.
- I haven’t been to confession in a long time, but I don’t need to because I haven’t done anything wrong.
- I pray everyday at dinnertime, but that’s all the prayer I need to get me through the week.
- I don’t tithe now, but I will someday, maybe.
- I don’t follow the Church’s teaching on X topic, but I have a good excuse.
The “spiritual but not religious” theme is like a weed that ever-so-slyly grows up among the wheat until it has overtaken it. If we carry it out to it’s logical conclusion, it means that Christ is not king of our lives. Instead, we make ourselves king.
You see, being a “none” is not a real option. Someone or something is going to be king of your life. It’s written into the fiber of your being, coded into your DNA. You have a throne within you. Which king is sitting on that throne?
Today, as you prepare to receive the Eucharist, remember that you are the Temple of God. When you receive the Eucharist, the King enters his Temple and sits on his new throne—your heart. From his throne, the King reigns and governs all things well. Let Christ, the King of the universe, be your King. Long may he reign in the hearts of all his faithful.