Delivered in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on November 21, the following homily concluded the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture’s 11th annual fall conference, Younger than Sin: Reviving Simplicity through the Virtues of Humility, Wonder & Joy.
It is a joy to be with you at the conclusion of this annual conference of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture. You have reflected on humility, wonder, and joy. How fitting it is that this closing liturgy occurs on the Solemnity of Christ the King. We are filled with wonder as we contemplate the image of Christ the King, who humbly reigned from the wood of the cross. We contemplate the king who is our redeemer, the source and cause of authentic joy, whose love reigns in the kingdom he established. It is the kingdom of grace and peace we pray for each time we say in the Lord’s prayer, “Thy kingdom come.”
Humility, wonder, and joy are manifest in the one whom we honor today as the king of the universe. The throne of this king is the cross, and his triumph is the victory of love, an almighty love that from the cross pours out his gifts upon humanity of all times and all places. I pray that this conference has strengthened your resolve to proclaim the kingship of Christ in your life and in your work.
On Calvary, Jesus had a rather unusual companion in his passion, a thief. For this unhappy man, the way of the cross became the way to paradise, the way to truth and life, the way to the kingdom. Today we remember him as the “good thief.” This evening, we make the good thief’s prayer our own: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Christ’s unique kingship is manifested on the cross. On Calvary, two opposite attitudes confront each other. There is the attitude of the rulers and soldier, along with the bad thief, who address Christ with contempt: “If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.” Jesus does not come down from the cross; instead he reveals his glory and his kingship by remaining there on the cross as the immolated lamb. Then we have the other attitude, revealed unexpectedly in the other thief who sides with Jesus and implores that Jesus remember him when he comes into his kingdom. And the Lord says to him: “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
This scene constitutes the moment of truth. The maximum revelation of God possible in this world occurs in Jesus crucified, because God is love and the death of Jesus on the cross is the greatest act of love in all of history. The power of divine mercy is revealed on the cross – the merciful king saves the repentant thief and all people who turn to him with contrite hearts. We all stand before the crucified divine king, with the choice of entrusting ourselves to his kingship or of rejecting him.
There is a meditation in the SPIRITUAL EXERCISES of St. Ignatius Loyola I’d like to share with you in this homily. It comes at the beginning of the second week of the SPIRITUAL EXERCISES. St. Ignatius invites the retreatants to contemplate the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. He does so in a very creative way. He uses the image of a chief of state declaring a national emergency and calling the citizens to emergency service. St. Ignatius says to imagine that the nation is gravely threatened by an enemy attack. We can perhaps imagine our nation threatened by another terrible terrorist attack like 9/11 or something worse.
St. Ignatius says to imagine that the chief of state speaks to all the citizens and asks them to join him to fight against the enemy by making sacrifices with him. He says: “There will be drastic changes in our standard of living, economic recession and rationing, less to eat, few new clothes to wear, and a general shortage of consumer goods. (This perhaps reminds us of the sacrifices required of Americans during World War II.) The chief of state asks the citizens to stand fast with him though it will cost blood, sweat, and tears; there will be sleepless nights and other hardships. But when we win, he says to his citizens, each one will share with him the blessing of success for every risk and suffering endured with him in defense of the nation and in dedication to freedom.”
St. Ignatius says that loyal citizens will respond generously to this appeal and suffer hardship for the sake of the nation and freedom. They will be loyal to their chief of state and then receive a reward for their efforts and for the distress they endured. Those who are not loyal will be ostracized as deserters and cowards. This is all from St. Ignatius Loyola 400 years ago, but we can contemplate such a scenario today if our nation was under a severe threat of a terrorist attack and our president asked us to sacrifice for our nation, for freedom, and for the common good, like our ancestors did during World War II.
After presenting this idea for reflection, St. Ignatius then says a point-by-point analogy can be made between such a chief of state and the Lord Jesus Christ. St. Ignatius writes: “If the summons of that merely human chief of state to emergency service would demand our personal response and self-commitment, how much more true will this be in the case of Christ, the Eternal King.”
Christ the King summons us to join him in fighting and crushing the forces of evil and we will receive as a result “final entrance into the glory of His Father.” To reach glory with Christ in the kingdom requires us to endure hardship with Him. It requires taking up our cross each day and following him. And he promises us a great regard for every effort made and every distress endured.
St. Ignatius says that we should not hold back from such total commitment to the service of Christ the King. After all, he says, we owe Christ total allegiance. He is our Lord and Savior. We are to serve him above all else. We are to obey his teachings and imitate his example. We are to be his faithful servants and disciples. We are citizens of his kingdom and he is our chief of state, indeed our king.
On this Christ the King Sunday, it is good to reflect on our relationship to the Lord Jesus. Is he truly the center of our life, our king? Do we faithfully follow him, obey him, and serve him? Are we loyal citizens of his kingdom? In the SPIRITUAL EXERCISES, at the end of his meditation on the Kingdom of Christ, St. Ignatius has a beautiful prayer. I’ll quote just one paragraph of it:
“Here I am entirely at your service, great King and Lord of the Universe. I put myself at your service by your leave and, indeed, with your help, and with no claim that this privilege is due me for any personal worth or merit of my own. Myself and all that is mine I put before you; do with me what you wish.”
What a prayer! St. Ignatius Loyola lived this prayer and we are invited to do the same, to put our lives totally at the service of Christ the King. This is an absolutely personal decision. Where do we stand?
With the humility and contrition of the good thief, we pray: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” with the hope that we will hear our king’s response: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”