How the King of Israel Honors Himself: Christ the King Shares His Crown with Us
In the three-year cycle of readings for the Solemnity of Christ the King, it might seem strange to have Gospels that emphasize Christ’s weakness. Instead of seeing the Lord in triumph, we often see Him judged and condemned or hanging from the cross. This year we are placed before the “glorious throne” of our King and, in His exalted glory, Jesus allies Himself with the most vulnerable and downtrodden (Mt 25:31-46). But that self-identification forms the basis of our final judgment: Our love for Jesus when He appears in our lives as a burden, as one in need, “asking us to respond with love and service” proves whether we have accepted His unique kingship over us (Christ is Passing By, no. 111).
We can hear our Lord telling us: If you will be ruled by me, then you must let me walk into your life on a regular basis as one in need of your time, your patience, your understanding, your forgiveness. To submit to Christ in this way is to be truly ruled by Him. More than acknowledging His kingship in the abstract, we are honoring it in the concrete, in the heart, mind, and flesh of our neighbor. We are ruled because we are actually surrendering our control, our dominion, over our time and resources, and giving them to Jesus when and where He has need of them.
“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” This verdict, pronounced on both the saved and the lost, assumes that we understand Christ’s kingship to mean His actual involvement with and presence in the things of this world. He is not remotely concerned about human affairs. His claims of hunger, thirst, alienation, nakedness, sickness, and imprisonment are not the lines of an actor pretending to be what he is not. When Jesus “emptied himself” to become man, He did more than assume a costume of human flesh.
Without ceasing to be God, He accepted the limitations of human life—and did so in such a genuine and convincing way that even some of His relatives and neighbors took offense at His unprecedented preaching and fame, to the point of exclaiming: “He is beside himself”—one of several occasions when the Lord’s opposition unfairly judged Him “mad” or even possessed (cf. Mk 3:21; Jn 10:20).
But our Lord was not bothered by their commentary, any more than King David would allow the scorn of Saul’s daughter Michal to prevent him from humbling his royal crown by singing and dancing with abandon before the Ark of the Covenant. To her sarcastic remark, “How the king of Israel honored himself today!” David the king replied in words that Christ the King, in His zeal for humanity, could speak against His own detractors: “I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in your eyes” (cf. 2 Sam 6:20-22).
And so from His throne of glory our King lowers Himself to associate with those who are worst off in this world, and in so doing, elevates them to the status of brethren. Jesus is not ashamed to reign in our brokenness and misery, and to call it personally His own.
Both the sheep and the goats of the Gospel wonder about this “excess”: How can the divine majesty so enthrone itself in human need?
We get some inkling into the mystery when we see Jesus the King kneeling before His apostles to wash their feet; or when He falls prostrate in agony in Gethsemane; or during the complete abasement of the passion. His self-revelation from the glorious throne as the lowliest and least of men, who casts His fortunes along with the world’s most unfortunate, fits with everything He embraced as man in the incarnation. It is Jesus through-and-through who claims kinship with human misery.
He who came into this world to seek out and save what was lost, now calls us to go forth in the same way: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (Jn 20:21). As not only servants of the King of kings, but also His friends and brethren, we are given a twofold path of imitation.
First, we must take an active role in loving those around us. Christ the King gratefully praises His sheep for being the ones who took the initiative to go out and meet Him, as He was hungry, thirsty, ill, naked, or imprisoned: You visited me, gave me food and drink, clothing, and welcomed me when I was a stranger.
This points to the basic fact underlying our salvation: perfection in love. If Jesus sums up the new law in the commandment of love—love that encompasses all works of mercy, spiritual and corporal—then we must go out of ourselves in charity, as He did to meet us in our misery. We are charged to find and meet Christ, learning to recognize Him as (sometimes) the troublesome one, the needy one. “Strictly speaking,” St Gregory the Great says, “no one is said to have love for himself; love becomes possible when one reaches out toward someone else.”
St Josemaria likewise comments, “All the circumstances in which life places us bring a divine message, asking us to respond with love and service to others…. We must learn to recognize Christ when he comes out to meet us in our brothers, the people around us. No human life is ever isolated. It is bound up with other lives” (Christ is Passing By, no. 111).
Too often we allow our natural preferences to dictate whom we serve and how we serve them. We are kind to those who return our kindness, helpful to those who show appreciation. Yet in serving wholeheartedly those who are habitually troubled, confused, or too demanding we often falter. We fear to extend ourselves, risking physical or emotional discomfort, enduring failure or misunderstanding. Meanwhile the voice of our Shepherd-King resounds in our hearts: “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others?” (Mt 5:46-47).
There is a second way in which we are called to imitate our Master, and it is in marked contrast to the active role just outlined. It is an unlooked for, more humbling share in the life of the God who empties Himself.
Considering carefully what Jesus says about the least of His brethren, we draw an inevitable conclusion. At some point we will not only be Christ to others in terms of helping them, but we will also be the Christ who is helped. That is, we will be the weak ones, the needy ones, the estranged ones, the ones who feel trapped by some problem as though imprisoned by it. Maybe we think that we will never be in a position to need anyone’s help, never need to have our hand held by another. We may think that we will mend our own faults, overcome our sins on our own. We would be the ones consulted, not the ones needing help.
But on the same occasion when Jesus, on bended knees, washed His apostles’ feet, He also told them: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn 13:14-15). To have need of cleansing presupposes stain—and perhaps not only of the moral sort. Many kinds of trials can obscure our understanding or otherwise slow our steps on our journey. There are times when the support of brethren is a needed encouragement to persevere, to run our race so as to win.
In all of these ways, both in giving and receiving, do we serve and imitate Christ our King. By accepting our own need and by not neglecting the needs of others do we prove ourselves to be the sheep His flock. Jesus not only emptied Himself once, but continually humbles Himself in the poor and the lowly, to receive from us the love that renders us capable of entering into the joy of His kingdom.