This week, as we anticipate the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, and the close of the Jubilee of Mercy, we reflect on how Christ combines kingship with mercy.
By: Rev. Paul Scalia
Kingship and mercy are two concepts that most people do not hold together peacefully in their minds. To complicate matters, we Americans already do not have a happy history with kings. Our very identity as a nation is caught up with the rejection not only of a particular king but of kingship in general. So it is perhaps with a little difficulty that we approach the Solemnity of Christ the King, which this year concludes the Year of Mercy. “King” smacks of absolutism, oppression and, well, mercilessness. “Mercy” conveys (to our ears, anyway) softness, gentleness and solicitude–quite the opposite of an absolute ruler. And now we are being asked to see a king as the summation of mercy?
The fundamental error here is to evaluate our Lord’s kingship in light of earthly kings. Some analogies can be drawn, of course. But in the end this world’s kings are judged in light of Christ–not the reverse. He is the true King, they merely pretenders; His the true Kingdom, theirs only images. From Christ the King and His Kingdom we should indeed expect and rejoice to receive mercy. It is, indeed, the purpose of His Kingdom.
A great way to understand the mercy of Christ the King is by way of the Gospel passages the Church gives for the Solemnity in her three-year cycle of readings (Year A: Matthew 25:31-46; Year B: John 18:33-37; Year C: Luke 23:35-43). Each of them brings out a different dimension of the King of Mercy.
Year A places before us the King of Mercy’s union with us. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him” (Mt 25:31-32). This part is not surprising: we expect kings to render judgments. This King’s judgment, however, introduces something new. He judges not only as the all-powerful One, but also as the One Who has become powerless: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40). This King is the advocate for the powerless because He has become one of them.
We instinctively know that the depth of mercy is fairly gauged by the union one establishes with the suffering. The more we unite ourselves with those who suffer, the deeper the mercy. Writing a check to support corporal works of mercy is indeed a legitimate and helpful way of showing mercy. But we know that going personally and directly to those in need is a higher form of mercy. Our Lord went the entire distance –becoming one with the suffering in order to show them mercy. He became the least of His brothers. To extend His mercy, He made Himself hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, and in prison. The King’s mercy extends every bit as far as our wounds, because the King shares them.
Year B places before us the King of Mercy’s truth. When Pilate asks if He is a king, Jesus replies, “You say I am a king” (Jn 18:37). It is a deliberately ambiguous response, somewhere between a simple “Yes” and an elusive “You said it, I didn’t.” It is as if He says, I am a king…but not in the way you understand it. He continues, “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” His Kingship, unlike those in this world, is rooted in the truth. Not in raw power, coercion, intimidation, or force – but in the truth…the truth about God, about us, and about our relationship with Him.
We know that the duty of an earthly king is to establish order for his subjects. So also, but in a more profound way, Jesus establishes order for us. His truth brings order to our lives. It keeps each thing in its proper place. The “law and order” types among us appreciate this. But so also should the poor. Truth, law and order – these things are necessary for mercy. Because mercy is not a willy-nilly, haphazard thing. It does not consist of “random acts of kindness.” Mercy is the relaxing of or going beyond a law of strict justice. Which means that for there to be real mercy there first need to be real laws that can be relaxed. Otherwise mercy becomes just indulgence.
Further, the truth about the human person cries out for mercy. The truth is that we are fallen. We do not have in ourselves what we need to be our selves. Our vices, misery, poverty, pain all beg for mercy. Indeed, the only true response is mercy. Conversely, mercy must be true. There are few spiritual maladies more damaging than counterfeit mercy – those acts of “mercy” that are out of keeping with the truth of the human person. Contraception, abortion, euthanasia, gay “marriage” – there are some dark forces promoting these. But most people who support them do so not for any dark reason but out of compassion. It is a misguided compassion, however, because it is not in accord with the truth of the human person. As such, it ends up doing more harm, both physically and spiritually, than good.
Finally, Year C places before us the Kingjusti of Mercy’s sacrifice. Hanging on his cross, the good thief Dismas calls out to our Lord, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42). He looked at Jesus – stripped, beaten, scourged, and crucified – and saw a merciful King. Christ inaugurates His Kingdom from the Cross. His robe is the lashes from the scourging, His crown is made of thorns, and His throne is the Cross itself. Even in the extreme of agony, He has the power to bestow everything: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43).
Mercy requires sacrifice. The degree to which we are willing to sacrifice determines the reach of our mercy. Christ the King reigns from the Cross. His merciful sacrifice is bound up also with His humiliation. If we are not willing to be humbled (even humiliated), then we are not willing to be merciful. The difference between condescension and genuine mercy is the willingness to suffer humiliation – that is, to sacrifice.
It is with this understanding, then, that we should close the Jubilee Year and carry mercy forward – an authentic mercy that draws us close to those in need, that is rooted in the truth, and that impels us to sacrifice. This is the mercy of Christ the King.