“Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never did me any injury: How then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”
Those words were uttered in the mid-second century by St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna and one of the Apostolic Fathers. St. Polycarp was burned at the stake and pierced with a sword for refusing to burn incense to the Roman emperor. What did those who killed St. Polycarp think about his final words? Did they stop to wonder, “Who is this king he is willing to die for?”
In Quas Primas, his 1925 encyclical that introduced the feast of Christ the King, Pope Pius XI reflected on the nature of the Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus Christ. His kingdom, the pontiff noted, “is spiritual and is concerned with spiritual things.” In proclaiming the kingdom of God, Jesus often had to strongly correct misunderstandings, especially from those who thought his rule would be based on political and military might. When asked by Pilate, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus replied cryptically, indirectly: “You say so” (Lk 23:3). He further explained, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants (would) be fighting” (Jn 18:36).
“This kingdom is opposed to none other than to that of Satan and to the power of darkness,” Pope Pius wrote. “It demands of its subjects a spirit of detachment from riches and earthly things, and a spirit of gentleness. They must hunger and thirst after justice, and more than this, they must deny themselves and carry the cross.” It is the scandal and the paradox of the cross that reveals the Kingdom.
Execution on a cross was not only violent and grim, it was shameful and dishonorable. Yet, as Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote, “His enthronement as King will be complete on the Cross. … And so he says, ‘Yes, I am a King.’ Not a king within a vanquished world but a King who sits on a throne exalted high above it. Exalted by the Cross.”
The cross divides mankind because it demands a choice, a judgment about the person of Jesus Christ. But having chosen the cross, the division ends and we are brought into union with the King and his divine life; we receive Communion, partaking of his body and blood broken for us on the cross. The cross unites mankind, and the inner nature of the Kingdom is revealed. As St. Paul wrote to the Colossians, in the Son “all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church.” The Church is intimately related to the Kingdom: “While it slowly grows, the Church strains toward the completed Kingdom and, with all its strength, hopes and desires to be united in glory with its King” (Lumen Gentium, No. 5).
The two criminals crucified with Christ personify the two options available to everyone. Both are sinners; both are able to look directly upon the King. But one sees only a fellow criminal. The other sees an innocent man; even more, he sees a King: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
The true meaning of Christ’s kingship, states the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “is revealed only when he is raised high on the cross” (No. 440). Yet many will reject the King, enthroning themselves as rulers of their passing lives. Others, such as St. Polycarp, give themselves completely to the King who never does any injury, but instead delivers us from the power of darkness and transfers us into his eternal kingdom. ”
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.