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Our Citizenship is in Heaven

Sunday, November 20, 2022, 34th Sunday: Feast of Christ the King

by Fr. David M. Knight

View readings for today:


What precisely do we celebrate on the feast of “Christ the King”? The Entrance Antiphon declares the basic paradox and mystery of Christ as King: “The Lamb who was slain is worthy to receive strength and divinity, wisdom and power and honor.” Christ’s defeat was his victory. That is the key to his kingship.

The Opening Prayer(s) proclaim that in Jesus God does not just “break the power of evil,” but “makes all things new.” How new can only be understood in the mystery of Christ “raised from death to life.” In him all who accept his kingship die and rise again as a “new creation.” To receive the “new wine” of grace the “old wineskins” themselves must be replaced. All our old attitudes about kingship must be replaced. Instead of looking for a king whose power protects and promotes our national interests, we ask God instead to “open our hearts” and “free us” to “rejoice in his peace, to glory in his justice, to live in his love.”

This is the mystery of the Kingdom realized by the “power at work within us,” the power of God’s life and God’s Spirit in us, which is “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” These are “things God has revealed to us through the Spirit.” To accept and understand them we have to die to our human way of knowing and judging and be “raised” with Jesus “from death to life.”[1]

The Prayer over the Gifts specifies that Jesus “reconciles humankind” by his sacrificial death as “The Lamb who was slain” on the cross. It is this victory through defeat that “brings peace and unity to the world.” But that is not our customary way of thinking. Not when we get to the level of practice.

We accept earthly government with its limited vision and goals. But today we remember and rejoice that our true, our principal “citizenship is in heaven. And it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus,” Christ the King.[2]

The Crux of Christianity

In 2Samuel 5:1-3 the people asked David to be their king because Saul’s commander Abner had assured them: “the LORD has promised David, ‘By the hand of my servant David I will save my people Israel from the hand of the Philistines, and from… all their enemies.’” So the people accepted him.[3]

For exactly the same reason God’s people later rejected Jesus: they realized God had not sent Jesus to be the kind of king they expected. And we still reject his kingship, because we insist that he should empower us to overcome by force of arms those on earth who would conquer, kill or oppress us. But Jesus did not come to save us from suffering on earth. He came to empower us to “carry the cross,” to “endure evil with love,” suffer and “love back.” Whether we accept this is the crucial question for acceptance of Christ as King.[4]

For God and country

Luke 23:35-43 tells us that Jesus was rejected by his own people, by the Roman soldiers and by a fellow-sufferer for the same precise reason: he would not use his power to defend himself or anyone else from oppression and death:

The leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him… saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!

Earlier Jesus had told Pilate:

My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.

In the light of the way Jesus explained his kingship, we cannot avoid asking the question; “Can anyone who fights under the flag of war claim to be fighting under the banner of Christ the King?”

Most Christian armies do. For centuries Christian soldiers in Europe fought and killed other Christians in wars without mercy. In World War I German soldiers’ belt buckles declared, “Gott mit uns” — “God is with us.” We killed as many of them as we could. On both sides of the front lines, Catholic chaplains celebrated Mass with soldiers who drank the blood of Christ and then went out to shed the blood of other Catholics who had just done the same thing.

When we made war on non-Christians during the Crusades it was worse. Our banners proclaimed, “Deus vult!’—“God wills it!” And once the blood of non-Christians was in the water, we extended God’s will to the slaughter of the Jewish populations in Christian cities along the road to the Holy Land.

All in the service of Christ the King.

We don’t like to face this question. Even to ask it makes us feel that we are dishonoring the heroes who died in defense of our country and showing disrespect for all the dedicated, idealistic men and women who serve in the ranks of the military today. Are we saying that a Christian cannot be a soldier? That a Catholic cannot stand in line in a military formation and in the Communion file as well?

The Church does not say this — not since the fourth century, at least. Popes have praised and commended the military profession. In The Gospel of Life even John Paul II seems to contradict his own principles by justifying war and lethal self-defense. Those trained to the precise scrutiny of theological documents would have to say it is not clear whether John Paul actually defended defensive killing, or just ingeniously avoided the question. But the bottom line is that there is no definitive, magisterial Church teaching that unambiguously condemns either lethal self-defense, the hypothetical “just war” or the military profession as such. Nor is there anything in the Gospels that justifies or approves any one of them.[5]

John Paul teaches:

There are in fact situations in which values proposed by God’s Law seem to involve a genuine paradox. This happens for example in the case of legitimate defense, in which the right to protect one’s own life and the duty not to harm someone else’s life are difficult to reconcile in practice.

John Paul finds support for defensive killing in the Commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” which requires us to love our own lives. However he makes his argument inoperative in practice by pointing out that the Commandment can only be used against those who “renounce the right to self-defense out of lack of love for life or for self.” How many do that?

John Paul goes on to say that self-defense can only be renounced “in virtue of a heroic love which deepens and transfigures the love of self into a radical self-offering, according to the spirit of the Gospel Beatitudes.” The “sublime example of this self-offering,” he says, “is the Lord Jesus himself.”

Is that teaching meant to be restrictive? Not if we recall that this "radical self-offering" is precisely what John Paul has already proclaimed as the greatest love of self there is:

Jesus proclaims that life finds its center, its meaning and its fulfillment when it is given up.... We too are called to give our lives for our brothers and sisters, and thus to realize in the fullness of truth the meaning and destiny of our existence.[6]

John Paul also teaches that this vocation to heroic love “is not restricted to a small group of individuals.” The call to perfection is “meant for everyone.” If the call to perfect love is for everyone, then so is the call to that "heroic love" modeled by Jesus and embraced by those who refuse to kill in self-defense. Every Christian is called to it.

John Paul has proclaimed repeatedly that “Jesus’ way of acting and his words, his deeds and his precepts constitute the moral rule of Christian life.” If, as John Paul says, “Christ’s example, no less than his words, is normative for Christians,” and if Jesus is the “sublime example of this self-offering” whereby one renounces lethal self-defense, then he is obviously proposing this heroic love as the normal standard of virtue that all Christians should strive to embrace.

So is it a sin to be a soldier? To ask the question is to fall into the “Catholic trap” of seeing everything in either-or terms as black or white. John Paul recognizes that there may be gray areas between committing outright sin and embracing fully the ideals to which every Christian is called. Perhaps these are found in those “situations in which values proposed by God’s Law seem to involve a genuine paradox,” where conflicting values “are difficult to reconcile in practice.”

In two structurally parallel passages of Matthew 19 (3-12 and 16-26), Jesus gives two teachings his disciples perceive as impossible. In the first he abolishes divorce and his disciples say to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” Jesus doesn’t back down. He just says, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given… Let anyone accept this who can.”

In the second he says that being rich and being Christian are incompatible.

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?”

Again, Jesus doesn’t mitigate his teaching. He just says, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

To those who cannot live out the teaching on divorce, conservative Church practice (until the Synod on Family Life, 2016) has denied Baptism and Communion. To those who are rich it never has.

For the first three centuries the Church’s general rule was that Christians could not join the army, and no soldier could be baptized unless he took an oath not to kill. But after the government began to favor Christianity under Constantine this practice was abandoned.

In modern times. when the American bishops declared their serious opinion, in union with the pope, that our attack on Iraq was what theologians call an “unjust war,” they did not condemn our soldiers who participated in it.

We offer not definitive conclusions, but …. with the Holy See and bishops from the Middle East and around the world, we fear that resort to war, under present circumstances… would not meet the strict conditions in Catholic teaching for overriding the strong presumption against the use of military force.[7]

We cannot say that by Catholic teaching it is always a sin to fight in a war. We do have to say that any soldier who fought in the Iraq war did so with legitimate freedom of conscience, but as a member of the “opposition party” rejecting the “ordinary magisterium” of the pope and bishops on this issue. The question we do raise is whether it is possible for a Christian to fight any war explicitly “for God and country.” For country, perhaps. But is there anything we can do “for God” that involves killing his other children to achieve it?

If Jesus would not let his followers fight to save his own life—the life of the Son of God—can his followers today fight “for God and country” in defending American lives? God certainly does not want anyone to be killed by unjust aggressors. But if Christ does not define his kingship as protecting lives and property by bloodshed, how can we shed blood under the banner of Christ the King?

The simple fact is that Jesus did not and would not have killed to save anyone’s life while he was on earth. Now that he has ascended into heaven, does he want to use the bodies we gave him in Baptism to do what he refused to do in the body Mary gave him at the Incarnation? Can we really ask Jesus to kill anyone “with us, in us and through us”? Even if we believe that killing can be the “lesser of two evils,” do we believe we can kill in character as members of Christ’s body on earth?

The fundamental choice

Jesus’ own people, in the name of us all, rejected Jesus explicitly as king. During his trial Pilate presented him to them in a way that mocked any pretense of power able to oppose the might of Rome: he presented Jesus bloody from being scourged, wearing a purple robe and a crown of thorns. “Here,” he said, “is the man — if you want to call him that — who is your candidate for king.”

The “man” he presented was powerless and defeated by human standards, one who could look forward to no throne on this earth except a bare cross on which he would hang naked and die. “This,” Pilate emphasized, “is your king.”

The people, whose hopes for a Messiah who would liberate them by force had passed from disappointment into rage, cried out, “Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate made sure they knew precisely what they were rejecting: “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” Pilate then handed him over to be crucified as “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” He couldn’t have made it more clear.[8]

We are confronted with the same choice today: do we opt for power and all that it can give us on earth? Or do we choose a king who offers us no power but truth and love?

In Colossians 1:12-20 Paul tells us that if we accept Jesus as King, we will be getting into a mystery; something that “invites endless exploration.” First there is the mystery of Christ’s identity. Who is this “man” presented to us as King? He is not just a human leader.

  • He is the image of the invisible God,

  • the firstborn of all creation.

  • In him all things in heaven and on earth were created.

  • All things have been created through him and for him.

  • In him all things hold together.

  • He is the head of the body, the church.

  • He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,

  • so that he might come to have first place in everything.

  • For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell

  • Then there is the mystery of what he promises. If not protection and prosperity on earth, what will he do for us as King?

  • In him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

  • Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven

  • He has reconciled you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds,

  • so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him.

There is our choice. The divisive power of violence and war or the unitive power of love. Paul tells us, “Give thanks to the Father, who has…. rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” In Christ’s Kingdom we will “share in the inheritance of the saints in the light” in contrast to the “power of darkness.” The choice of Christ’s kingship is a choice of light as opposed to the darkness of this world.

He has made known to us the mystery of his will… that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.[9]

That is the mystery of Christ the King.

Insight: What does it mean for me to be in the service of Christ the King?

Initiative: In private and public life try to replace all violence — of word or deed —with the power of truth and love.

[1] 2Corinthians 5:17; Luke 5:37-39; Ephesians 3:20; 1Corinthians 2:10 [2] Philippians 3:20. [3] 2Samuel 3:17-18. [4] Matthew 16:21-26. [5] In the aftermath of World War II Pope Pius XII said, "There are some things of such importance for the human community that their defense against an unjust aggression is without doubt fully justified." In fact, Pius argued, a war of self-defense might "in certain circumstances" be obligatory (Acta Apostolicae Sedis for 1949, quoted in the article; "War, Morality of" by R. A. McCormick, New Catholic Encyclopedia, McGraw-Hill, 1967). The American bishops quote with approval Pius XII's "Message" of October 3, 1953: "The community of nations must reckon with unprincipled criminals who, in order to realize their ambitious plans, are not afraid to unleash total war. That is the reason why other countries, if they wish to preserve their very existence and their most precious possessions.... have no alternative but to get ready for the day when they must defend themselves" (see footnote 27 to The Challenge of Peace). Pius XII seems to be in direct contradiction here to the teaching of Jesus: “Those who want to save their life (Pius XII: “preserve their existence”) will lose it” (Matthew 16:24-26), and “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (Luke 14:33). For all of this, in The Gospel of Life, see nos. 22, 25, 34, 39, 40, 47, 51, 52 to 57. Add to these texts John Paul’s teaching on the vocation to perfect love as being that of every Christian and the example of Jesus himself as being the norm of morality: The Splendor of Truth, nos. 18 to 20, and his “World Day of Peace” address, January 1, 1993, in Origens, Vol. 22, No. 28, 1992, parag. 5. In the documents of Vatican II, see "The Church Today," nos. 78-79; and "The Church," no. 40. For the teaching of the American bishops, see The Challenge of Peace, nos. 111 to 121 (National Conference of Catholic Bishops, May 3, 1983). [6] Gospel of Life, no. 51, cited above. [7] Statement on Iraq, U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C., November 13, 2002. [8] See John 18:28 to 19:22. [9] Ephesians 1:9-10.

Reflections brought to you by the Immersed in Christ Ministry

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