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November 20, 2022; Solemnity of Christ the King of the Universe
Colossians 1:12-20; Luke 23:35-43
The criminal on one side of Jesus in the Gospel today, the one who taunts him, doesn’t understand who God is for us. What he means by the word “god” isn’t at all what we mean.
The criminal who taunts Jesus doesn’t understand that for us God is bigger and more mysterious than anyone can possibly imagine—and at the same time more intimate and loving than anyone can possibly imagine.
The criminal who taunts Jesus is like many contemporary atheists. He thinks that matter is all there is, that if something can’t be measured or understood according to certain mechanical laws, it isn’t real. “Are you not the Christ?” he says. Then “save yourself, and us,” as if Christ is just a creature like any other creature in the universe, except with superpowers–not “God” with a capital “G” but a god, like Zeus or Thor—and a God like that is easy to make fun of. If God is just a genie who gives us three wishes, and doesn’t grant any of them, either he’s a pretty bad genie or he doesn’t exist in the first place.
But as Christians this isn’t what we think at all. We don’t believe that God is just a being, however powerful, but the source of all being, the cause of it, the life of it.
Here’s how David Bentley Hart puts it in The Experience of God, a really remarkable book that Bishop Barron has been recommending and that I’ve recently read and very much recommend, too:
The most pervasive error one encounters in contemporary arguments about belief in God—especially on the atheist side—is the habit of conceiving of God simply as some very large object or agency within the universe, a being among other beings, who differs from all other beings [only] in magnitude and power.
I know that’s pretty abstract and philosophical, but it’s good to know that Christians can do this kind of thing, too, and we don’t need it anyway, because we have this magnificent poem in Colossians, this great hymn, which is saying exactly the same thing. For in Christ
were created all things in heaven and on earth / the visible and invisible . . .
All things were created through him and for him / he is before all things
and in him all things hold together.
Science cannot account for beauty and it cannot account for loneliness and it cannot explain how we got here in the first place or how anything did. But faith can. The universe comes from God, who was “before all things” and who created all things out of his great generosity and joy and continues to create them and fill them with life and bind them all together.
And this is what the criminal on the other side of Jesus understands, not just in his head, but in his heart, in the midst of his suffering and his pain, when whatever intellectual pride and arrogance he may have had, whatever indifference, has been burned away, has been destroyed, and he is there, hanging on a cross, right next to Jesus—and he reaches out, he begs Jesus, “remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”
Can you imagine that? My friend Bob Reed asked me this the other day when we were having coffee. He said, can you imagine not just hanging on a cross but hanging next to Jesus himself, just a few feet away?
Unlike the first criminal, the second “fears” this, he says, “fears” God—fears as in feels it, fears as in knows it in his bones—knows that God is vast and mysterious and knows that the man dying on the cross isn’t all there is to God but just a glimpse of him.
But no. That’s not right either, because at the same time what the second thief knows in his humility and his grief is that this is God, that what is revealed here is the very nature of God, the King of the Universe not in the sense of Odin or Zeus or even David but a king who empties himself out, who dies, who gives himself away, who is there, beside us, in our helplessness and need, absolutely human and in his humanity, absolutely divine.
Bob asked another really powerful question the other day, when we were talking about this gospel: what would have happened if Jesus had gotten down from the cross?
All would have been lost, I think.
We don’t believe in Jesus because he lived. We believe in Jesus because died, and then rose again.
My chief desire, David Bentley Hart says in The Experience of God,
is to show that what is most mysterious and most exalted is also that which, strangely enough, turns out to be most ordinary and nearest at hand, and that what is most glorious in its transcendence is also that which is humblest in its wonderful immediacy, and that we know far more than we are usually aware of knowing, in large part because we labor to forget what is laid out before us in every moment, and because we spend so much of our lives wandering in dreams, in a deep but fitful sleep.
Last week a woman in the parish, a woman many of us loved, died suddenly. Unexpectedly. And we were stunned. We were shocked and deeply saddened.
How do we account for a death like this? How could God have let it happen?
We could say with the first thief that well, obviously God doesn’t exist. This is proof. There is no purpose or meaning. We all just die.
But I was at the funeral, I served as a deacon, and the church was full, and there were many people there who were not Catholic but who had been touched by this woman, and the grief in that moment was palpable, you could feel it, and yet somehow it was beautiful, too, it was rising up and filling this whole space, it seemed to be lifting us all up, and I was so glad for the mass and for the Eucharist, and proud of it, I was so glad for its beauty and power and the way it could move us more deeply into the sadness and yet through it finally to faith and hope, and this wasn’t an intellectual thing, this wasn’t just a thing in our heads, it was in our chests, it was behind our eyes where the tears were, and nothing made sense and everything did, all our assumptions had been shattered and yet somehow that was good, it was necessary and good, and we were all there together, and Jesus was right next to us, he was hanging before us, grieving, too, he was hanging there, before all things, and there was nothing without him and there could be nothing without him, he was present in all things and he was loving us in all things, even in the darkness, even in death, even in that moment, and I longed for him, and I feared him, and I reached out to him, and I trusted him. We all reached out to him.
“Jesus, remember her, when you come into your kingdom.”
O Lord Jesus, bring us all into your kingdom.
O Lord Jesus, remember us all.