Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. These words of Saint Dismas, the Good Thief, saved in his last hours on a cross, resound as a perfect acknowledgment of Christ as King. Their power becomes more evident when contrasted with the words of others at that moment. At Calvary, there are three other reactions to the Crucified One. They come from Dismas’s opposites and reveal the attitudes that always oppose Christ the King.
First, the rulers. [They] sneered at Jesus and said, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God.” These are not pagans or unbelievers but Israel’s own religious leaders. These are the men who awaited their King, anticipated His coming, and desired His rule. But, as comes to be clear, they did so on their own terms. Jesus of Nazareth did not meet their requirements for kingship. He comes not on a warhorse to impose a kingdom, but humble, and mounted on an ass. (Mt 21:5) He comes not to judge but to seek and to save what was lost (Lk 19:10), to call not the righteous but sinners. (cf. Lk 5:32)
Second, the Roman soldiers. [They] jeered at him. As they approached to offer him wine they called out, “If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.” The great genius of the Romans was that they tolerated the religion of their subjects. Of course, that tolerance was cynical and lasted only as long as the people kept the gods in the proper place and their religion to themselves. Faith was tolerable only when kept private or confined to certain areas and spheres of life. It became intolerable when it made public claims. For Him to be executed, Jesus had to be presented as a political threat to Roman rule. Religion must be kept in its place.
Third, the bad thief: [O]ne of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” You would think that he would remain silent, if only to hedge his bets against impending judgment. But he is unrepentant. In the midst of his suffering, he lashes out at God rather than acknowledge his sins and ask forgiveness. Even in his agony, he prefers his own will to that of Christ the King.
These reactions do not remain solely in the past. We see them throughout history – in every rejection of revelation, persecution of the faithful, and refusal to repent. More to the point, they continue in us. Each rejection of Christ the King can be found, at one time or another, within us.
We at times resemble Israel’s religious leaders: we want God, but on our own terms. We long for His coming and cry out for His help. . . but then resent His intrusion and the challenges He presents. We want a king, to be sure. In fact, we know exactly how he should behave.
At other times we act like the Romans. We allow God in our lives, as part of our lives, but not to rule our lives. We are always drawing a line He cannot cross. We forbid Him to have any say in (choose one or more) politics, economics, sex, entertainment, etc. We are forever declaring to Him, “Thus far and no further!”
As a society, we have restricted Christ to private life. We have accepted the error that faith is a strictly private matter. Out of fear of looking different or of offending, we forbid Him access to our broader life. Whatever the case, we claim the right to be one thing privately and another publicly. Of course, this can’t last. We inevitably privatize our faith so much that we ourselves no longer believe it.
In fact, the Solemnity of Christ the King is a feast established to combat this privatization. The feast is not, as might be reasonably presumed, a vestige of the Middle Ages when kingship was more familiar. It was established by Pius XI in 1925, precisely to emphasize the public reign of Christ the King and combat the increasing privatization of religion.
Finally, we at times behave like the impenitent thief. We demand that the King do our bidding, that He save us without any repentance on our part. Rather than conform ourselves to the truth, we rail against Him Who is the Truth. More often than not this is just petulant and childish. But in the final hour, it’s tragic.
In stark contrast to the sneerers, jeerers, and revilers is Dismas. His dying prayer says it all: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.
Unlike the religious leaders, he does not dictate the conditions of kingship; he is not ashamed to have a crucified King. This is one salutary effect of suffering: you stop dictating the terms of your own salvation.
Unlike the Romans, Dismas sets no limit on Christ’s authority. He sees that Jesus has not only a kingdom but power over death. He gives Him free reign. Here is another benefit suffering brings: you stop confining God’s power.
Most of all, unlike the thief opposite him, Dismas repents. Such repentance represents the full acceptance of Christ as King, giving Him authority over what is most painful and shameful.
Saint Dismas gives us the first example of devotion to Christ the King. It means to receive Him as He is, not as we would have Him; to give Him authority over everything, not just a portion; and most of all to surrender our wills to Him Who alone perfects them.
*Image: The Soul of the Good Thief (L’âme du bon Larron) by James J. Tissot, c.1890 [Brooklyn Museum]