Christ's majesty is startling, to use Teresa of Avila's term. Here's how to behold it.
The incredible thing is that it is on the absolutely worst day of his life—the day he is on the verge of death—that the Good Thief recognizes Jesus Christ to be a king. And maybe that is the point of the feast of Christ the King.
Minutes from dying, the Good Thief finds himself still looking for something more … still longing, still moved by hope, desperate for compassion. The deriding rulers at the foot of the cross sneer at Jesus, Let him save himself. But the Good Thief does something even more brazen than daring Jesus to come down from the cross. The Good Thief begs Jesus for mercy. Instead of fixating on his own lifetime of crime, the Good Thief looks into the face of the man fixed to the cross beside him. And there in the human gaze of Jesus, the Good Thief discovers what he had been searching for all his long lawless life.
“The more truly a person knows their own misery,” says St. Albert the Great, “the more fully and clearly do they behold the majesty of God.” The Good Thief is living proof of this. For what is a “king” but an unassailable force, a protection against enemies, a refuge? The “king” in our life is our “go-to”: the unsurpassable something we ultimately take recourse in and rely on when gutted by desolation.
Why does the Good Thief acclaim Jesus as a King headed for Paradise? Because he recognizes in Christ a majestic love that races to attend him in his affliction and woo him in his misery. The Sacred Heart that in mere moments will be pierced by a lance is even now bursting with love for the Good Thief. “God’s Kingship is a rule of love that seeks and finds us by an inventiveness that is new” (Pope Benedict XVI). That is what St. Teresa of Ávila calls Christ’s “startling majesty.”
Why doesn’t Jesus come down from the cross? Simply because no king worthy of the title ever would. For a king is someone who “seeks the common good of the people and not his own private profit” (St. Thomas Aquinas). Christ exemplifies his kingship by acting like a servant toward us. “God’s sovereignty is not manifested in keeping what belongs to him for himself, but in abandoning it” (Von Balthasar). Jesus is made king in the midst of excruciating suffering simply because that is when we need a king the most. “Jesus’ kingship is his surrender of himself to people … the yielding up of his very existence” (J. Ratzinger). All our King asks of us is to accept his kingship—a Eucharistic gift.
But keep in mind: I will never want Christ the King as long as I am occupying the throne myself. “We can only resemble God by casting aside the limitations of our personality to allow God himself to reign in us” (A. Sertillanges). To claim Christ is King is to confess that I am not the master of my own life and situation. I am not in control; I do not direct my own destiny; I do not have the answers; I do not wear the crown. All has been given to me. We pay homage to Christ as King by relying on him when what we experience in ourselves is failure, confusion, powerlessness, negativity, waywardness, misery, shame.
The 14th-century monk Nicholas Cabasilas offers us awesome encouragement:
Christ entered upon a pure and genuine kingship. He exercises leadership by being more cheerful towards us than friends, more tender than a father, more united to us than members of the same body, more necessary than a heart, making us yield without fear, but by being himself the power that governs and attaches his subjects to himself.
At Mass, as we pray the Our Father and say the words Thy Kingdom come, let’s lay down all our resistance, self-reliance, and regret, and let’s beg Christ our King for the Paradise that begins right here and now in the Faith we share with each other.