Christ the King

Published on 17 Nov 2020

‘The banners of the king go ahead of us, the mystery of the cross shines out.’[1]

The king is Jesus Christ.  His banners, which we follow, bear his cross.  Our life can be understood as a procession led by the cross, which is always in sight. The king directs his followers through their history. He guides me along the right path [2].  We do not always manage to keep our attention on him.  However, his cross is inescapable.  The flags of the king, waving in front of us, remind of us of Jesus and of how he saves us. The banner of the cross is woven out of suffering and it commands our attention.  The king himself marshals us in procession. He focuses us on our destination, which is his kingdom. In the Lord’s own house shall I dwell forever and ever [3]. In that kingdom, where we are redeemed by the Son and made holy by the Spirit, we give glory to the Father.  Already, however we are under the direction of the king.  He has shown us what to do.  His banners go ahead of us: he hands over the kingdom to God the Father [4].  The cross of Calvary, like a battle-standard or a flag, floats over our life.   We look up to it.  We remember it.  We see the cross reflected in the sufferings of the world.

Jesus, our king, organises us in his procession.  He does so very serenely.  The banners remind us of the immense achievement of the cross.  Christ the king is no sergeant-major or sheep-dog.  He does not bark or push us around.  The procession has its settled, providential order and its stately pace.  No doubt the master of ceremonies makes discrete adjustments en route. We have not, however,  rehearsed our life.  Yet, in this processional version, it seems that we know what to do and when.  Jesus the choreographer shifts us masterfully.  He shepherds us along.  Shepherds are tender but unsentimental.  They drive away the wolf. They count the sheep home.  Each lamb is cherished. I shall rescue them from wherever they have been scattered during the mist and darkness [5].  However, predators are dealt with ruthlessly.  Intruders are expelled.  There is much sifting and selecting. I will judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and he-goats [6].  The king’s procession, once assembled, loses no one.  Some trouble is taken to re-integrate wanderers. I shall look for the lost one, bring back the stray [7].  The ranks have been carefully drawn up.  He will separate men one from another, as a shepherd separates sheep from goats [8]. No one stays with Christ who does not know the cross.  No one can walk with him who does not recognise the banners of the king.

The procession behind the cross and standard of king Jesus has been carefully coordinated.  Our progress in and towards the kingdom is, however, not merely ceremonial.  The whole of life goes into this march home to God.  Before us, on the flag is the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. The banner draws its meaning from the redeeming labour of Jesus.   Our life is being patterned on this work also. His mission is to bring us to the Father.  We join the throng of those on a pilgrimage of grace, at the Lord’s invitation.  We walk with his help.  To do so is also our deepest desire. Are we well prepared for this Christian life? Carefully trained? Meticulously rehearsed?  We do not always feel, perhaps, that we are fully in step with the procession of the king.  The virtuous, in Jesus’ description of what will happen when the Son of Man comes in his glory [9], are surprised to learn that they have served the king well. Lord when did we see you hungry and feed you or thirty and give you a drink?[10]  Were they doing the right thing unwittingly?  The last judgement delivered on those who neglected to care for the Lord in his difficulties surprised them also.  They asked the same question. When did we see you in need?[11]  Were they doing wrong unintentionally?  The judgement of Christ is just and merciful.  It is decisive and fair.  The king himself may not always be in our field of vision. To serve him may not continuously be our conscious aim.  However his banners have been reliably held up to us.  On the battle-colours of the king are inscribed the sufferings of the world.  The cross brings together all these troubles.  From the cross comes a cry for help for all those who are least.  The procession is the army of those who have deliberately chosen to answer the appeal of the least of the king’s dear ones: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned.

In the well-ordered procession, the disciples know what to do.  It has become second nature to them to care for Jesus by attending to the crying needs of his brothers and sisters, the least of these[12].  They do what the king wants almost without thinking about it.  They are surprised by his favourable judgement.  Is ordinary life like such a procession?  Our existence seems less ceremonious.   Surprises come not only in signs of God’s approval of our efforts at kindness and solidarity.   There are many perplexities.  We make a lot of mistakes. Life offers few opportunities for its own rehearsal.  Nevertheless, we are expected instinctively to do the right thing. The king, who marshals us, proceeds in stately fashion.  Calmly he surveys us. His serenity arises from his resurrection.  On the cross, from which he now reigns, he was once tortured to death. He has risen and taken charge.   We know our orders. He has shown us what we must do.  The banners once more remind us?  The cross is our whispered instructions.  The cross of Jesus models our love of our neighbour, especially the least.  The banners of the king include a reminder directed particularly at us.   Our own little cross has been set up near the great cross of Calvary.  Our disciple’s share in the sufferings of Christ is visible to us through the smoke of battle when we can discern very little else.   Has the particular task to which Jesus has called us so impressed itself on us that we know, now unprompted, what we must do?  The king has been shepherding us for a long time.  We have been guided and schooled.  The procession is life, which we have not rehearsed beforehand.  Yet the pattern of the cross of Christ has been shaping us since we were baptised.  We are genuinely free.  The loving shepherd has had his eye on us since the beginning.   We have been steered towards the place we need to be, to bandage the wounded and make the weak strong [13].  We ourselves, forgetful sometimes of the king, have nevertheless always had his banners in front of us.  The cross is a flag flying encouragingly for us. ‘We greet our one reliable hope’[14], as we make our way back to God.

Do we think wistfully of those who are not in the procession?  Were they weeded out in some forgotten audition?  Was there, unknown to us, some rehearsal for life in which they had already forgotten their lines.   As Jesus describes the last judgement, the goats are no less surprised than the virtuous.  Lord when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or naked, sick or in prison and did not come to your help?[15]  Those who will go away to eternal punishment [16] make the same inquiry as those who are to enjoy eternal life[17].  One way or another it is everyone’s question. Are we to be judged on what just happened to us or on what we chose to do?  We decide to act.  We decide to live as disciples. The difference between those who walk in the procession of the king and those who do not is no mere accident.  We choose to walk with Jesus or we choose not to do so.  That choice is expressed not principally in words but in deeds.  In so far as you did this to one of the least…you did it to me [18].    The virtuous appear unaware that they were serving Christ.  The condemned say they did not know that it was the Lord they were neglecting.  The banners tell everyone what they need to know.  The cross hangs over us[19].   ‘God reigns from this tree.’ [20]  The suffering of the least of the brothers and sisters of Jesus the king is always before us. No rehearsal for what has to be done for them is necessary.  We know what to do.

Homily by Fr Peter Gallagher SJ

1                  Venantius Fortunatus c. 530-c.609 Vexilla regis prodeunt: /Fulget crucis mysterium lines 1-2. 

This hymn was written for a procession from Tours to Poitiers which took place in November, 569

[2]              Psalm (23) 22.3

[3]              Psalm (23) 22.6

[4]              1 Corinthians 15.24

[5]              Ezekiel 34.12

[6]              Ezekiel 34.17

[7]              Ezekiel 34.16

[8]              Matthew 25.32

[9]              Matthew 25.31

[10]            Matthew 25.37

[11]            Matthew 25.44

[12]            Matthew 25.40 and 45

[13]            Ezekiel 34.16

[14]            Venantius Fortunatus Vexilla regis prodeunt  ‘O crux ave, spes unica’ line 33

[15]            Matthew 25.44

[16]            Matthew 25.46

[17]            Matthew 35.46

[18]            Matthew 25.40

[19]            Vexilla regis prodeunt  ‘suspensus est patibus’ line 4

[20]            ‘regnavit a ligno Deus’  line 16