November 24, 2013


Above him there was an inscription that read, “This is the King of the Jews.” – Luke 23: 38

   The cross is an odd sort of throne for a king. It is just as mystifying to us today as it was to those who first beheld it. If, as the scientists tell us, the universe began with a big bang, the sound could not have been nearly so tremendous as the day the earth shook on Good Friday, nor so audacious as the faint crackling sound made when bread, become Christ’s timeless body, is broken on the eucharistic altar.

   Whenever the vertical will of God is challenged by the horizontal will of man, the result is a cross; & the forgiveness which Christ asked on the cross for those who do not understand the full implications of disobedience to the will of God is itself a judgment with consequences depending upon how we respond to it.

   Since all of us are guilty before God & deserving of punishment, which of the two thieves mentioned here represents you & me? Recent history suggests that for most of us, the response has been to blaspheme. The Times of London on 28 November 1972 reported the following incident:

   The schoolboy son of one of Northern Ireland’s leading Roman Catholic ophthalmic surgeons was shot dead in the center of the protestant Shankill district in Belfast today…. He was the 100th civilian to be assassinated this year. Mr. Peter Gormley, an eye specialist at the Mater Hospital was driving his two sons, Rory, aged 14, & Paul, aged 7, & another boy to St. Malachy’s college when two men stepped from behind a car parked at the junction of Downing St. & Ariel St. One of them opened fire with a sub-machine gun & 11 bullets struck Mr. Gormley’s car. He was hit in the shoulder & Paul was hit in the arm & leg. Rory was hit in the side.

   The car went out of control & crashed into a Post Office van, but all four managed to open the doors & throw themselves out. Rory, already dying, crawled for several yards along the pavement before his father lifted him & ran down the street crying for help. Even then several shots were fired at him….

   The pathos of this scene has been blunted by the repetition of similar scenes from Cracow to Kabul, from Belfast to Beirut, from New York to New Orleans. Ours has been an iron century indeed, enough to convince even the dreamiest of optimists that progress is as big a myth as the noble savage of Rousseau. The comic Will Rodgers once put it this way: “Any man who thinks civilization has advanced is an egotist.”

   This is no cause for despondency, but for reflection: What is man? The Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan wrote “man is an animal for whom mere animality is indecent.” Our revulsion at the chaos & passions that threaten to engulf us is not a question of taste but of God-given instinct. The poet Wilfred Owen put it delicately this way: “Are limits, so dear achieved, are sides, full-nerved – still warm – too hard to stir? Was it for this the clay grew tall? O what made fatuous sunbeams toil to brake earth’s sleep at all?”

   Such melancholy, such a primal scream, tells us something about ourselves, namely, that we are made for God. Without Him, we will always be desperately unhappy & destructive. Unfortunately, we are too much like Adam & Eve in the garden: unable to let God be God! Even if we do not reject His sovereignty outright (like the first thief next to Jesus), we often manage to emasculate His Lordship. The Church Times reported the opening of a Synod of the Church of England in Westminster Abbey by the Queen as follows: “The Church’s supreme governor was there, looking small, dignified & very pretty in pale Duck-egg blue.”

   In the midst of brutality & ugliness, we hide from glory, but Christ comes among us to uncover what we had lost. What is man? We need look no further than Jesus Himself for the answer. For the ancient Hebrews, the word “King” had two connotations:

   First, a Judge. Jesus is judge not by passing sentence but by being a standard. In a sense both too simple & too profound for us to understand, He is the ruler of creation in the very way a measuring stick is a ruler: He sets the norm for what it means to be human. Second, a Shepherd. This is more demanding than being a judge. A Good Shepherd will lay down His life for the sheep instead of being content to secure their grazing rights. God chose the cross for His throne because He knows that obedience must come from within, not by force or by authority imposed from without.  AMEN!