Here we are on the last Sunday in Ordinary Time, the feast of Christ the King. This is the last Sunday before Advent begins, the last Sunday of wearing green vestments. In the past weeks, we’ve read through much of the Gospel of Luke. We are on the verge of Advent, but before we can get to all our favorite Advent stories, here we are with this story of Christ on the Cross. It seems a surprising story so far from Passiontide. It’s unexpected, somehow, to be hearing about this in late November. So how do we bridge the gap from the crucified Christ to the soon-to-be-born infant Jesus?
We’ll start in a place far from Jerusalem, far from the hill called “Skull”.
My husband and I were standing in line in front of the Accademia in Florence. It had been his dream to see Michelangelo’s David, and now here we were, on a crisp autumn morning, with all the other tourists in comfortable walking shoes, waiting for our turn to go into the museum to see the statue. Suddenly a gaggle of scruffy pre-teens came rushing up to us. They didn’t really look Italian; gypsies, most likely. Dirty faces, torn clothes, old shoes. They formed a scrum around us and shoved big pieces of cardboard at us on which were written their stories – I am poor! I have nothing to eat! Please give me money! Even as we were reading the cardboard signs, they were reaching underneath them --- and trying to pick our pockets. One of us in line noticed what was happening and shouted an alarm. We grabbed our respective purses and wallets and yelled at the street urchins. They ran off, cursing us in Italian and Romany. Shaken, we double-checked our pockets and thanked those who had figured out what was happening.
I hadn’t thought of that story for many years, until I saw a newspaper article in the Washington Post three years ago. It told the story of Mario Capecchi, who survived as just such a street urchin in WWII Italy after his mother, an anti-Fascist intellectual, had been hauled off to the Dachau concentration camp. Before she was taken, she had given some money to a neighbor to care for her son Mario, who was then just three years old. The neighbor cared for him until the money ran out, and then turned him out onto the streets. He went from town to town, occasionally living in orphanages, but mostly begged and stole and survived on his wits. He nearly died of malnutrition and was in a hospital in Bologna when his mother, liberated from Dachau, finally found him in 1946. A year later, an uncle in America sent money for them to emigrate, and Mario began a new life, one that included degrees from Antioch and Harvard and a fellowship under the discoverer of the structure of DNA, James Watson. Capecchi did groundbreaking work in gene targeting. And so, three years ago, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. A street urchin to a Nobel Laureate. Not what one would expect.
This gospel passage is another case of unexpected people doing unexpected things. We shouldn’t be surprised by this; it has been the case all the way through the Gospel of Luke. In Luke’s world, the outsider is usually the hero of the tale, and the folks who are the in-crowd usually get it wrong.
What’s going on in this passage, one that is so very familiar to us?
Jesus hangs on the cross. He’s been up there so long that gravity has taken its toll. The wounds on his head and hands no longer freely bleed. The bloodstains on his face and palms have dried to a dark-wine crust. His shoulders creak with pain. The crowd, who had called for his execution, is watching silently now, but the soldiers and the leaders mock him. The sign on the cross mocks him: “Jesus, King of the Jews.” Even one of the criminals hanging beside him mocks him, daring him to save himself and the criminal, too. In their eyes, this is no king. This is just another broken troublemaker who got what he deserved.
But the criminal on Jesus’ other side sees something more in him than a loser, a failed religious leader. This criminal chastises the first one: “We are being justly punished, but this man doesn’t deserve this. He did nothing wrong.”
That would be remarkable enough coming from the mouth of a dying criminal, but the moment takes an even more surprising turn: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This is more than a personal request. It is an acknowledgment of Jesus as King of a kingdom not of this world.
And then Jesus does what he usually does when a person opens his heart to the Anointed One and asks for help.
Even in the pain of the moment, with the taste of blood and sour vinegar in His mouth, Jesus speaks words of comfort and of promise: “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in paradise.”
Jesus turns the eyes of the repentant criminal forward in hope, to a place of salvation.
All those people, watching and mocking, and there is only one who truly sees this broken rabbi on the Cross for the King He is. Only one, an unexpected one, seeing an unexpected King.
Time and again in the Gospel of Luke, throughout these weeks of Ordinary Time, we’ve seen the same surprising story. The conventional religious people just don’t understand Jesus’ message. It is the outsiders, the ones we least expect, who open their eyes and their hearts and recognize the kingship of Jesus, and what that kingship entails. It is not a kingship of this world, and what we are expected to do to pay homage to this King is very different than what the expectations of a worldly king might be.
So we hear this story on this last Sunday of Ordinary Time, on the Feast of Christ the King, before we enter the cold, pre-dawn winter hours of Advent. In the dark, it may be easy to miss who we’re really seeing on that cross.
It isn’t a broken man, a failed teacher. If we truly understand His message, we see Christ the King, whom the Greek Christians called Christ Pantokrator, Christ all powerful, looking forward in hope that we all might be with Him in the kingdom.
Christ opens our eyes and hearts and souls to see unexpected people in unexpected ways, as He too was the ultimate unexpected One. He bids us to see who He is, and how we might see Him in the most unlikely people.
You never know. A street urchin might turn out to be a Nobel Prize winner. A crucified teacher might turn out to be King. And a baby born in a rude stable on a cold winter night might turn out to be the Son of God.