The Feast of Christ the King is a relatively new feast. It was first declared by Pope Pius XI in 1925 at a time of heightened nationalism and secularism. Its biblical origins are very deep, going back to the anointing of kings like David in ancient Israel, as we hear in the opening reading. In the New Testament, it is rooted in the identification of Jesus as the Messiah or Anointed One. Its theological significance is acknowledged in its ecumenical acceptance in the calendars of Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox Church calendars as well.
In the Catholic Church, the feast is associated with the church’s proclamation of the Gospel of Justice and Peace. In other years, the connection is more evident. The most memorable gospel reading is Matthew’s parable of the Last Judgment, where the King commends the righteous, “Whatever you have done for the least of these, you have done for me.” The spirit of the feast is also caught in the preface of the Mass. It describes Christ’s kingdom as
a kingdom of truth and life,
a kingdom of holiness and grace,
a kingdom of justice, love and peace.
Today’s gospel, however, takes us in a different direction. One might say it takes us deeper. It refines our understanding of the Kingdom of God as one that includes forgiveness. And it reminds us how different Christ’s kingship is from that of political messiahs who establish themselves with victory over their enemies. Jesus is a suffering Messiah whose sovereignty is expressed in his forgiveness and the absence of crushing power. Of course, he came announcing the Kingdom through preaching the forgiveness of sins. Luke’s Gospel, however, shows Jesus forgiving sin of the repentant thief in an hour of utter weakness on the cross, even as he is taunted by the leaders of the people and the second convict. Luke has made the cross a symbol of forgiveness.
Until very recently forgiveness was regarded as a private act of virtue. But it is closely related to peacemaking. The Second Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation treats forgiveness as part of a family of acts that make for peace. It reads:
In the midst of conflict and division, we know it is You who turn our minds to thoughts of peace.
Your Spirit changes our hearts, enemies begin to speak together, those who are estranged join hands in friendship, and nations seek the way of peace together.
Your Spirit is at work when understanding puts an end to strife, when hatred is quenched by mercy, and vengeance gives way to forgiveness.
Forgiveness stands with charity at the heart of the Christian message.
The late John Paul II understood this better than most. In 2002, following 9/11, he entitled his World Day of Peace Message, “No Justice without Forgiveness.” It was a lesson drawn from the religious and ethnic wars of the 1990s in the Former Yugoslavia. There even after fighting ceased grievances over old injuries continued to prevent a real peace coming into being. For genuine peace to break out, John Paul argued, yes, there needs to be justice, but bare justice will not heal the wounds of war. For a healing peace you need forgiveness. It is the Christlike act of forgiveness that in rendering justice stable gives peace.
John Paul walked the walk. He forgave his own assassin, Mehmet Agça. He wrote more than 20 letters of apology to heretics, colonized groups, minorities, the victims of holy wars and others for offenses committed by the Church. As part of the Great Jubilee in 2000 he also led a service of pardon that asked God’s forgiveness for the sins of church leaders over the past thousand years. It is a shame, I think, that we in the U.S. never picked up his message of forgiveness as one of the lessons of 9/11, for feelings of resentment and Islamophobia still fester in our American body politic more than a decade after the attacks. We still need the healing that forgiveness can bring.
All the same, forgiveness has become part of political life in a way it rarely was prior to the 1990s. In 1998, for example, President Bill Clinton stopped at the airport in Kigali, Rwanda, to apologize for U.S. inaction in preventing the genocide of Tutsi in Rwanda four years before. Many experts now regard apology and forgiveness, as never before, to be necessary to facilitate peace processes and to secure social peace after civil conflict. Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu headed the Peace and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa as a way of building civic amity after the election of Nelson Mandela as president and the establishment of a black majority government there. In numerous countries, similar efforts have been utilized after conflict to secure the peace. As Tutu argues, “There is no future without forgiveness.”
Forgiveness, therefore, is a political virtue, even a political necessity. Most societies who resort to it have been tested in civil war or ethnic and religious conflict. To date, we in the United States have been spared that kind of trial at least since the Civil War one hundred and fifty years ago. But without forgiveness and the other peaceable virtues we could suffer such bloody divisions again.
Consider the various vices and bad states of affairs cited in the Preface for Reconciliation: conflict and division, enmity, estrangement, nationalism, strife, hatred and vengeance. Are these not conditions that infect the body politic today? Is not politics blocked by partisan and ideological division? Are not politicians and to great measure the citizenry estranged from one another? Do not some of us accuse others of not being true Americans? Does not the strife on almost every issue give rise to hatred and vengeance? Are not all these signs that we are very far from reflecting the Kingdom of Christ in our politics? Is not our political distemper a sign that many of us have rejected Christ as our king; that we can’t forgive; that we think only of victory and not of peace; that we prefer to demonize our adversaries rather than speak with them; that we are unwilling to try to understand one another; that in our American exceptionalism we are reluctant to pursue peace with others; that we resist making mercy and forgiveness as our own virtues?
There are models in our midst of Christlike forgiveness. The Amish community in West Nickel Mines, PA, who, after ten school girls were taken hostage in 2006 and five killed in their school house, forgave the perpetrator is one example. As one Lancaster County neighbor put it, “I don't think there's anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts." One Amish man went to comfort the perpetrator’s family; another held the sobbing father of the perpetrator for an hour to comfort him, and the Amish community took up a collection to support the family of the shooter.
The “Amish Grace,” as one author called, is exceptional, but it shouldn’t be, because forgiveness is basic to the Christian life. Luke displays Jesus offering paradise to the thief, because he wants to show us the importance of forgiveness. Jesus himself left us a direct witness to the importance of forgiveness in the Our Father. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” So, when you think of the Kingdom of God, Christ’s Kingdom, think of the place of forgiveness in your personal and family life, and think of the place of forgiveness ought to have in politics and public life as well, where forgiveness will be the seal of lasting peace.