Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

SCRIPTURES & ART: Time is the one thing God has rationed, yet even in these last moments between life and death, one can still turn to God.

Titian, “Christ and the Good Thief,” ca. 1566
Titian, “Christ and the Good Thief,” ca. 1566 (photo: Public Domain)

With this Sunday, the liturgical year draws to a close. Last Sunday and next Sunday will remind us of the end of the world.

The last regular Sunday of Ordinary Time reminds us, because that is where human history is completed. The First Sunday of Advent reminds us, because we are not looking back to Jesus’ coming in Bethlehem but forward to his Second Coming in glory.

Between those two hinges, we look to the origin, cause and goal of human history: Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.

And today’s Gospel takes us back to the central moment of that King’s Life: his Passion, Death and Resurrection. It speaks specifically to his encounter with the Good Thief.

The late Ján Chryzostom Korec, Archbishop of Nitra, Slovakia, wrote in his meditation on the Good Thief that Jesus was just where he wanted to be on that cross.

In crucifying Jesus, the Jewish establishment of Jerusalem in Jesus’ Day wanted to make a point. To “die on a tree” was deemed an accursed death (see Deuteronomy 21:22-23). Hanging Jesus on a cross was not just the available means of capital punishment. It was Jesus’ enemies’ way of ensuring that his reputation among potential followers would be forever blackened.

So they hung him on a tree. And, to make the point he was a wrongdoer, two other criminals hung with him.

But Jesus spent his life among sinners. He was attacked by his enemies for eating “with tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 9:11). So it was not surprising he would end his life with them, too.

This is how Korec sums it up:

… the Father allows that the Son will not die in majestic solitude, but alongside evildoers. Jesus lived among people; He lived among sinners and He died among sinners. He, the friend of sinners, remains their friend until the very last. He dies like them and dies with two of them. We know that it was not in vain — He saved one of them at the last moment. And He saved him for eternity (emphasis added, excerpted from Rok nad evanjeliom, translation mine).

Jesus became man “for us men and for our salvation.” It’s fitting, then, that we acknowledge his kingship at the moment when, nearly at his own last breath, he still brings to the Father a man willing to turn to God. Moments before he dies, Jesus still expands his Kingdom by own more citizen.

Those who crucified him made the title “King of the Jews” an object of derision. His accusers used it as a false flag to manipulate the Romans into crucifying him. The soldiers who crucified him “jeered at him … ‘if you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’”

Evil leads men down bizarre, self-destructive paths. The Roman soldiers and the “rulers [who] sneered at Jesus” could afford to ridicule him. They expected to be alive the next day, which is not what they expected for Jesus.

But Jesus was ridiculed even by one of those condemned with him. “One of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus.” This man had nothing to gain from spitting at Jesus. Like Jesus he, too, would soon be dead. But the despair and malice of evil is such that even that thief — whom history named Gestas — joins in the attack on his fellow condemned man.

Gestas has no sense of even the justice of what has befallen him. It takes the other thief — whom history named Dismas — to remind him, “We have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes.” Dismas clearly is reflecting on his waning life and recognizing what was right and what was wrong in it. Gestas won’t examine what brought him to that place until it’s too late: the time for repentance is not after death.

Dismas acknowledges the justice of his sentence and the injustice of Jesus’. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”

“This day you will be with me in Paradise.”

Christ’s is — as the preface of this Solemnity reminds us — “a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace.” To whatever tiny degree Dismas was willing to buy into that Kingdom, to that degree he slipped into eternity in peace. I am sure his prayer was like that of the Polish poet Roman Brandstaetter’s, a prayer we should all make our own:

For I want, O God, despite All my doubts and temptations, That in the hour of my death When no one will be Between me and You, To rest in Your gaze Beneath the arch of Your eyebrows … (“The Temptation in the Desert,” trans. mine)

Because there is where the Kingdom of Heaven is to be found.

Today’s Gospel is illustrated by the great 16th-century Venetian painter, Titian (c. 1488-1576). “Christ and the Good Thief” was painted around 1566 and is held by the National Museum in Bologna, Italy.

The painting centers on the two key figures of today’s Gospel, Jesus and the Good Thief. Jesus inclines his head to his right to listen to Dismas. Dismas, by word and gesture, makes his last request for a place in Jesus’ Kingdom.

Elizabeth Lev has described this painting almost as a scene from a confessional. The Good Thief admits his evil and asks for a place with Christ. Jesus listens, and promises it. That confessional-like ambience is reinforced by omitting Gestas and raising the two dramatis personae above the Roman spears waving below.

Some might wonder about the depiction of Dismas — specifically, the relative liberty of his arms. Crucifixion could involve affixing its victim to the cross by nailing, tying, or both. Nailing was more painful but accelerated death. Tying prolonged the punishment but was less painful. Nailing and then tying could intensify but prolong the punishment. How so? Crucifixion shifted the center of weight of the body to the chest area which is not designed to function normally — especially to breathe — while bearing a body’s weight. That is why many scholar believe a crucified person had to raise himself to improve breathing … raise himself on nailed limbs. By tying a prisoner, the ropes helped support bodily weight and, so, prolong the torture. Dismas is clearly tied.

Titian is considered among the greatest of Venetian Renaissance painters. By the time he painted “Christ and the Good Thief,” 10 years before his death, he had passed from the vibrant colors that characterized his early works to a more subtle palette. We see that in this painting, where encroaching death is seen in the brownish background, which blends into the wood of the crosses and the semi-tanned bodies of the two dying men, each somewhat illumined, Christ’s more so. Following Renaissance conventions on physicality, both men are muscular and anatomically accurate.

Time is the one thing God has rationed, yet even in these last moments between life and death, one can still turn to God. Without presuming on his mercy, let us always remember that.

* * * * * * *

With today’s essay, we’ve come to the end of the second year of our series, “Scriptures and Art.” Our goal is twofold: to provide solid theological and spiritual insight into the Sunday readings, and to show how Christianity has shaped culture through the presentation of the readings — usually the Gospel — in the visual arts. Readers hopefully profited religiously and gained some insight into art history from these essays. I would welcome knowing what you think of them. Feel free to offer comments and suggestions — good and bad — in the comments box below.

Hans von Kulmbach (1480-1522), “Christ the King”

Christ the King, and Sacred Music Meets AI (Nov. 25)

While Christians have celebrated Christ as King from the very beginning of the Church, the Feast of Christ the King of the Universe was put on the liturgical calendar less than 100 years ago. What’s the origin of this powerful solemnity? We find out with EWTN News’ Dr. Matthew Bunson. Then we look at another effort to sanctity the world — this time through sacred monastic music. Yet there’s a twist: Artificial Intelligence is involved. The Register’s Solène Tadié brings us a story of how an organization is using AI to help spread sacred monastic music.