Each day during school vacations the daycare programs around a different theme. Friday is always pajama day. The one day during the week when all the kids are allowed to bring their teddy bears and stuffed animals and come dressed in their pajamas to spend the day playing board games and watching movies. A new day they have started in recent years is backwards day. On this day, the children come dressed with their clothes on backwards and the usual structure for the day is done in reverse. At home, parents are invited to enhance the day by serving dinner for breakfast and breakfast for dinner.
For many of us, today feels like a backwards day or a day in which the opposite of what we would anticipate has occurred as we celebrate the Last Sunday of Pentecost, now becoming more popularly known as the Feast of Christ the King or the Feast of the Reign of God.
What makes today seem like a day of opposites comes with our Gospel reading. Who would have expected on this final day of Pentecost when we celebrate Christ in majesty, we find ourselves reading Luke’s account of the crucifixion. This is the opposite of what we would expect to hear. Wouldn’t it make more sense to read a post-resurrection account or even Luke’s account of the Transfiguration?
Not according to those who designed the lectionary. The message they convey tells us: that Christ’s majesty has more to do with humiliation than with glory. That Christ’s majesty is more about a cold barren hill and a roughly hewn wooden cross as a throne than with warmly lit palaces and golden thrones. That Christ’s majesty is more about a headpiece made of thorns than a crown of precious jewels and gold. That Christ’s majesty is more about rags of poverty than the robes of state, or scepters of authority, and earthly power.
As the lectionary designers tell us, the majesty of Jesus is the opposite of what we would expect, and so it is true in terms of the reign of God. Because the reign of God is nothing like, actually almost the opposite of, how we understand power and authority in this world. Divine leadership is about service and sacrifice on the part of the one in authority. In our reading from Jeremiah, the prophet celebrates the return of the Davidic king who will rule with divine justice for all.
Medieval Europe during the twelfth through sixteenth centuries celebrated the Feast of Fools on or around Christmas Day. This celebration is depicted in the opening scene of Walt Disney’s, The Hunchback of Notre Dame with the song Topsey Turvey, the feast allowed for two days of social revolt in which children were given the authority of mock leadership as the magistrates and church leaders for the day. All of this celebrates the contrast between the earthly structures of power and the reign of God in which the sovereignty of Christ is gained from both the manger and the cross.
In recent months, much of the world has witnessed a climactic shift in our understanding of church leadership. This is happening because Pope Francis is blazing a new trail of understanding in terms of what it means to be a Pope in the modern world. Like his predecessors since John Paul I, Francis chose not to use the three tiered crown of the papacy as part of his consecration as Pope. To further maintain an image of spiritual simplicity, Francis has chosen not to live in the Papal apartment, instead he continues to live in the simple room assigned to him in the Vatican Hotel during the conclave. He has continued to wear his old, well-worn brown shoes instead of the red Prada shoes of his predecessor. He has also chosen to hold his daily masses in the hotel chapel where all Vatican employees are invited to attend. Pope Francis, much to the chagrin of his security detail, has also chosen to drive himself around Vatican City and Rome in the beat up old Ford given to him by a local priest. And most recently he has eschewed the typical papal motorcade for a simple unmarked car when traveling to pay a call on the mayor of Rome.
Pope Francis’ unique way of being Pope does not end at the gates of Vatican City. In recent months he has asked his Bishop’s throughout the world to focus their attention on being the love of Christ to the world and less on the social and moral issues of today.
Outside of the walls of Vatican City Pope Francis continues to surprise and amaze the faithful and the world.
According to St. Paul, “in Christ, there is neither male nor female, freeman nor slave, Greek nor Jew. On this past Maundy Thursday, Pope Francis demonstrated this when he celebrated Christ washing the feet of his disciples, not in the warmth and safety of St. Peter’s Basilica, but in a women’s prison near Rome, and while there, he surprised the world again by washing the feet of a Moslem woman.
As our Gospel tells us this morning and Pope Francis demonstrates to the world, divine authority is not gained through wealth, power or coercion, but through humility, love and acceptance.
Our Gospel does not end here? Our Gospel offers one more surprise, another moment opposite of what we would expect. After Jesus is nailed to the cross our passage ends with the brief conversation between jesus and the two others hanging on either side of him.
The first criminal mocks Jesus along with the crowd. The second criminal admonishes the first criminal for mocking Jesus and then turns and asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom. To this Jesus replies, “Today you will be in paradise.”
Paradise, the term used to refer to the wonderful gardens and game preserves maintained by the nobles in Jesus day. These were places of escape from the troubles and burdens of the ruling class. Jesus, in essence tells the second bandit that by night fall, he will be freed of the turmoil and the evil of his life and given rest in the sanctity of the kingdom.
Who among those witnessing the crucifixion would have ever expected one, who by his own admission, deserved to be executed,would be or could be given access to, not just the kingdom but to paradise within the kingdom itself. Thus telling us that divine authority is not only gained through humility, love and acceptance, but also through the ability to forgive. The ability to forgive, not just those whom we deem to be forgivable, but to all who recognize the authority of Christ and seek the forgiveness of the cross.
Today we celebrate the reign of God, the end time of Salvation History to which we wait and look forward to. The time to come when divine governance will take hold on earth and all will be governed with humility, love, acceptance and with the gift of forgiveness that only the cross can offer.