The world is full of presidents and prime ministers, dictators and monarchs, emperors and dynasties who seek to rule over the lives of people. This has been the case throughout history. Empire building has been a common trait of many political leaders, even in democracies. The latest version of this tendency is playing out in Ukraine. An ideological empire is being sought by the democratically elected president of Russia. Such empire building is characterised by a drive to take over a people or nation, and to bring them into the host’s sphere of influence. It might be presented as a noble endeavour, but it is always built on the desire to take, and the power to do it.

Today’s feast is often simply called, ‘Christ the King’, but its proper name is ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe’. That phrase ‘King of the universe’ is a bold, even treacherous claim. It suggests there is an empire—God’s Kingdom—that is of universal scale and reach, and a king whose rule encompasses all things everywhere. Do we not have here the claim of an all-powerful God whose rule—while exercised with the noblest intent—will nonetheless bend and form its subjects to his will? Is a king of the universe a good thing?

Well, let us look at who this king is, Jesus Christ, as he is described by St Paul in our second reading today. Certainly, there is a power about him to rule: ‘for in him were created all things in heaven and on earth … and he holds all things in unity.’ This power to rule is an awesome power. It is the power to bring all things under a common purpose and a shared vision. Here is a power to build an empire encompassing the world. But why would it not be exercised as any other ruler might do so, with noble desire yet terrible effect?

Herein lies the fundamental difference that makes Christ’s kingship universally good. Paul names it this way: ‘God wanted all perfection to be found in [Christ] … when he made peace by his death on the cross.’ This king—our King—would not exercise his power by way of taking over others’ lives but by giving up his own life. There was nothing from the cross that Christ could take over; all that he could do was to let go. The cross of Christ is an altogether different kind of throne to rule from; its power embraces, not imposes on, all who seek to live by it.

Those who stood before the cross, watching Jesus, sought from him a ruling power over lives: ‘If you are the Christ, save yourself and come down from the cross.’ They did so not because they wanted him as their king, but because they wanted his power for themselves. But this was not the way of the King of the Universe. Jesus needed to stay where he had been nailed, for the sake of the one nailed next to him. This is the king that God chose from the beginning to rule the universe—the one who would not come down from the cross, for the sake of the one next to him on a cross.

Jesus’ words to his brother next to him are telling: ‘Today, you will be with me …’ Jesus was offering his friend a participation in his life. The King was sharing his power so that the other crucified with him might share in his life, beyond their deaths. This man was being invited into a kingdom that brings life through reconciliation.

If we are honest, that is where we are to be: next to Christ, on the crosses of our own human weakness, our brokenness. And in honestly seeing where we are, might we then notice that the King of the Universe next to us wants only to embrace us from his own cross.

Main image: Detail from the ceiling of St Michael’s basilica in Hildesheim, c. 1230. Photo by Fr Lawrence Lew OP.