At the conclusion of last year’s Solemnity of Christ the King, Pope Francis made the announcement that the annual World Youth Day celebrations, those marked locally by countries around the world between the international gathering, will now be held on that very same Solemnity instead of Palm Sunday. To the people gathered, Pope Francis said, ‘Dear young people, cry out with your life that Christ lives and reigns … If you keep silent, the very stones will cry out!’
The decision to move the celebration was a practical one. After consulting various parishes around the world, it was discovered that WYD was already being celebrated at various times depending on the needs of the diocese, since Palm Sunday is the beginning of one of the liturgical year’s busiest times. For the sake of ease, then, it was changed.
Thematically, however, the move was a consistent one. Nothing has changed about what the day itself is meant to proclaim since both feasts are concerned with the Kingship of Christ.
Generally speaking, if you try and get someone to articulate what the Gospel is, they won’t say anything like, “Christ is king”. Usually it will be something to do with the salvation of souls or the love of God, which is absolutely correct. The thing is, the Bible has a great way of interconnecting so many different themes, images and motifs; they are presented to us as a densely textured whole, and one of the sad things we do is pull them apart, overemphasising some to the expense of the others.
If we come to the Bible trying to think with ancient Jewish minds as best we can, we’ll find the theme of kingship on clear display over and over again. This is exactly what Palm Sunday is about. We read in Luke’s Gospel that when Jesus entered Jerusalem, he did so on the back of a colt. The crowd gathered and cried out in thunderous praise:
Blessings on the King who comes, in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens!’ (19:38).
This moment was actually a fulfillment of an ancient prophecy in Zechariah 9:
Rejoice heart and soul, daughter of Zion! Shout with gladness, daughter of Jerusalem! See now, your king comes to you; he is victorious, he is triumphant, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey’ (9:9).
To lay down palms in welcome is to make way for the king. Except, this king is a strange sort of king. He did not meet any of their expectations.
The people wanted a people’s king; the kind of king who would overthrow enemy powers and restore the Jewish people to freedom once again. The manner of his reign was expected to be like everyone else’s, with a throne and military power at his command.
What they got was a king whose throne was a cross; whose crown was made of thorns; whose reign was through the Holy Spirit burning on earth; and whose kingdom was defined by something no other kingdom had been defined by – healing and forgiveness.
Someone who got this clearly was J.R.R. Tolkien. When you read The Return of the King, the parallels he draws between Aragorn and Christ are remarkable and blindingly obvious to anyone vaguely familiar with the Gospels. After the battle of the Pelennor Fields, once Gondor has been liberated from its siege, Tolkien spends a deliberate amount of time following Aragorn, who, as the returning king, brings his healing power to bear on the wounded. News of Aragorn spreads through the city and people are reminded of the ancient lore: ‘The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known.’ The true king was known precisely because he brought healing with him.
In some ways the Gospels present the story of the king’s return, just like Aragorn. Even though, through Original Sin, humanity disowned the king, he came back anyway with healing and forgiveness to rescue his people, to make them realise that the peace they long for can only be found in him.
As Jesus is passing by on the colt, some of the Pharisees were a bit disgruntled by the noise everyone is making. ‘Master,’ one of them says, ‘check your disciples.’ In reply, Jesus says, ‘I tell you, if these keep silence the stones will cry out’ (Luke 19:39-40).
There are moments for reverent silence and there are moments for thunderous praise. In countries like Australia, we suffer from the deeply problematic tendency of shooting down anyone who is overly enthusiastic about anything. This is especially the case with Christians who are burning with fervour and cause the slightest social embarrassment with their infectious energy.
That, really, is nothing but an Australian Pharisaism; our version of saying, ‘Check yourself.’ Thanks to the Gospels, we already know what Jesus would say to that: ‘the stones will cry out’ if nobody else does. He wants us to cry out with joy that he has returned to us as the healing king, and for us, his people, to model in our own lives what defines the kingdom to which we belong: healing and forgiveness. The problem is we need to re-learn what the Gospel is about. We need to understand what it means to say that Christ is king, with all of its implications for us and the world at large. Only then can we joyfully proclaim the Gospel of King Jesus in a way that is believable to an apathetic world.
Melbourne Catholic15 March 2023
Melbourne Catholic14 March 2023