During celebrations which commemorate specific feasts, we must be careful that our preconceived notions of the feast don't color the way we interpret the Scripture proclaimed that day. Students of the Bible interpret the feast through reflection on the Scriptures, not vice versa.

The concept "king," for instance, conveys different ideas to different people. Most Americans haven't always looked kindly on kings. We've traditionally seen them as anti-democratic demagogues, oppressors of human rights, rulers who claim God-given prerogatives at the same time they're limiting our God-given freedom.

Yet if we listen carefully to Sunday's three readings for the Feast of Christ the King, we hear a different image of king. Our Sacred Authors paint a picture of king-reconciler, someone who is a force for unity among people.

Golden era

Though I expect little rote memory from my students, they do have to remember a few significant biblical dates, including the year of the event narrated in our II Samuel passage: 1000 B.C.E. (By far, one of the easiest dates to remember!) David had already been declared king of Judah, the southern Jewish kingdom, comprising the tribes of Judah and Benjamin (II Sam 5:1-3). Now representatives of the ten northern tribes, the kingdom of Israel, come to David at Hebron asking that he also "shepherd" them.

Two distinct Jewish countries become united in the person of David, son of Jesse. This historic unification would last only until David's grandson came to the throne -- about 75 years. But it ushered in the Chosen People's "golden era." All other periods of Jewish history would forever be judged against David and Solomon's united kingdom.

The first Christians looked upon Jesus in much the same way. But for them, He wasn't the unifier of just two nations: He was the unifier of the whole human race, uniting them both with one another and with God.

Paul sums up the concept in just two sentences (Col 1:12-20). "It pleased God," he writes, "to make absolute fullness reside in Him and, by means of Him, to reconcile everything in His person, everything, I say, both on earth and in the heavens, making peace through the blood of His cross."

Yet both Paul and Luke agree that only people who are willing to forgive can unify. If we'd read more of II Samuel than just our liturgical passage, we'd quickly see that one of the biggest obstacles to unification was David's own army commander Joab, who, just before the agreement of unity, murders his Israelite counterpart, Abner, to avenge his brother's death.

Notice what Paul says is at the heart of our redemption: "the forgiveness of our sins." Jesus, "the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creatures" brings about salvation not be falling back on His "primacy" and power, but by simply saying, "I forgive you."

Forgiveness

That's precisely what Luke depicts Him doing in the Gospel (Lk 23:35-43). Immediately after mentioning the sarcastic inscription which Pilate had ordered placed above the crucified Jesus' head -- "this is the King of the Jews" -- Luke tells us about Jesus' conversation with "the good thief."

Having first contradicted "the bad thief," the dying man turns to Jesus and asks, "Jesus, remember me when you enter upon your reign."

Jesus immediately and definitively assures him, "this day you will be with me in paradise." Notice, Jesus says nothing about performing a penance, nothing about a firm purpose of amendment, nothing about going to confession if the thief should survive this crucifixion. He unconditionally forgives, uniting this sinner instantly with Himself and His future.

We who place so many conditions on forgiveness might legitimately wonder why we humans are so frequently alienated from one another and from God, and why oneness is such a difficult thing to accomplish. Perhaps we should examine our prerequisites for forgiveness, especially those which Jesus, our king, never seems to demand. Those who wish to bring about the unity of Jesus must practice the forgiveness of Jesus.

(11-19-98)