The Feast of Christ the King, Luke 23:35-43
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The Church gives us to meditate upon the Kingship of Christ in the immediate context of his suffering and ignominious death – as the ancient hymn relates, Regnavit a ligno Deus, “God reigns from a tree.” Indeed, Christ is already King as God, even when he dies upon the Cross; and, what is more, through this death he gains the authority and the kingship over heaven and earth even as a man! Through his suffering and death, Christ is not only King according to his Divinity, but even according to his humanity – it is Christ, both man and God, who will come again and manifestly claim the world as his kingdom.
Christ is King in his humanity, and all creation will be made subject to him; but, though he had this authority from all eternity as God, he yet had to learn how to rule as King in his humanity. God is King by his very essence, and thus has no need to learn how to rule well; but in his humanity even Christ is not King by natural right, for such authority is given by God to men on account of the Divine will – thus, the man Christ is not a King by nature, but by divine election and human acquisition. So, in order that Christ should be a good King of the universe, it was necessary that he learn how to rule well those who would be subjected to him.
Christ learned obedience through what he suffered
As God, Christ could learn nothing; for in his divinity he knew all things simply. Even as a man, Christ had the perfection of human knowledge through the beatific vision – his intimate union with God and the Father. What is more, Christ had knowledge of all things through the divine infusion of wisdom into his human intellect. Yet, though Christ knew all things as God and also knew all things as man, he was yet capable of learning through experience – he came to know things in a new way, since he knew them through experience.
In his Commentary on the Letter of St. Paul to the Hebrews, St. Thomas Aquinas emphasizes this point: Christ learned compassion through those things which he suffered. Though he knew all things as God, he yet learned of human suffering in a new way when he experienced temptation and trial, suffering and death as a man. It was this suffering which allowed Christ to be our compassionate High Priest, for he is not unable to relate with those who are tempted.
Commenting on Hebrews 5:8-9 – “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” – St. Thomas first tells us that Christ did not learn as one who is taught by another. The Lord had no need of either human or angelic ministry, for his own intellect sufficed unto the acquisition of knowledge. However, Christ is said to “learn obedience” in the sense that he voluntarily accepted suffering and death – because he submitted himself to this experience, he is rightly said to have learned from it.
And it needs be mentioned that obedience is best learnt in difficult matters, since it is easy to obey in things which are light. St. Thomas writes, “This shows how difficult the good of obedience is, because those who have not experienced obedience and have not learned it in difficult matters, believe that obedience is very easy. But in order to know what obedience is, one must learn to obey in difficult matters.” And Christ learned obedience through the most difficult suffering which he endured on the Cross.
To be a good King, he must first learn to obey
St. Thomas writes, “One who has not learned to subject himself by obeying does not know how to rule others well. Therefore, although Christ knew by simple recognition what obedience is, he nevertheless learned obedience from the things he suffered, i.e., from difficult things, by suffering and dying: ‘By the obedience of one, many shall be made just (Romans 5:19).’”
Unless the king first learn to obey, and especially to obey in difficult matters, he will not know what he truly expects from his subjects. If the king knows not obedience, he cannot teach it to his subjects nor can he recognize it in those who are loyal to him. Without having first experienced obedience himself, the king is not able to have compassion upon those obedient to him. Thus, it is clear that the good king will first learn obedience, and not only in easy matters, but especially in situations which entail intense loss and suffering.
Christ has so learned obedience – he learned obedience through what he suffered, which was the greatest of all sufferings. He has experienced all the loss and sacrifice which obedience entails, and so he is able to rule those subject to him. Even as King, Christ has compassion; for he knows how hard it is to obey. He knows human nature well and searches the heart as one who has a human Heart and who has experienced the world as a man. Thus, he is able to be a good King, since he knows his subjects thoroughly.
He suffered that we might more easily obey him
Finally, to return to our opening Gospel passage, we must know that Christ suffered in order that we might be drawn to his mercy. Lest we should fear him as King, he first suffered and died for and with us. He proved his love for us by becoming compassionate. He suffered with both the good and the bad, the repentant and the unrepentant, so that none should lose hope.
Looking upon Christ, who suffered and died upon the Cross, we are moved as was the good thief – the love of Christ compels us and we are not afraid of his rule! We have not a King and Eternal High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our wickedness, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (cf. Hebrews 4:15-16).