Speaking in the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Pope Francis highlighted the image of the Last Judgement depicted in the cathedral dome: “At the center is Jesus, our light. At the apex of the fresco reads the inscription: ‘Ecce Homo.’ Looking at this dome we are drawn upward, as we contemplate the transformation of Christ judged by Pilate, into Christ seated on the judge’s throne. An angel brings him a sword yet Jesus does not take on the symbols of judgment, but instead raises his right hand, showing the marks of the passion . . .”1
What an incredible image to ponder as we celebrate this Solemnity of Christ the King. Jesus Christ — God made man — came into the world to be to be its just judge. But the image that He offers of king and ruler of the universe shatters our conceptions of power and justice.
From the Prophet Ezekiel we are given the image of the Lord as shepherd of the flock who seeks out the lost, brings back the strayed, binds up the injured, and heals the sick (Ezekiel 34:16). There is a great deal of tenderness that He shows to the weakness and brokenness of those sheep in need of His care. Who among us does not experience weakness and brokenness? Who among us does not stray? Who among us is not in need of healing? The image of the shepherd, then, conditions our understanding of the needs of our fallen humanity and the desire for the Lord to meet those needs. We cannot separate these two images. Christ is both King and Good Shepherd. And he exercises His authority by tenderly shepherding His flock.
In doing so, Jesus introduces a new structure of power not rooted in the survival of the fittest, but on the nurturing of the weak. St. Paul expresses this new idea succinctly: “Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong,” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Such a revolution is only possible through the victory that Christ our King wins by mounting the throne of the cross.
We do not have a king who rules from a distant place. Our king rules from the midst of His flock, and in fact, for the sake of His flock, offers Himself as a sacrifice for our salvation. The Shepard himself becomes a sacrificial lamb in order to raise the flock from slavery to their waywardness. This is the extent of His love for His flock, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
It is in His own self-offering on the Cross that we come to understand the true nature of His rule. Jesus Christ gave His life so that we would have life through Him. He offered Himself as an oblation, as a means of expiation for our sin. And so, He judges us accordingly. In one of the final writings of Pope Benedict XVI, he reflects on the nature of Christ’s judgment:
Even though, as I look back on my long life, I can have great reason for fear and trembling, I am nonetheless of good cheer, for I trust firmly that the Lord is not only the just judge, but also the friend and brother who himself has already suffered for my shortcomings, and is thus also my advocate, my “Paraclete.” In light of the hour of judgement, the grace of being a Christian becomes all the more clear to me. It grants me knowledge, and indeed friendship, with the judge of my life, and thus allows me to pass confidently through the dark door of death.2
Returning to the image of the Last Judgment as depicted in the dome of the Florence Cathedral, we can better understand Christ’s desire to show the marks of His passion rather than take on the symbols of judgment. According to this new understanding of kingship, the wounds of Christ become the new symbols of judgement for those who are willing to subject themselves to Him.
Our celebration of Christ the King serves as a reminder of the different kingdom our Lord has established; not a kingdom of this world according the logic of power and judgment, but the Kingdom of God. In this new kingdom Jesus Christ our King rules with tenderness and mercy, inviting those who follow Him to become not only subjects, but coheirs. “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34).
Pope Francis, “Meeting with the Participants in the Fifth Convention of the Italian Church” (November 10, 2015). https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/ speeches/2015/november/documents/papafrancesco_20151110_firenze-convegno-chiesaitaliana.html.
Pope Benedict XVI, “Letter of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI regarding the report on abuse in the Archdiocese of Munich-Freising” (August 2, 2022). https:// press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/ pubblico/2022/02/08/220208b.html.BACK TO LIST