During World War II, shortly after Germany invaded and conquered the country of Yugoslavia in 1941, a young German soldier named Josef Schultz was summoned by his sergeant, along with seven other soldiers. They were marched to the brow of a hill, where eight Yugoslavian civilians—five men and three women—were lined up to be executed. When it became obvious that he was supposed to be part of a firing squad, Private Schultz decided he couldn’t shoot innocent, unarmed people; as the sergeant and the seven other soldiers looked on in stunned disbelief, Schultz dropped his rifle and quietly walked toward the civilians. Ignoring his sergeant’s shouted orders to get back in line, he joined hands with the eight Yugoslavians, and a moment later, was executed alongside them. Later on a passage from St. Paul was found sewn into his coat: “Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres” (Bausch, 40 More Seasonal Homilies, p. 147).
There are many examples of Catholics and other Christians in Nazi Germany who, while loving their homeland, gave their primary allegiance to Christ, and remained true to Him at the cost of their lives: Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian husband and father who chose to be beheaded rather than serve in the German Army; the brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl, university students who paid with their lives for organizing peaceful resistance to the Nazi regime; St. Bernhard Lichtenberg, a priest who died in a concentration camp after being imprisoned for his outspoken defense of the Jews; and the Protestant pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a widely-known opponent of the Nazis who was executed by hanging on Adolph Hitler’s express orders just a few weeks before the end of the war. Rather than devoting themselves to Hitler’s “Thousand Year Reich,” which lasted only twelve years, all of these heroes proved themselves worthy of eternal life in Our Lord’s Kingdom. Jesus is the true and everlasting King, and if we choose to live for Him here on earth, He promises that we will one day live and reign with Him in Heaven.
The readings on this Solemnity of Christ the King remind us that Our Lord’s Kingdom will last forever. The prophet Daniel saw one like a Son of man—the title Jesus would use for Himself—approaching the throne of God and being given eternal dominion, glory, and kingship, with people of every nation and language serving Him. As the Book of Revelation says, Jesus is “the firstborn of the dead and ruler of the kings of the earth,” and the Alpha and the Omega—that is, the beginning and the end, and the One by Whom all history is measured. Christ has earned this glorious authority because of His perfect obedience to the will of God the Father, even to the point of dying on the Cross. As Jesus explained to Pontius Pilate, He came into the world to testify to the truth—and all those who seek to know the truth about life, about themselves, and about the meaning of their own existence, must give their allegiance to Him.
Jesus and His earliest followers lived shortly after the founding of the Roman Empire, one of the greatest and most powerful and advanced civilizations the world has ever known. Less than ten years after the death of Our Lord, the emperor Caligula had a huge, 100 foot stone obelisk, or shaft, transported from Egypt to Rome; later the emperor Nero had it installed in his amphitheater or stadium. Today that same ancient obelisk stands in the center of St. Peter’s Square in Rome; on it are carved the words “Christ lives, Christ conquers, Christ reigns” (Tonne, Stories for Sermons, Vol. 2, #159a). The glory and power of the Roman Empire have long since faded into history, but the majesty and authority of Jesus—made visible through His Church—endures forever. Jesus is King, universally and eternally—and this undeniable and unassailable truth challenges each one of us personally: do we truly allow Him to reign in our hearts and in our lives?
I believe that, a few weeks ago, millions of Americans who claim to follow Jesus as Lord actually betrayed Him by voting for pro-abortion candidates and for leaders who are working to restrict our religious freedom. I also believe we are living in a secular society that’s becoming increasingly brazen in its efforts to undermine our allegiance to Christ, ridiculing our Catholic faith and tempting us with all sorts of distractions involving money, material possessions, sports, entertainment, and popular culture. I’d guess that many American Catholics could quote the latest celebrity gossip more easily than they could quote Scripture, and that quite a few of those who’d struggle to recite the Ten Commandments would have no trouble describing and analyzing all the possibilities for the NFL playoffs. Society is actively trying to subvert our loyalty to Christ, and many times it seems that instead of resisting, we allow or even cooperate with this process.
Can we honestly claim we serve Jesus as our King? Is He truly at the center of our lives? Would we be willing to sacrifice everything—even our lives, if necessary—in order to remain faithful to Him? If we can truthfully answer “yes,” He wants us to persevere. If we have to answer “no” or respond that we’re “unsure,” He wants us to repent. Daily prayer, regular attendance at Mass, and the faithful fulfillment of our moral and spiritual duties, will help us grow in humility and grace and become firmly rooted in the truth, and openness to the guidance and gifts of the Holy Spirit will help us find our way. The Church uses the end of the liturgical year to remind us that one day—perhaps much sooner than we expect—we will come to the end of our lives, and when that day and hour arrives, nothing will be as important to us as our relationship with Jesus. If that relationship isn’t everything it should be, now is the time to change that; now is the time to recommit ourselves to serving Jesus as our Lord. There’s a legend that Pontius Pilate, haunted for many years by his encounter with Christ, finally repented and became a Christian, and eventually died as a martyr. If so, he now lives in the Kingdom of Jesus. This must also be our goal, for the United States of America—despite her power and greatness and wealth—will, like the Roman Empire, one day exist no more, and all those who placed their hopes in earthly things will end up deceived, disappointed, and disgraced. Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world, and so all our hopes must ultimately rest in the world to come. All the Church’s heroes over the past two thousand years understood and lived by this truth; may the same thing one day be said of each one of us.