By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
The designation of Christ as “King of the Universe” can sound a bit fantastic to a secular or cynical mind. The title, so simple in concept and yet audacious in claim, could easily be applied to a mythological hero or a comic book character, fictional greats who have seemingly usurped the role of models worthy of imitation by children and adults alike.
Yet the Church insisted from the very beginning on such a dramatic title for Jesus. While some opponents of the Christian religion may find the title “King of the Universe” to be excessive and even silly, given that neither Christ nor the Church reign over the world in any political or social sense, the phrase is a beautiful and fitting one. The idea itself of Christ’s sovereignty over the entire created world is already present abundantly in the Gospels.
St. Luke asserts the lordship of Jesus in a subtle and unique way. In the Gospel bearing his name, we find a particular word which appears, however infrequently, on deeply significant occasions in the life of Jesus. That word is “today.” While this word does not, at first glance, seem to indicate any divine dominion of Jesus over the world, it proves to be a telltale sign of salvation dawning, whether for an individual or all of humanity, thanks to the powerful presence of Christ, the messianic king.
The first occurrence of “today” in the Gospel of Luke is found on the lips of the angel announcing the birth of Jesus to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord” (Lk 2:10-11). Drawn together in this initial proclamation of the Gospel are the concepts of the Davidic king and salvation, both long awaited by the people of Israel. Jesus begins his public ministry in the Nazareth synagogue by interpreting Isaiah’s prophecy about the Spirit of the Lord to refer to himself and then declaring, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21; see Isaiah 61:1-2; 58:6). In Luke 13:32-33, Jesus summarizes his earthly ministry and foretells his death by linking together past, present and future: “Behold, I cast out demons and I perform healings today and tomorrow, and on the third day I carry out my purpose. Yet I must go on today, tomorrow, and the coming day, because it is not proper that a prophet should die outside Jerusalem.”
The theme of salvation is bound up again with the “today” of Jesus in the story of Zacchaeus. After spotting him in the tree, Jesus tells him, “Zacchaeus, hurry down, for today I must dwell in your house” (Lk 19:5). In response to Zacchaeus’ pledge to be generous to the poor and restore what he has stolen in taxes, Jesus proclaims, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Lk 19:9-10).
The capstone scene of Luke’s “today” emphasis takes place at the cross. After the “good thief” rebukes his fellow criminal who had mocked Jesus, he turns to Jesus and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replies with the glorious promise of eternal life: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:42-43).
Wrapped up in the “today” of Luke’s Gospel are the principal ways we are to understand Jesus’ title as king: his lordship over all nations, his promise of salvation to all who welcome his presence, and his ability to unite all times in his person. When we read “today” in the Gospel, the term incorporates us into the eternal now of Heaven where Christ reigns over all, a now which simultaneously bands past, present and future together in the marvelous love of God. That today is the divine life Christ died to give us, employing a humiliating cross as his throne; it is the time we were made to live in and for, both now and forever.
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.