The Repentant Thief

Homily for Solemnity of Christ the King
November 20, 2022

We all believe that Christ is the King of the universe, and that his “Kingdom will have no end.” How do I know this? Because we profess this belief every week in our Creed. As Catholic Christians, we hold Christ’s kingship as one of our core beliefs. As we come to the closing of our liturgical year, the Church declares today as the Solemnity of Christ the King – another way to bolster what we believe and what we profess.

The history of this feast goes back to 1925, after Pope Pius XI published an encyclical (Quas Primas – “In the First”) in response to growing nationalism and secularism taking place throughout Europe and other areas of the world. People feared emerging dictators such as Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin. So, this feast day was established to proclaim that Jesus Christ is the only sovereign king (the only true ruler on earth, and that he is the only spiritual king.

But Jesus is a different type of king. He does not rule with power. He rules with truth and love. In our Second Reading today, Paul reminds us that through his death on the cross, Jesus (our King) has brought peace and reconciliation to the world. Today’s Gospel (the Story of the Repentant Thief) is a great perspective of how Jesus rules as king.

The bad thief and the rulers did not see Christ’s peace – they were looking for a king that would bring power and earthly prosperity. But the Repentant Thief did see Christ’s peace. He recognized that Jesus was no ordinary, earthly king, and that he had a bigger plan in mind.

We often struggle to understand God’s plan. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we act like the bad thief and the rulers in today’s Gospel – testing Jesus and questioning his plan. But even if we wander away, Jesus calls us back. In today’s Gospel, we learn how Jesus forgives us when we repent, and if we ask him to be our King, he will take us by the hand and rejoice in leading us to Paradise. That is the heart and soul of today’s Gospel: Repent and be led by God.

There are numerous ways to experience the crucifixion; different vantage points to explore (Stations of the Cross, Sorrowful Mysteries, making Holy Hour, etc.). Each one can help us know Christ the King in diverse ways. Usually when we think about the crucifixion, we think about it from the perspective of the people standing near the cross and looking up at Jesus. That can be troubling:

  • Why does this “king” wear a crown of thorns, and not jewels?
  • Why is his “throne” a wooden cross, and not made of gold?
  • Why does this “king” not call down the heavens to save him?

It helps to understand if we look from Jesus’ perspective. From the cross, he was looking down at his torturers and his disciples, and in his mind’s eye he saw us as well – we are present there, mysteriously but truly, every time we come to Mass. As he looks down, he hopes that, like the Repentant Thief, we will accept his gift of salvation, of true inner peace.

Over the years, as I spent time reflecting on Jesus on the cross, God has given me these words:


I gaze upon the cross and see
This God, this Man who died for me
Who humbled himself for the whole world to see

How can he love someone like me
He knows my thoughts and all my deeds
And yet he still loves me in spite of those things
Amazing! Love so amazing!

From the wounds on his head, to his feet and his hands
This labor of love was all part of his plan
To ransom the soul of every woman and man
Amazing, Love so amazing!

What greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend
What greater gift than a life that never ends

I gaze upon the cross and see
My Lord, my King, my Destiny!

To help experience Jesus’ perspective, here is a twist on today’s Gospel written by a Catholic priest, Fr. John Bartunek.[1] Speaking to all of us, as the Repentant Thief, he writes:

The people watched and stared at me hanging and dying on the Cross. The rulers sneered at me. The soldiers mocked me. One of the thieves reviled me,

You were there too, and all those who have called themselves Christians. Every time my followers fail to come to their neighbor’s aid, they join Calvary’s passive spectators.

When they disdain the teaching of the Church, they join the sneering rulers and mocking soldiers.

When they give up their faith or let it smolder because they prefer the passing kingdoms of this world, they join the reviling thief.

I saw your face looking up at me as I hung upon the cross. At first you laughed and mocked, you were distracted and careless, just like the others.

Then you saw that I was looking at you, waiting for you, hoping for you.

A flash of recognition flitted across your eyes. I knew that you had glimpsed my love, that you were sorry. And even then, in my agony, I smiled.

Whenever you repent, whenever you come to me in need and ask me to be your King, I take you by the hand and rejoice in leading you to Paradise.

[1] From “The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer,” by John Bartunek. LC, p777)

What a great and important message to remember. Despite our hurtful actions toward God and his people, God will forgive us and welcome us back. When we repent and take his hand, Jesus will lead us to paradise.

Today, as we celebrate Eucharist, we will again become mysteriously and sacramentally present at the crucifixion. As we watch with eyes of faith, we will be in the presence of Christ, our King, hanging from his throne. By God’s grace, may we repent and follow him to Paradise!

Be at peace and know that you are loved.

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