In ancient Rome, 'dignity' referred to the weight of authority a public figure gained through his experience and service of a community. Later it was something attached to public roles even where there was a distance, more or less great, between the personal character of the occupant and the significance of the role. Thus popes and presidents, prime ministers and monarchs, are 'dignified', even where there is such a distance, because of what they represent for the ones they serve. If the distance becomes too great, of course, something has to be done!
Although the prophet Isaiah foretells that the suffering Messiah would have 'no beauty that we should desire him', Jesus is in fact the only person in whom there is no distance at all between the person he is and the roles he occupies. There is a simple identity of who he is and what he does, and both his person and his roles are worthy of the highest dignity.
Biblical and Christian tradition teaches us that he is the priest, the prophet, and the king. The readings for today's feast, not surprisingly, talk about him as a king, king of Israel of the royal house of David, and king of the Jews in his enthronement on the cross.
The events of his passion leave him with no dignity at all, as Isaiah had foretold: dressed in royal purple only in order to be mocked and spat at, crowned with thorns rather than jewels, his triumphal procession is the way of the cross, his enthronement is his being nailed to its wood, and his exaltation in the sight of the people is his being lifted up on that cross. He was despised and rejected, the man of sorrows acquainted with grief. Nothing seems further from the 'wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting father and prince of peace', to whom earlier sections of Isaiah had looked forward.
Yet he continues to speak of his 'kingdom'. It is not of this world, he tells Pilate, and now, from the cross, he tells the thief that today he will be with him, Jesus, in 'paradise'. As king and shepherd of his people he leads them - us - not into a new historical period, or a new political arrangement, or a new era of prosperity. He opens the way into a new reality, of which he is the beginning, the head, and the king. Compared to this new reality all that we know is darkness and his is the kingdom of light. From the cross he judges the world by his love and his truth. He is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, we read elsewhere, the only true king, because this 'first-born of creation' is now also 'first-born from the dead'.
The Church, his body, is the sign and foretaste of his kingdom which today's liturgy tells us is a kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace. But we can never forget that this divine and human reality has been established through his death on the cross.
'Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God', the liturgy invites us as we contemplate his sacrifice. Dignum et iustum est, we reply. It is a difficult phrase to translate well - 'it is right and fitting', 'it is meet and just'. But notice that ancient Roman word 'dignity'. In spite of its being trampled underfoot, we acknowledge the weight of authority in this man, this man of incomparable dignity. Ecce homo, Christ our King, in whom all things hold together, through whom and for whom all things were created, through whom and for whom all things were redeemed.
This homily was first published on the Torch website for the Feast of Christ the King 2010