Daniel 7:13-14 Revelation 1:5-8 John 18:33b-37
Last Sunday’s Old Testament reading was an apocalyptic vision which described the Archangel Michael saving the wise and the just at the End of Time. Today we have another apocalyptic vision, this one of particular significance to both Old Testament Jews and then, later, to New Testament Christians.
Today’s Sunday is named in honor of Christ as King of all creation. Kingship is a concept which has been on the wane in the Western Civilization ever since the American Revolutionary War. But, for the ancient peoples, monarchy was assumed to be the divinely preferred form of government. In the ancient imagination, God made kings and God made kingdoms. Hence, in the evolution of how humans might imagine and describe the Mystery of God, the image of the king was the supreme human achievement projected back onto (anthropomorphized) the invisible Mystery of God. Thus, God was the universal king and always superior to any human king in any particular society. This dynamic image was sufficient for millennia in the imaginations of believers of all sorts, including Jews and Christians. In the 21st Christian Century, the idea of a monarch is somewhat quaint, if not entirely foreign, to many, especially Americans. Royalty and nobility, blue bloods, aristocrats – all are useful ideas, but they connote something rather different than the ancient idea of kingship. Perhaps that is why both constitutional monarchs and popes seem so foreign and detached from the normal life experiences of people, whether they believe or not.
The Catholic Church has used the feast of Christ the King as a concluding festival for its liturgical year since 1925 when Pope Pius XI was worried about his perception of the rise of secularism in general, and a diminishment of the Church’s temporal authority in particular. Indeed, with the end of World War I, The Great War!, political monarchies had fallen on hard times. The Austrian-Hungarian Kaiser and the Russian Czar had been deposed and the British Empire was well along in its evolution towards a constitutional monarchy. Spain was leaning towards a violent civil war, and Italy was watching the rise of fascism. Pope Pius XI issued an encyclical letter entitled Quas Primas in which he named the final Ordinary Sunday of the liturgical year to be the “Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King.” This was a little bit like the worry which Pope Pius IX had some 55 years before for the legitimacy of monarchs which lead him to convene the First Vatican Council and declare the doctrine of Papal Infallibility.
In any event, the final Ordinary Sunday annually on the Catholic Liturgical Calendar is Christ the King Sunday, and the scripture texts proclaimed on that occasion are chosen to describe the authority of God and Jesus and the effects of such authority among and through the faithful believers. Today’s lesson from the Book of Daniel served precisely that purpose for the late Old Testament Jewish People who had, by the time of this vision’s composition, been subjugated by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, and the Greeks. They needed the consolation that all saving authority came from their God, the God of Abraham. In the vision today, the Ancient One is an image of the eternal God the Creator, King, and Lawgiver. He is bestowing upon “one like a Son of man” all authority over the whole world. The “one like a Son of man” is an image representing not an individual but the collective society of God’s Chosen People, the Jews. As God’s Chosen, the Jews personify God’s wise and just reign over the world. Later, in the Christian era, “one like a Son of man” will be reinterpreted to connote Jesus Christ, the Risen Savior, the Redeem and Son of God. Thus, all authority will reside in him from the theological perspective of the Christian Gospel message. For Christians, this vision is an Old Testament image of the unity of God the Father and God the Son.
In John’s Gospel account, the scene and dialogue between Jesus and Pontius Pilate has been chosen because of its discussion of kingship. But, Jesus shifts the purpose of kingship from power (which is what interested Pilate as the Imperial representative in Judea) to truth (which is what interested Jesus in his Gospel mission). A subsequent line is omitted in the lectionary citation which has Pilate retort to Jesus’ explanation with “Truth! What does that mean?!” Pilate’s line can be easily read in a rather contemptuous and cynical tone of voice, revealing a disdain for the bigger truth in an unpleasant reality. In fact, religion as practiced by many is often comprised of activities and prayers which are considered efficacious simply by being done or uttered which foster a parallel kind of cynicism and contempt for many. To live a life belonging to the truth (a very large concept!) takes much more deliberate and critical thought and responsible reflection. Jesus was and is a king to the extent that he provoked and encouraged his Gospel disciples to engage life truthfully, fully, lovingly, justly, and freely. The messiness of life is reality; truthfulness is the tool of engagement. The cross he would soon be made to bear in the Gospel narrative would become a metaphor for the messiness of life in the lives of his disciples. While Jesus can claim to be a king not of this world, indeed, as Messiah, Savior, and Redeemer, he is nonetheless the holy, royal, and priestly Son of God for Christians. That’s kingly enough for us in the 21st Christian Century!
The short passage from the Book of the Revelation of John (aka the Apocalypse of John) has been chosen because of its mention that Jesus is “ruler of the kings of the earth.” The theological description of Jesus around that phrase is much more complex than it might seem. He is “faithful witness,” “firstborn of the dead,” who loves us and frees us, and who makes the disciples holy and royal themselves. It sounds like the author is learning to appreciate the Risen Savior in new and superlative terms. Understanding the Christological status of Jesus is an exercise very difficult to do well, for it is often inexplicable in human language, and beyond measurable human description. The 4th Century Church and the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople will engage that topic in later theological and philosophical language, which we use still today.
Ultimately, all these words, phrases, and metaphors will serve us well if we hear them as poetic encouragement to remember that God is first and foremost the Great and Holy Divine Mystery. We shall each meet this mystery when our particular life’s end arrives “at the hour of our death” as we pray in the “Hail, Mary!” prayer. This Sunday and week marks the End of our Liturgical Year. It automatically leads us to the Beginning of a New Liturgical Year, the Year of Grace 2013. Hence, the Alpha and the Omega stands before us if we accept the Gospel task to think, reflect, pray, study, and engage the truth of reality!
Hail, Mary! Full of Grace ... Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now, and at the hour of our death!