Nov 21, 2021: Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe (B)

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Introduction

The Feast of Christ the King was established by Pope Pius XI in 1925 as an antidote to secularism, a way of life that leaves God out of man’s thinking and living. The feast is intended to proclaim in a striking and effective manner Christ’s royalty over individuals, families, society, governments, and nations. At this point in history, this affirmation of the primacy of Christ was in stark contrast with the rise of nationalism and fascism.

Originally celebrated on the last Sunday of October, it was transferred after Vatican Council II to the last Sunday of the Liturgical Year, the Sunday before Advent.

“God did not intend Israel to have a kingdom. The kingdom was a result of Israel’s rebellion against God…. The law was to be Israel’s king, and, through the law, God himself…. God yielded to Israel’s obstinacy and so devised a new kind of kingship for them. The King is Jesus; in him God entered humanity and espoused it to himself. This is the usual form of the divine activity in relation to mankind. God does not have a fixed plan that he must carry out; on the contrary, he has many different ways of finding man and even of turning his wrong ways into right ways…. The feast of Christ the King is therefore not a feast of those who are subjugated, but a feast of those who know that they are in the hands of the one who writes straight in crooked lines.”  —Pope Benedict XVI

1st Reading – Daniel 7:13-14

As the visions during the night continued, I saw
one like a Son of man coming,
on the clouds of heaven;
when he reached the Ancient One
and was presented before him,
the one like a Son of man received dominion, glory, and kingship;
all peoples, nations, and languages serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not be taken away,
his kingship shall not be destroyed.

As discussed last week, the Book of Daniel is an example of apocalyptic literature. It was written to offer hope to persecuted Jews during the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes.

Last week’s first reading was about Daniel’s fourth apocalyptic vision. Today’s reading is from Daniel’s first apocalyptic vision, the vision of the four beasts, which occupies all of chapter 7. If it seems familiar, we referred to these verses in our study of last week’s gospel, when Christ described the coming of the Son of Man as an apocalyptic event.

As the visions during the night continued,

Visions and dreams were thought to be avenues of divine revelation. The seer is on earth, but the vision itself takes place in heaven.

I saw one like a son of man coming,

What is translated here as “one like a son of man” is literally “one in human form,” or “son of weak man” (in Aramaic, bar enash). Of itself, this denotes a limited human being. However, this figure is not really a human; he only resembles a son of man.

Daniel later indicates that this human-like one symbolizes the vindication of the “holy people of the Most High,” the suffering people (Daniel 7:27).

on the clouds of heaven;

The Son of Man is described in mythic and royal tones, beginning with the fact that he comes on the “clouds of heaven.” Clouds are the most frequent accompaniment of a theophany, or revelation of God (Exodus 13:21, 19:9; Matthew 17:5). He has been raised up by God while also sharing the human condition.

when he reached the Ancient One and was presented before him,

Clearly the “Ancient One” refers to God, who has endured and will continue to endure. God is everlasting.

The Son of Man is presented before God in the manner of courtly decorum, where one would not simply approach a ruler but would be presented by an attendant.

the one like a Son of man received dominion, glory, and kingship; nations and peoples of every language serve him.

The mysterious figure is installed by God as ruler over the entire universe. The authority and dominion over all nations are handed over to him.

His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away, his kingship shall not be destroyed.

Unlike other kingdoms that rise and fall, this kingdom will last forever. Note that this dominion was not attained by military conquest or political alliance, but rather was granted by God.

The “one like a son of man” may have been in heaven when he received his commission, he may even rule from some exalted place in the heavens, but his kingdom belongs to the earth.

All of this is intended to assure the persecuted Jews that God would send someone to save them from their persecutors.

When we read this passage on today’s feast of Christ the King, we hear the words as describing Jesus. When Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man, he is acknowledging that he is the expected Messiah described here, the one whom God has sent to save the people.

2nd Reading – Revelation 1:5-8

Jesus Christ is the faithful witness,
the firstborn of the dead and ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood,
who has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father,
to him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen.

Behold, he is coming amid the clouds,
and every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him.
All the peoples of the earth will lament him.
Yes. Amen.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God,
“the one who is and who was and who is to come, the almighty.”

On the feast of Christ the King, instead of reading a selection from one of the letters, we read a passage from the Book of Revelation.

Revelation is written in the same literary form as the Book of Daniel, i.e., apocalyptic literature. It was written to people suffering persecution under the Roman emperor Domitian (d. 96 AD), urging them to remain faithful and to have hope.

The source of this hope is Jesus Christ, “ruler of the kings of the earth.”

Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead and ruler of the kings of the earth.

This brief sentence is steeped in high christology, emphasizing the divine aspects of Jesus and describing him in themes long associated with the Messiah:

  • Jesus is Christ, the anointed one.
  • As a faithful witness, he mediates to others the message he has received from God.
  • He is the firstborn, indicating both priority of place and sovereignty.
  • He is the exalted ruler of the kings of the world, the “king of kings.”

The latter three titles (witness, firstborn, king of kings) also call to mind the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. As witness (mártys in Greek, the root of the English word “martyr”), Jesus stands faithfully for truth, even to the point of death. Through his resurrection, he conquered death and was the first (firstborn) to rise from death to life. His ascension placed him at the right hand of God, where he rules above all other rulers.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood,

Note how the author speaks in the name of all believers: he loves us, freed us, etc.

Note also how John is not holding out hope that Jesus will someday conquer evil, but that he has already conquered evil — he has “freed us from our sins.”

who has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father,

A reference to Exodus 19:5-6, when God promised Moses that he would make the Israelites a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, on the condition of obedience and faithfulness to the covenant.

The Mosaic covenant was sealed with the blood of sacrificial animals; the New Covenant is sealed with the blood of Christ. All those who hear and obey God’s word are priests: mediators between God and the rest of humanity.

Again note the past tense: Jesus has already made his people into a kingdom. Those who have been martyred have not been conquered but are victorious, as is Jesus.

to him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen.

Verses 4-6 comprise one long sentence of introduction and greeting from John: this is the conclusion of that sentence.

Behold, he is coming amid the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him. All the peoples of the earth will lament him.

This statement combines two biblical traditions: the Son of Man coming on the clouds from Daniel 7:13 (our first reading), and an unnamed victim of violence from Zechariah 12:10: They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.

This statement points to the universal scope of the manifestation of Jesus: “every eye will see him” — those who accepted him, those who rejected him, even those who never heard of him.

Yes. Amen.

The affirmation of this is made in both Greek (“yes”) and Hebrew (“amen”).

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God,

This is the first of only two passages in Revelation in which God is identified explicitly as the speaker, the other being 21:5-8.

The first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. Together they include all letters, and by implication, connote total inclusivity. He comprises everything that is.

“the one who is and who was and who is to come,

He transcends the limits of time.

the almighty.”

In Greek, Pantokratōr — the almighty, the ruler of all things.

Gospel – John 18:33b-37

Pilate said to Jesus,
“Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own
or have others told you about me?”
Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I?
Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me.
What have you done?”
Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world.
If my kingdom did belong to this world,
my attendants would be fighting
to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.
But as it is, my kingdom is not here.”
So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?”
Jesus answered, “You say I am a king.
For this I was born and for this I came into the world,
to testify to the truth.
Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Today we read part of Jesus’ trial before Pilate to obtain a description of Jesus’ kingship.

This is one of the most dramatic scenes in the New Testament. Pilate, being unable to secure a clear indictment from the Jewish crowd, summoned Jesus into the praetorium (a kind of Roman courtroom) for a private inquiry.

Pilate said to Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Jesus has been accused of claiming to be king; this is the subject of Pilate’s interrogation. The key to understanding the importance of this is what the title “King of the Jews” meant to the parties involved:

  • To the Jewish leaders who handed him over, it was a messianic designation. Since they did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the claim was blasphemous.
  • From Pilate’s perspective, “King of the Jews” was a political claim and an act of sedition against Roman authority. Jesus’ enemies are well aware of this, as we see in John 19:12 (not included in today’s reading), when they say, “If you release him, you are not a Friend of Caesar. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.”

Pilate wants to know if Jesus is the head of a nationalist movement that is possibly planning to revolt. That is the only charge in this case that would be taken seriously by the Romans.

Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own or have others told you about me?”

Jesus does not answer Pilate’s question, because the word “king” means something different to Pilate than it does to Jesus.

Pilate is asking about a political reality that may have a religious dimension. Jesus teaches religious truth that has political implications. The distinction is a fine one.

By replying with another question, Jesus is not refusing to answer but rather clarifying the question. The answer to the question in its current form is “yes and no.”

Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?”

Pilate assures Jesus that he is not saying this on his own. Jesus was handed over by the religious leaders of his own people, not at the request of the Roman authorities.

Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here.”

Jesus does not deny that he is a king, although he is not the kind of king that Pilate has in mind. He clarifies this by contrasting his reign to the kingdoms of this world. It does not need to be forcefully defended by its subjects.

To Pilate’s ears, this means Jesus is a spiritual leader, not a political one, and the movement he leads is not a threat to the Roman Empire. This is certainly corroborated by his accurately pointing out that no followers are fighting to secure his release. Jesus is defenseless.

By describing his kingdom as not belonging to this world, Jesus is not saying that he has enacted a purely spiritual or otherworldly kingdom, but rather that his reign does not operate according to the world’s criteria of power and dominance.

So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?”

By referencing his kingdom, Jesus has implied that he is a king. Pilate wants a positive affirmation of this, a direct answer: yes, or no.

Jesus answered, “You say I am a king. 

This is at most a reluctant affirmative. The emphasis is on the pronoun “you,” implying that the statement would not have been made if the question had not been asked.

For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.

Earlier Jesus stated that his kingdom did not belong to this world. If that is the case, then why is he in this world? The answer: to testify to the truth.

The words “truth” and “true” are used thirty-nine times in John. These terms are used by the gospel writer in reference to multiple aspects of Jesus’ teachings: the literal concept of “non-concealment,” the disclosure of God’s wisdom and plan for salvation, and the general reliability of Jesus’ words.

Truth is the foundation of Christ’s kingdom, and it establishes the relationship that determines who will enter that kingdom. Johannine truth suggests an authenticity between belief and practice, a faithful witness that embodies the teaching of the Johannine Jesus. When faced with the truth of Jesus, people in John’s gospel must choose to believe or reject him.

Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

This is an implicit challenge to Pilate (and indirectly, to all of us): If you belong to the truth, you will listen to me.

The truth is that Jesus is not only the king of the Jews but the king of the whole human race.

Connections and Themes

  • The central theme of this week’s readings, the last of the liturgical year, is the kingship of Jesus. Each of the three readings depicts the enthronement of Christ, the Messiah-King:
    • The first reading presents a vision of Jesus as the Son of Man, presented before God the Father, and being granted dominion, glory, and kingship over the universe.
    • The second reading describes how Jesus has made his followers into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father, in the Mosaic tradition.
    • The gospel reading recounts Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus, in which Jesus acknowledges that he is a king, although not an earthly one.
  • The gospels tell us that Jesus refused the title of earthly king time and again. Jesus did not conform to the people’s expectation of the messiah, which had political implications. Those who were most anxiously awaiting the messiah’s arrival wanted a military ruler who would rebel against Rome.
  • Note that Christ’s kingship is unrecognized on earth (gospel reading), but clearly recognized in heaven, as the first and second readings show.
  • To celebrate Christ as King is to enter into the deepest mysteries of faith. There is great irony in the image of Christ, the true king who can grant a life that never ends, being bound as a prisoner and seemingly powerless before Pilate. This truth about Christ’s identity is not revealed in dominating power but by suffering witnesses.
  • The feast of Christ the King celebrates the realization of all our theology. We celebrate it now, at the end of the liturgical year, because it concludes everything that we have been studying throughout the year. We have completed the cycle of the mysteries of Christ from birth to his unending reign.

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