Sunday, November 21, 2021

Christ the King


Today’s Feast of Christ the King wraps up the liturgical year by taking the long view forward to the final coming of Christ “amid the clouds at the end of time to receive everlasting dominion, glory and kingship from his Father.”  (So we just heard from the prophet Daniel and the Book of Revelation.) But we have to remember that in Christ “every end is a new beginning,” which means that his kingship isn’t something way off in the future but breaks in upon us now, at this very moment. The problem is that this “in-breaking” of his kingship is no more recognizable to us than it was to Pilate in this morning’s Gospel, who asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

The ancient world knew more about kings than we moderns do. Where kings still exist today, they rarely are “absolute” monarchs, autocratic dictators, but mostly live and work within a carefully constructed framework as “constitutional” monarchs. They can bring only subtle pressure to bear on politicians and serve mainly as figureheads of state. In the ancient world, on the other hand, kings were “absolute” monarchs and could rule according to their own wishes and whims. It was also clear to everyone how kings became kings: either the crown passing from father to son (or to some other close male relative), or from time to time there would be a revolution. The way to the crown for anyone not in the direct family line was through violence. This was so among the Jews as much as among the pagans. An example would be Herod the Great, who 30 years before Jesus was born, had defeated the Parthians, the great empire to the east. In gratitude, Rome allowed him to become “King of the Jews,” though Herod had no appropriate background or pedigree for this title and role.

So when Pilate faces Jesus, having been told that the chief priests have handed him over because Jesus thinks he is king, Pilate is compelled to question Jesus directly on this point. He asks straight-out, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Of course the idea is so ludicrous that Pilate knows within his own frame of reference what the answer is. He sees before him a poor man from the wrong part of the country. He has a small band of followers, and they’ve all run away. Of course he is not the king. But maybe he thinks he is. Maybe he’s really deluded. Pilate has to ask him and find out.

Jesus’ answer is both apparently incriminating and profoundly revealing. Incriminating, because he agrees he has a kingdom, and Pilate seizes on this. Revealing, because he says his kingdom doesn’t come from this world.

It is worth noting that Jesus doesn’t say, as some translations have it, “my kingdom is not of this world”; that would imply that his “kingdom” was altogether other-worldly, a spiritual or heavenly reality that has nothing to do with the present world at all. He says, rather, that his kingdom does not come from or belong to this world. (That makes sense especially in John’s Gospel, where the “world” stands for the source of evil and rebellion against God.)

In this interrogation, then, Jesus is denying that his kingdom has a this-worldly origin or quality, but he is not denying that it has a this-worldly destination. Or, to say it another way: he is telling Pilate that his kingdom doesn’t come from this world, but that it is for this world. In fact, that is why he has come into the world, and why he has sent, and will send, his followers into the world.

The next verse is the key, revealing moment in this morning’s Gospel, when Jesus tells Pilate: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Philosophers and judges don’t own it. N.T. Wright expresses this insight well: “It is a gift, a strange quality that like Jesus’s kingdom actually comes from elsewhere but is meant to take up residence in this world. Jesus has come to give evidence about this truth. He is himself the Truth.”

Pilate, of course, can only see things from a this-worldly perspective. As far as he knows, the only place you get truth is out of the sheath of a sword – political “truth” – my truth against your truth, my sword against your sword. And ultimately, for a Roman governor, my power against your weakness, my cross to hang your naked body on . . . .

Ah, but the truth that Jesus testifies to in this exchange with Pilate is the truth that belongs with Passover, the truth that says one man dies and the others go free. At time of this scene (the day before Passover), Barabbas, a revolutionary, perhaps himself either a would-be king or a supporter of someone else’s failed messianic movement, also faces execution. Somehow, through the plots and schemes and betrayals and denials, the Truth stands there in person, taking the death that otherwise would have fallen on Barabbas. This is what the cross will mean. This is what truth is and does. Truth is what Jesus is; and Jesus is dying for Barabbas, and for Israel, and for the world, and for you and me.

To bring this home to ourselves, we might ask: what concretely is the “Good News” for us here? I would suggest that in this final interrogation before Pilate, and in his very kingship that is now “center-stage,” Jesus is revealing the “brightest presence in the darkest places.”

It is as king not from but for this world that Jesus is the truth that enables us to experience God in the middle of the mess and mystery of each day, as we continue to “dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.” In other words: he is not a king or a truth too heavenly to be of any earthly use – on the contrary, he stands before us, as before Pilate, to reveal to us that God’s brightest presence is hidden in our darkest places. His kingship means that there is nothing in life so scientific, so secular, or so sinful that we cannot find God in it—that we cannot find God’s truth, reign and victory accomplished in Jesus Christ and extended to us. Through Christ’s kingship, grace now finds its victory in the monotony, pain and ordinariness of daily life, and makes of us an intimate dimension of the glory of God. (As St. Paul says, “a radiance of his glory.”

This is a staggering revelation! This is Jesus Christ’s last attempt to explain who he is and his mission just hours before his execution. “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” And, in response, we acclaim on this Solemnity celebrating his universal kingship: 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.   

Icon written byb Brother Terence. Today's homily by Father Dominic.