Christ the King

22 November 2018

Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1.4b-8; John 18.33-37

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WHEN the crowd seek to make Jesus king by force (in John 6), he withdraws from them. It is only after his arrest, 12 chapters later, that Jesus finally speaks of his kingship. The context of the Passion conveys to us the very different nature of his reign.

Even at this point, Jesus begins his teaching with a negative statement: “My Kingdom is not from this world.” If his Kingdom had been “from here”, he tells Pilate, his followers would be fighting to keep him from being “handed over”. St Augustine draws our attention to the nuances of these statements: his Kingdom is in this world, but not of it. It is here, though not from here.

Whereas this world’s empires are founded on physical force, Jesus’s Kingdom is founded on the compelling power of truth: “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.”

Reflecting on this passage in 2011, Pope Benedict XVI warned of the dangers of relegating truth to a purely subjective sphere: “What happens when truth counts for nothing? What kind of justice is then possible?” When a society loses interest in objective truth — in a reality beyond each person’s opinions and desires — “the strong arm of the powerful becomes the god of this world” (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week). The subsequent rise of “post-truth” politics, with its disregard for the most vulnerable, shows his words to have been prophetic.

Pilate shows no interest in a notion of truth which lies beyond his immediate interests and political calculations. As Pope Benedict observes, Pilate has a “superstitious wariness” about whether crucifying this innocent man will lead to divine retribution. In the end, however, his concern for his career trumps any fear of heavenly powers.

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While earthly empires shed the blood of others to maintain their rule, Jesus’s Kingdom is founded on his self-offering. In the words of our reading from Revelation, Christ has “freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a Kingdom, priests serving his God and Father”.

As Judith Kovacs and Christopher Rowland explain, the Book of Daniel “has influenced John’s vision from almost the first verse to the last” (Blackwell Bible Commentaries: Revelation). Our reading from Daniel, describing the enthronement of “one like a human being”, is prophesying the defeat of the powers of evil — symbolised earlier in the chapter by beasts who emerge from the sea.

One of the central messages of Revelation is that this prophecy is fulfilled in the person of Jesus. He is the “one like a human being” who has defeated the powers of evil by his sacrifice on the cross. By his resurrection and ascension, he bears a redeemed humanity back into the presence of the Father (the “Ancient One”). Christ is lion and lamb, priest and king.

In the words of the preface for today’s feast: “As priest, he offered himself once for all upon the altar of the cross and redeemed the human race by this perfect sacrifice of peace. As king he claims dominion over all your creatures, that he may bring before your infinite majesty.”

Both apocalyptic books make sense of their readers’ tribulations in this present world in terms of a cosmic battle. Revelation seeks to sustain the faithful amid the violence and excess of “Babylon” with a vision of “the new Jerusalem”, where God will dwell and reign among his people.

As Herbert McCabe puts it, “Christ will only be at home in the Kingdom of the future”; for this world will always be resistant to his piercing and truthful witness. In every age, “he is to be found in those who unmask the present world, those in whom the meaninglessness and inhumanity and contradictions of our society are exposed” (God Matters).

On this feast, the Church contemplates the source of her eternal hope. In doing so, she is challenged to bear more faithful witness to Christ her King; to unmask the “meaninglessness and inhumanity and contradictions” of this world’s empires rather than making herself at home within them. In the words of Peter Abelard’s great hymn:

Now in the meanwhile, with hearts raised on high,
We for that country must yearn and must sigh,
Seeking Jerusalem, dear native land,
Through our long exile on Babylon’s strand.

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