November 25, 2018
THE SOLEMNITY OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST, KING OF THE UNIVERSE
The Son of Man coming on the clouds
Ps 193:1-2, 5
The Lord is robed in majesty
Ruler of kings of the earth
“Are you the king of the Jews?”
The ordinary church year comes to a close with the feast of Christ the King. However, it is likely that kingship in the New Testament is not what we think it is. The Gospel reading of the kingdom of God empties the idea of kingship of its customary trappings. It replaces dominance with service, cruelty with compassion, and pomp with humility. Violence gives way to nonviolence.
The reading from Daniel speaks of the Son of Man coming on the clouds. As noted a couple of weeks ago, the apocalyptic images of triumph spoke to the original readers more to their present time than their future. It meant that although the forces seemed arrayed against them, in the long run and the larger picture, their God and Christ ruled, and would prevail. In effect, they spoke loudly to a community in apparent disarray, perhaps persecuted.
The Gospel reading for today is from the Passion account of John’s Gospel. When Jesus says those famous words, “My kingdom does not belong to this world,” he seems to speak a similar language. We think of another world, a heavenly world. But there are other meanings here as well. In effect, Jesus is saying, “My kingdom is not of this world of yours.” We can see that in the rest of Jesus’ response to Pilate, when he says that if his kingdom were of this world, his people would be springing him loose from Pilate’s grip. The image is one of a commando raid, to put it in our terms. But this is not the nature of the kingdom of God, as Jesus represents it. It is not simply a heavenly kingdom, as we tend to think of it. It is also an alternative kingdom here and now. An alternative way of interacting among ourselves. An alternative way of managing power.
The setting for the scene with Pilate is John’s account of the trial of Jesus. In John’s hands, the event unfolds in seven scenes, as Pilate moves from Jesus inside the Praetorium to the Jewish leaders outside, and back and forth. This allows John to present two dialogues between Pilate and Jesus. This is the first. The second occurs in 19:7-11.
What is distinctive in John’s handling of the scenes with Pilate is how he brings out the conflict between the Jewish leaders and Pilate. They have been trying to counter Jesus, and if possible remove him from public view, ever since Chapter 5 — perhaps earlier. They have attempted to stone him to death (8:59; 10:31), an unofficial Jewish method of execution (stones are everywhere), but were unable to do so. Eventually they decide to turn to the Roman authority, even though they would rather not. To do so would admit that they are unable to manage governing on their own.
The Roman method of execution was crucifixion. In order to play on the Roman’s sensibilities, they highlight the kingship claims of Jesus, knowing that Roman authorities brook no opposition that would challenge their own rule. But we are not told of their charge until Pilate asks his question of Jesus, “Are you a king?”
As the trial plays out, the Jewish leaders and Pilate continue struggling against one another. Meanwhile, Jesus moves quietly toward his death. His calmness suggests to many that he is in control. My own sense is that he is not being controlled. He is free of the rancor and destructive conflict of those who are about to have him crucified. As they wrangle over what insignia is to be put on the cross, Jesus announces, “It is finished,” and gives up his spirit.
For reflection: How is Christ another kind of king?
Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.