Fr. Patrick Fitzgerald-Lombard, O.Carm., is parish priest of the parish of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Mayfield, Sussex. He is a member of the Aylesford Community. Today, Fr. Patrick is reflecting on the readings from yesterday's Mass. Please read Fr Patrick's introduction and please re-look at the readings for Sunday before continuing (these will open in a separate window for ease of reading and lasts until Saturday):
"So be it, Lord, thy throne shall never, like earth’s proud empires, pass away, Thy kingdom stands, and grow for ever till all they creatures own thy sway."
So says the hymn with just one letter added. This verse gives us an excellent backdrop for the way the readings this year present the feast of Christ the King. There is an emphasis on Jesus as king and his kingdom which perhaps more than the editors realised provides a powerful critique of earthly empires and powers and a protest against what they stand for. Only the true kingdom, God’s reign, will stand and grow for ever.
When the feast was established in 1925, three empires had recently collapsed and most of the rest soon followed. Earth proud empires have indeed passed away, though possibly we have a new empire with the internet which now controls our lives in much the same way. That has left the Christian Church seeking new ways to proclaim the Gospel. Ever since state recognition in the fourth century, the Church has relied on the support of emperors and kings. Now that they are gone, the Church has to stand on its own. The concerns that led Pope Pius to establish the feast continue to be with us, secularisation and individualization perhaps above all. In seeking how to live when so many of the values of our world have become false to the Gospel, the Church must find new ways of being Church. Yesterday’s feast confronts us with the temptation toward worldly strength and power and glory and relying on that. For that very reason, we must celebrate Christ the King, to nourish our hope and resistance by living the true values of his kingdom, to find an alternative vision by which we can live and proclaim the Gospel.
“Speaking truth to power” has perhaps become a cliché these days but it is a helpful thought this Sunday because we are considering a truth which goes well beyond any human truth. Our truth is the very revelation of God through Jesus Christ his Son. Truth is important in the Gospel of John where the Prologue says that grace and truth came through Jesus Christ for he is the only Son who has made the Father known. Later, in the Gospel. Jesus will tell the Jews that the truth will make you free while in his final discourse to the disciples he says “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
In the Gospel this Sunday we hear Pilate interrogating Jesus. This encounter is part of a carefully crafted account of the trial of Jesus in the Passion story in John. There is a clear "in and out" pattern of the Jews outside and Jesus inside. The trial begins with the Jews handing Jesus over to Pilate and ends with Pilate handing Jesus back to them for crucifixion. The lifting up on the cross that follows is then an enthronement.
Pilate the Roman Governor makes his appearance only in the Passion Narratives and each evangelist portrays him for their own purposes. Doubtless the real Pilate would have been far more ruthless than the man we see in the Gospels. In John’s Gospel, Pilate is introduced as coming out from his headquarters to speak with the Jews, which puts him in a weak position from the beginning. It would have been undignified for the Governor to scuttle in and out as Pilate does. After the chief priests stated their case, Pilate goes back indoors order to question Jesus and this questioning forms the Gospel for this Sunday. After that, Pilate goes back out to the Jews and says he can find no case against Jesus.
Pilate asks Jesus if he is the king of the Jews. In so doing, he is framing the question in empire terms, worldly power that he can understand. Caught between the Jewish accusation and a rather puzzling prisoner, Pilate is trying to get a grip on the situation. Only to lose it very quickly when Jesus starts talking in other-worldly terms. His kingdom may not be of this world but in Jesus it is quite definitely in the world. Pilate then asks again if Jesus is a king to get the evasive answer “you say I am a king”1 before developing his reply in different terms altogether, that he is in the world to bear witness to the truth as we have seen. Jesus as the king who is truth may be the centre of this Sunday’s feast. Yet Pilate the man of this world rejects the truth, “What is truth?” he says.
Jesus’ witness to the truth makes him the faithful witness of the reading from the Apocalypse. This final book is the most powerful critique of worldly power in the New Testament. The Church has to find ways of living under the imperial power and false values of Rome by establishing an alternative imperial system, that of the reign of God. In that sense it is a book of great contemporary importance. This Sunday’s passage focuses on the opening description of Jesus. The book begins with the chain of communication: revelation (Apocalypse is the Greek word) from God through Jesus Christ to John the prophet and so to his servants, the Christian assembly. A blessing is then given for those who read and those who hear. This book is meant to be read aloud.
There follows the address from John to the seven Churches of Asia. As seven is the number of completeness that implies the universal Church as well. The greeting is “grace and peace”, grace which gives peace. This is Trinitarian, the Father and the Spirit are presented before the description of Jesus Christ. There follows the vision which sets the scene for John’s message to each Church. The detailed description of Jesus is therefore an important opening statement. It is packed with information. Interestingly, it has been seen as a liturgical dialogue between reader and congregation. You can try to work that out for yourselves.
From this, we can note that Christ loves us, that his love is perpetual and continues beyond the historical event of the redemption. This is then expressed in traditional terms, with a community that shares Christ’s kingly and priestly role of serving God. A proclamation then follows with another “Amen” before the greeting ends with an announcement by God himself, Alpha and Omega, first and last letter of the Greek alphabet, the Almighty.
In the proclamation there is an allusion to the prophet Zechariah as well as the coming on the clouds which takes us to today’s reading from the book of Daniel. The background of this book is persecution as Jews are forced to adopt Greek culture. The two verses of our reading are the climax of a vision and will be followed by an interpretation. The vision presents four grotesque beasts representing earthly powers. These will be destroyed. Then there comes the Son of Man with eternal sovereignty. In one way, this person is corporate; the interpretation will say they are the people of the holy ones of the Most High. On the other hand, he could also be an individual and this was certainly picked up and developed by early Christians reflecting on Jesus. Taken together we have the Church, the body of Christ.
As we live in troubled times, we are presented with this glorious vision in front of us of his dominion and glory and kingship so that all peoples should serve him.
1 “I am a King” as read in the Jerusalem Bible at Mass is not correct. See the NRSV or RNJB