Christ the King

The readings for Sunday, November 22, 2015, Feast of Christ the King, Cycle B, are
Daniel 7:13-14; Revelation 1:5-8; and John 18:33b-37.

The institution of the Feast of Christ the King dates from 1925. Pope Pius XI’s intention in establishing this feast was to counteract secularism and atheism. The liturgy of this feast celebrates the rule of Jesus over individuals, families, society in general, over the state and over the universe. The feast celebrates Jesus as the King who obtained his kingdom through the shedding of his blood in redemption of the human race. The gospel reading for the Feast of Christ the King is part of the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea. In the earlier gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, we see a mostly silent Jesus at his trial. They are guided in their presentation of a silent Jesus by Isaiah 53:7, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth. Like a lamb led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is mute, so he did not open his mouth.” The authors and editors of John’s gospel obviously do not feel constrained by this ancient oracle dating from about 540 B.C.

In the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate one gets the impression that Pilate is being put on trial by Jesus who clearly takes over and lectures Pilate. This reversal of roles is entirely consistent with a principle John states at the beginning of his Passion Narrative. In John 13:3 he writes, “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands….” Jesus not only puts Pilate on trial. He orders Judas to do his work of betrayal, when he says to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly,” 13:27. He commands the arresting cohort of soldiers to arrest him and to let his disciples leave. From the cross he makes his last will and testament. The last words of Jesus, “It is completed!” He dies as a universal king, so proclaimed at the top of the cross in the three languages prominent in his life, — Hebrew, Greek, and Latin — representing the Mediterranean societies Christianity would soon conquer in the name of its King.

Back to the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate. The prefect is seated on his judgment seat. He calls Jesus forward, and asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Although no accusation of him claiming to be a king has as yet been offered by his accusers, the crowd that accompanied Jesus at his triumphal entry into Jerusalem acclaimed him King of Israel, John 12:13. In the context of Roman occupation and rule of Palestine this was as dangerous a title as could be claimed for anyone. The Romans usually disposed quickly of any would be kings of the Jews unless appointed by Rome.  Jesus up to this time had never claimed to be a king. Jesus answers the representative of Caesar courageously, “Do you say this on your own or have others told you about me?” There is no doubt that Pilate had heard about Jesus’ noisy entrance into the city and the crowds acclaiming him King of Israel. Pilate responds to Jesus, “Am I a Jew?” This response does not fit well with the translation of Mark’s Greek, “Do you say this on your own…?” In view of Pilate’s response Jesus’ question is better translated, “Do you say this of (about) yourself,” rather than, “Do you say this on your own?” If this translation is the better one, then Jesus is taunting Pilate as if to ask whether Pilate is claiming to be King of the Jews. This fits the context and the principle of who is putting whom on trial. Whatever Mark’s intent, Pilate continues, “Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me.” It must be pointed out that “the Jews,” the crowds who revered Jesus as a prophet, did not hand him over. It was the power structure in Jerusalem and the temple, thinking their power threatened by Jesus.

Jesus admits to having a kingdom, but “My kingdom does not belong to this world. Pilate seems to be calmed by Jesus’ answer about an otherworldly kingdom, and says, “So you are a king?” Jesus, still not claiming directly to be a king answers, “Those are your words! Here is why I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” At the end, the crowds and Pilate proclaim him king. We join them. We proclaim his kingdom in the words of the Preface of the liturgy of this feast, “…an eternal and universal kingdom, a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace.