Sunday, November 25, 2012

Homily for the Solemnity of Christ the King

Homily for
the Solemnity of
Christ the King
Nov. 25, 2012

Dan 7: 13-14

John 18: 33-37

St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison

“I saw one like a Son of man coming, on the clouds of heaven; … [he] received dominion, glory, and kingship; all people, nations, and languages serve him.  His dominion is an everlasting dominion…” (Dan 7: 13-14).

In last Sunday’s gospel, Jesus told his disciples that at the end of time, the end of the universe in its present state, people “will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory,” and “he will send out the angels and gather his elect…from the end of the earth to the end of the sky” (Mark 13:26-27).

Jesus’ prophecy alluded to the passage from the Book of Daniel that we read a few minutes ago:  the coming of an extraordinary human being who is also clothed with divinity, which is what the “clouds of heaven” symbolize.  And this “Son of Man” who also possesses divinity will rule all the nations of the earth forever; or, in St. Mark’s account of Jesus’ words, he’ll save his chosen ones, his own people (“his elect”), which implies separating them from the wicked—passing final judgment on all human beings, in other words.

In the Jewish reading of Daniel’s prophecy, this Son of Man may have been seen as a man with divine powers who would deliver the Jews from their evil persecutors in the 2d century B.C., when Daniel was written, and who would upend the existing worldly powers by establishing his own dominion over the earth, passing judgment, and ruling in God’s name.

Jesus identifies himself with this “end times” personage, particularly at his trial before the high priest and the Sanhedrin (Mark 14:61-64).  In St. Matthew’s (26:63-66) and St. Luke’s (22:69-71) accounts of Jesus’ trial, in fact, the “Son of Man” is identified as “the Messiah” and “the Son of God.”  Jesus’ claim to be that Son of Man is what leads to his condemnation by the priests and the Sanhedrin.

There’s more than a little irony in this:  the Jews looked for a Messiah who would save them from foreign imperialism— in the 2d century B.C., from the Greek-Syrian kingdom; from Rome in Jesus’ time.  We see some of this expectation when Jesus has fed the huge crowd of people with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish, and they respond by wanting to make him their king—implying a rebellion against Rome (John 6:1-15); and on Palm Sunday, with all the “hosannahs,” palm branches, and acclamations of the Son of King David.  Yet the Jewish leaders weren’t interested in such expectations, or feared those expectations, and reacted against anyone who might stir up such expectations—not only in Jesus’ case but in various others, as we know from Jewish history in the 1st century, up to the great revolt of 66 A.D. that led to the country’s complete destruction, including the burning and the leveling of Jerusalem by the Roman army of Titus in 70.

It’s also ironic that Jesus made no such claim to worldly power; showed no intention of leading a rebellion against Rome.  Yet the Jewish leaders turned him over to the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, accusing him of claiming to be the king of the Jews—in other words, of wanting to instigate a rebellion against Roman authority.

So in today’s gospel, Pilate questions Jesus:  “Are you the king of the Jews?” (John 18:33).  Jesus doesn’t expect Pilate to be familiar with Jewish Scriptures or with Jewish theological controversies.  But he completely baffles Pilate with his response:  “My kingdom doesn’t belong to this world,” which, he says, is evident because my followers aren’t waging a war against any of the public authorities (18:36).  Jesus’ kingdom isn’t political or imperial or any such thing.  He is reluctant even to say that he’s a king of any kind because Pilate is incapable of understanding any sort of authority that is not based on political power, on claims over territory and peoples, on the laying of taxes, the enforcement of laws, the punishment of criminals.  It’s the same attitude that would induce Joseph Stalin to scoff at the power of Pope Pius XII in the 1940s:  “The Pope?  How many army divisions does he have?”  It took more than 40 years, but Stalin’s successors as lords of the Russian Communist empire finally learned the answer to his question when Pius’s successor, John Paul the Great, played no small part in destroying that empire.

Ecce Homo by Antonio Ciseri (1880)
But Jesus does admit to being a king of a different kind:  “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” (18:37).  I.e., my authority is the authority of truth, and all who love the truth, all who seek the truth, all who try to live the truth are my subjects, belong to my kingdom.

Jesus would hardly be the last one to say something like that.  Our Founding Fathers based their rebellion against the British Empire on that empire’s alleged crimes against “self-evident truths,” specifically “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” and “that to secure these rights,” to uphold and defend these truths, governments are established in human societies.  Fictitious Superman is the defender of “truth, justice, and the American way,” a foe in the 1940s of Nazis, and later of all sorts of criminals and conspirators.

The Founding Fathers and Superman are still in Pontius Pilate’s realm, altho the Founding Fathers also transcend politics, founding their rebellion on God-given rights, on eternal truths.  So did Pope John Paul the Great in his relentless opposition to every form of tyranny, to everything that degrades human beings.

The truth for which Jesus speaks and the truth to which we pledge our Christian allegiance is that the Father of Jesus is the Creator of the universe, and that he created that universe thru the Son and for the Son—and for all those whom he created in the divine image, all those redeemed by the Son:  “all peoples, nations, and languages.”  In the words of our 2d reading, “he has freed us from our sins” and “made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father” (Rev 1:5-6), that we should join him in worshiping his Father in the heavenly court, forever and ever.

This sort of truth, the truth of who we are as human beings—where we’ve come from, what our destiny is, how we should live in the light of our destiny—all that is beyond the understanding of people like Pontius Pilate, including many of those who guide society today in politics, academia, and the mass media.  But if we are listening to the voice of Christ, then we seek truth, and not the latest popular morality, not what’s politically correct, not what’s to our own selfish advantage.  If we’re honestly seeking truth in any form—scientific, philosophical, theological; if we’re trying to live lives of integrity—we really are seeking Christ, even those who don’t know it, because “everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

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