Sunday Scripture: The Solemnity of Christ The King (Year B)


Welcome to this, the eighteenth of my reflections on the theology of the Sunday readings at Mass.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I sincerely hope that this reflection will inspire you, answer some questions you may have, help you to see how fantastic Sacred Scripture is and perhaps enable you to share some of my love and passion for the Bible as you begin to comprehend how layered and multi-faceted it is, and what a carefully considered part of the Mass the readings are. If you want to know how these posts came about, please read my first post in this series here. My particular hope is that these blogs will help you develop a love of the Old Testament, and help to foster a better understanding of its value in understanding how Jesus fulfils what is prefigured therein.

I would like to think this regular blog would be a great help to anyone who reads at Mass, to enable them to foster a deeper understanding of the message they are trying to impart to the congregation.

There are several different ways to read this post. I would suggest the first thing to do is to look at the relevant readings. You might then want to look at the specific commentary for a particular reading. I post the same summary of the featured Biblical books each week, but at the end, under the subheading this week, you will usually find some commentary specific to each week. At the end I post a passage which attempts to draw all the readings together and understand the message.

My reflections are not definitive, but based on my study and perhaps authenticated by careful reference to the Biblical Commentaries and books I list at the bottom each week.

This Sunday the theme for the readings might be summed up as:

Jesus the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth

First, a little preliminary survey of each of the books.

I will post the same, or similar prelims week on week, for each book as we encounter them, although I may add a little detail specific to each week's readings.

The Book of Daniel is a textbook on martyrdom in the highest sense of the term. It is a daring book because it is addressed particularly to young people. It has a contemporary ring because its author was was calling young people to a life of holiness and non-violence precisely when others voices in the religious community were advocating either a religious militancy or a total secularisation of faith in the name of modernity. The book of Daniel is resistance literature. Its Hasidic authors spoke to their compatriots in symbols only they could decipher as members of the underground society that was their audience. The centrepiece of the whole work is the vision of the four beasts representing the kingdoms of Babylon, Media, Persia and Greece in succession (7:1-28). This seems to be a refinement of a prophecy presented much earlier in the traditions of the Jews, which they now saw coming to fulfilment (2:1-49).

This week the prophet Daniel is granted a vision of the end of days and of universal judgment. Chapter 9 describes in bestial figures four empires; in terms of the time of editorship of the cup and of Daniel, this would be interpreted as that of Babylon, Media, Persia, and the Greek Macedonian and Selucid empires, who are judged and destroyed by the justice of God. This vision is succeeded by the advent of the "Son of Man", a figure representing the kingdom of God's holy ones “on the clouds of heaven: (that is, from God.’ His reign, being celestial and divine, is radically different from that of the earthly powers who have been judged. In an original literary form, this human figure is symbolical of the superior form of the heavenly kingdom, contrasted with the bestial kingdoms of the earth. In late Jewish apocalyptic thought, however, the notion of kingdom tends to be merged with that of the king himself. This image, interpreted by the Church to Jesus in the second reading, is used repeatedly by the Lord himself in his application of the notion of the Kingdom of God being conjoined to that of Christ's own person and our relationship to him, a pattern we see again and again in both the Synoptics and the Johannine material.

Psalms is the Bible's manual of inspired song and prayer. The collection of 150 Psalms represents the culmination of a long tradition that extends across almost the full span of the history of ancient Israel, from the Exodus (c. 1280 B.C.) until the last centuries of the Old Testament era (c. 200 B.C.). In Hebrew the canon of the Bible is called the TNK or Tanakh, which consists of Torah (teaching), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (writings)—thus TaNaKh. Psalms makes up the first of the writings in the Hebrew text. One of the most powerful things we know about the Psalms is that this is how Jesus Himself prayed.

The Book of Revelation is the last book of the canonical New Testament even though II Peter was the last book to be composed. It was written by John (1:1, 4, 9; 22:8) an exile on the island of Patmos (1:9) one of the northernmost islands of the Dodecanese complex. There is an array of ancient authors who offer testimony that this is John the son of Zebedee (Mk 3:17). It is the only book of its kind in the New Testament: a work of Christian prophecy that has much in common with the prophetic books of the Old Testament. Yet it is also an apocalyptic book with clear similarities to Jewish religious writings called apocalypses, which date from the same contemporary period. Dominated as it is by apocalyptic and prophetic symbolism, the book of Revelation is notoriously difficult to interpret. Even St. jerome the most learned Biblical scholar in the early Church was compelled to admit that it "has as many mysteries as words" (Letters 53, 8). We need to take an integrative view of Revelation which recognises that the presence of multiple themes and perspectives which compliment one another serves to add richness and depth to the book. Christianity's struggle with the mighty Roman Empire is certainly part of the picture, as are the spiritual challenges to faith and fidelity that confront believers bombarded by the claims of the world. In this context, one must accept that Revelation offers a message of ultimate hope that looks ahead to the consummation of history and the heavenly glorification of the saints.

This week shows the early Church applying the prophecy of Daniel directly to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is He who is to receive universal dominion and power, precisely because of the blood He shed upon the cross. In Him will be fulfilled all the messianic prophecies of the Scriptures; and the judgment He ushers in puts into condemnation not only those who condemned them in life (“ those who pierced him”) but also “all the nations” in the sense of those who irredeemably choose a life apart from that of the people of God forming now in personal relationship to God's Son and King, Jesus Christ. The symbolic language of beginning and end (derived from Greek, not Hebrew usage) finds application to Christ as beginning and end, cause and purpose for all that is. (Interestingly enough, the ancient Hebrew form of the alphabet called Ketav Ivri or Paleo-Hebrew, based on Phoenician forms, has as its first letter the silent letter Aleph and as its last letter Tav, which in this early form has the shape of a cross. This is the mark made on the foreheads of God is faithful ones in the book of Ezekiel (9:4).

The Gospel According to St. John is deep. It was the last one written, it used to be thought in the second century, but recent fragments were dated at 120 A.D. from Egypt, which means the Gospel had to have been written for some time by then, in order to have circulated so far away from Asia Minor (from modern Greece all the way to Africa). Some have argued for a date as early as 60 A.D. due to description of the sheep gate of Jerusalem in the present tense ("there is...") which was destroyed by the Roman sacking in 70 A.D. I think this Gospel was written by the beloved disciple, John, one of the sons of Zebedee (Mt 4:21) for lots of reasons. I think he thought long and hard about what had happened and then wrote this incredible account, so rich in detail and deep in theological significance. Known as the spiritual Gospel in the ancient Church, this is a book of magnificent beauty & artistry. The richness of its expression and imagery has made it one of the most celebrated books in Christian history. Much of it is dedicated to the heavenly identity and mission of Jesus, perhaps the master key that unlocks the Gospel as a whole is the revelation of God as a family. Nearly every chapter is marked by familial language that explains the inner life of God as well as our relation to God through the grace of divine generation.

The divine family of God revealed as Father, Son and Spirit is the towering mystery of the Fourth Gospel. The heart of Jesus' message is that the children of men are invited to become the children of God (1:12). This new life begins with a spiritual rebirth in Baptism (3:5) and is sustained as the Father nourishes us with divine food and drink (6:32, 51; 7:37-39), educates us in the truth (8:31-32; 16:13), and protects us from spiritual danger (17:15). Christ models the life of divine Sonship to perfection (13:15), showing us how to worship the Father (4:23-26), how to obey his commandments (15:10), and how to love our spiritual siblings (13:34). We are not left orphans (14:18) after Christ returns to the Father (20:17) because his presence dwells with us and even within us (14:17-18, 23). Our full union with the Trinity awaits only the coming of Jesus Christ, who will return in glory to escort the children of God into the house of their heavenly Father (14:2-3).

This week focuses on the Lord's conversation with Pilate. In this moment, the earthly representative of Leviathan confronts the messenger of God's grace - and the only-begotten and eternal Son of the Father, an engagement which reveals the absolute difference between an earthly understanding of power and dominion, and that desire for communion which flows from the heart of God. The conversation is set in the context of Pilate's acting as the judicial representative of the Roman Empire in hearing the Jewish leadership's complaint that Jesus is setting himself up as King against Caesar;- the only way in which the Roman authority would take seriously the claims against the Lord. In this moment, paradoxically, he who would act as an earthly judge finds himself before a Word of judgment from God Most High.

In vv.34-35, Jesus asked Pilate how he has come to formulate the charge against Him; was it his idea or someone else's that Jesus is "King of the Jews"? This question enables Pilate the chance to take a personal stance with regard to Jesus and His mission instead of being merely the current conduit for the world's rage against the Son of God made man. Pilot responds by vehemently denying any interest in Jewish religious concerns, thus revealing his evident scorn for the Jews.

At verse 36, the Lord is able to state the source of His authority, His lack of interest in the power games that the worldly delight in playing, and shows the absolute lack of political connection of His kingship to the affairs which are the whole life of Pilate and the Emperor whom he serves. When Pilate persists in asking whether or not Jesus is a King, the Lord responds with the truth, emphasising that the essence of His kingly and messianic mission is as a witness to the truth, that which is the truth of God Most High, and the kingdom for He will make testimony by His own martyrdom ; a kingdom which will be founded upon His Blood, in a way familiar to Pilate and imperfectly foreshadowed in the city of Rome's own foundation on the blood of Romulus' murdered brother Remus. It is this truth, identical with Jesus own person, which Pilate will treat with contempt in the Gospel’s next Line “What is Truth?” The Lord has already given that answer in John 14:6: Ego sum via et veritas et vita. The kingdom of God breaks in the personal relationship of Jesus Christ with those whom He calls to be His followers. As the Lord has pointed out, these do not fight to establish an earthly kingdom for Him, this is a kingdom not of this world, with its limited powers and internecine combats concerning the limits of borders and possession of passing wealth, but has asked its heart the rule of God over souls willing to enter into a relationship with the Son who possesses all dominion in heaven and on earth. Christ’s is a lordship of hearts, not of earthly rule.

Drawing them all together...

The feast of Christ the King is a comparatively new feast (1929) and yet the oldest of ideas. The notion of kingship does not necessarily fit easily into the modern mentality: it can seem almost anachronistic, a debased and meaningless concept in the modern world, alien to the democratic mentality. Even in the Old Testament, kingship is a highly ambiguous and complicated issue. The Creator was seen as the omnipotent Lord of the universe: "The Lord is king, with majesty enrobed; the Lord has robed Himself with might, He has girded Himself with power." But the earthly institution of the monarchy represented human weakness and failure on a grand scale. Nonetheless, something of the mystery and beauty of the true semi-divine concept remained in the life and witness of David and the messianic promises made to his dynasty. In David and in the record of the people themselves, comes a new and extraordinary concept of self-emptying in realisation of a true service—a reign built on the mystery of suffering, a stripping away of power and glory in the effective service of others. This happened with David; it was also predicted in the Suffering Servant of Isaiah; it came to represent the fate and call of God's People. It became vested in the mysterious prophetic figure of the Son of Man, with the establishment and vindication of God's kingdom in and beyond all human history. The Book of Daniel contains the extraordinary vision of this mysterious heavenly figure: "I gazed into the visions of the night, and I saw, coming on the clouds of heaven, one like a son of man..."

The role and purpose of this Son of Man is perfectly realised in the life and work of Jesus, who is the fulfilment of all prophecy, all aspiration, and all hope. His life and work turns earthly concepts of power upside down, as His interview with Pontius Pilate reveals. His concern is truth, and the reign He establishes is from the throne of His Cross. As witness to truth and as conqueror of death in His Resurrection, He establishes us in love, hope, and truth: "Jesus Christ is the faithful wines, the First-Born from the dead, the Ruler of the kings of the earth" and is proclaimed in the Book of Revelation as the high point of all revelation at the end of time. Jesus' love cleanses us, makes us His witnesses, and empowers us in life. In expecting His imminent return, we proclaim His unending reign, the fulfilment of all time, history and purpose. The prophecies, the ministry of suffering, become the glory of God's Kingdom, which encompasses all creation, reveals all truth, and takes us into the very heart of God's nature and His purposes for all creation and history. We should live as if the Second Coming is just around the corner, so certain are we of God's vindication. "Yes, I am a king. I was born for this: to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice." Come, Lord Jesus!

Bibliography:

Boadt, L., Reading the Old Testament, New York: Paulist Press, 1984.
Brown, R. E., An Introduction to the New Testament, New York, Doubleday, 1997.
Brown, R. et al (Ed) The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (London: Chapman, 2000).
Catechism of the Catholic Church, New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Duggan, M., The Consuming Fire, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1991.
Fuller, R.C., Johnstone, L., Kearns, C., A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, London: Nelson, 1969.
Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, Second Edition RSV, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2001.
Kreeft, P., You Can Understand The Bible, San Francisco, Ignatius, 2005.
Letellier, R., Sunday & Feastday Sermons Cycles A, B, and C, New York: St. Pauls, 2011.
Magnificat Monthly Vol. 3, No. 1/ November 2012.
McKenzie, J.L., Dictionary of the Bible, New York, Touchstone, 1995.

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