Scripture and the Liturgy

Christ the King: November 21

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This Sunday is the 34th Sunday of Ordinary Time, and as everyone knows, that means it is the Solemnity of Christ the King!  This is the last Sunday of the liturgical year.  The last day of the liturgical year will be Saturday Novrember 27, and Liturgical Year 2022 will begin with the First Sunday of Advent, November 28.

I give thanks to God for many things at this time of year, including the joy of living the liturgical calendar, which is such a consolation and guide for one’s spirituality through the seasons of life and the seasons of the year.  Each liturgical year is like a whole catechesis of the Christian faith, as well as a kind of microcosm of the entire life of the believer, from birth and baptism to final anointing and death.

Some years ago, a movie about the struggle for religious freedom for the Catholics of Mexico was released called For Greater Glory.  The rallying cry of the persecuted Mexican believers was “Viva Cristo Rey!”, “Long Live Christ the King!”  For many of them, these were the last words out of their mouths before their violent deaths.

The example of these martyrs remind us that, finally, every human being will face Christ the King, the one who will pass final judgment on all that has been done in this life.  Such is also the them for this Sunday’s readings.

1.  The First Reading is Daniel 7:13-14:

As the visions during the night continued, I saw

one like a Son of man coming,

on the clouds of heaven;

when he reached the Ancient One

and was presented before him,

the one like a Son of man received dominion, glory, and kingship;

all peoples, nations, and languages serve him.

His dominion is an everlasting dominion

that shall not be taken away,

his kingship shall not be destroyed.

This passage of Daniel 7 is a famous and controversial one in biblical studies, because in it appear two figures or persons, both of whom have divine characteristics.  The “Ancient One” or “Ancient of Days” mentioned in 7:13 is clearly an image of the LORD God.  Yet the “one like a Son of man” who comes “on the clouds of heaven” is also a divine figure, because “riding on the clouds” is a divine prerogative (see Psalm 18:7-15).  Many scholars have noted this, and some, like Jewish bible scholar Daniel Boyarin, have freely admitted that in late Judaism there was already a notion of more than one person in the Godhead.

As Christians, we read this prophetic text and recognize progressive revelation.  That is, as biblical revelation proceeds toward the coming of Christ, the truths of faith begin to become clearer.  So here already in Daniel 7, an Old Testament text, we have an early vision of at least two persons of the Holy Trinity, God the Father and God the Son. 

It is not accidental, by the way, that Jesus’ favorite form of self-reference in the Gospels is “Son of Man.”  When Jesus calls himself that title, I am convinced he has in mind two OT texts in particular: our text here, Daniel 7, where the “Son of Man” receives all authority at the final judgment, and Psalm 8, where the Son of Man is made “a little less than God” or “for a little while, less than God”, but then has “all things put under his feet.”  People think that Jesus’ title “Son of Man” refers to his mortality or his human nature, but in fact it is a reference to his eschatological role as king and judge.  This becomes most clear at Jesus’ final trial, when he is asked point-blank if he is the Christ:

Mark 14:61 But he was silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”  62 And Jesus said, “I am; and you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”

So at this dramatic point in his earthly ministry, Jesus refers to our First Reading to define his identity, and point to his role as eschatological judge.

2.  The Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 93:1, 1-2, 5

R. (1a) The LORD is king; he is robed in majesty.

The LORD is king, in splendor robed;

robed is the LORD and girt about with strength.

R. The LORD is king; he is robed in majesty.

And he has made the world firm,

not to be moved.

Your throne stands firm from of old;

from everlasting you are, O LORD.

R. The LORD is king; he is robed in majesty.

Your decrees are worthy of trust indeed;

holiness befits your house,

O LORD, for length of days.

R. The LORD is king; he is robed in majesty.

We should note that Psalm 93 is just four psalms into Book IV of the Psalter.  The Psalter consists of five Books of psalms, and each Book has a distinct mood and character.  Book IV is a collection of meditations from the perspective of Judah’s exile.  At the end of Book III, the Kingdom of David is destroyed in Psalm 89:38-51.  In the wake of that disaster, Book IV is a spiritual reflection on how to respond to a situation in which everything seems to have fallen apart, and all visible protection and security for God’s people seems gone.  So, Book IV never mentions the reign of the Son of David, but frequently speaks of God’s reign.  Book IV tells the people of Judah in exile: even when things are falling apart, our God is still in ultimate control!

Everyone knows that the Catholic Church is facing various forms of persecution, some blatant, some subtle, in almost every country of the world.  Whether the national government is militantly secular in the developed West; or Islamic in north Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia; or Communist (still!) in China and Cuba; there are few places on the globe where the political powers are sympathetic to the Church. This can lead us to feeling that history is out of control, and God has vacated his role as king.

It’s helpful to remember, however, that this phenomenon is nothing new.  St. Augustine, for example, was on his deathbed in AD 430 when the Vandals were besieging his beloved city of Hippo, and it looked like Latin Christian civilization was going to be completely, violently destroyed.  More recently, many believers met their ends in the Cristeros rebellion in Mexico (1926-29) or the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) under conditions where it was not at all clear the Church would survive at all.  Yet these saints and martyrs did not give up their confidence that “The LORD is king!  He is robed in majesty!”  This is always a cry of faith, not sight, while we sojourn in this “valley of tears.”

3.  Our Second Reading  is Revelation 1:5-8:

Jesus Christ is the faithful witness,

the firstborn of the dead and ruler of the kings of the earth.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood,

who has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father,

to him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen.

Behold, he is coming amid the clouds,

and every eye will see him,

even those who pierced him.

All the peoples of the earth will lament him.

Yes. Amen.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, ” says the Lord God,

“the one who is and who was and who is to come, the almighty.”

This is the introduction to the Book of Revelation, much of which is about the end of history and the return of Christ the King.  This passage in particular is a series of significant allusions to Old Testament texts.  The phrase “firstborn of the dead and ruler of the kings of the earth” is an allusion to Psalm 89 (esp. v. 27) and refers to Jesus status as Son of David and King over the House of David, which was to rule the whole earth (Ps 89:25-27).  “Who has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father,” is an allusion to God’s promise to Israel before the revelation of the covenant at Sinai in Exodus 19:5-6, where he promises that if they obey they covenant, they will become “a kingdom of priests” or better, “a royal priesthood.”  Israel at Sinai rejected God’s covenant and also this royal priestly status; but it is granted now to those who join themselves to Jesus Christ.

Next, we here “Behold, he is coming amid the clouds,” a reference to our First Reading; and then, “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him,” an allusion to the mysterious prophecy of Zech 12:10, which seems to predict the death-by-piercing of the heir of the royal house, the Son of David.

This montage of Scriptural allusions helps to communicate the fact that, at the return of Christ, all the prophecy and typology in Scripture will find its culmination and fulfillment.  He is the “Alpha and Omega”: all revelation is fulfilled in Him.

4.  The Gospel is John 18:33b-37

Pilate said to Jesus,

“Are you the King of the Jews?”

Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own

or have others told you about me?”

Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I?

Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me.

What have you done?”

Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world.

If my kingdom did belong to this world,

my attendants would be fighting

to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.

But as it is, my kingdom is not here.”

So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?”

Jesus answered, “You say I am a king.

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.”

This is one of the great dramatic dialogues in biblical literature; indeed, in all world literature.  It lacks only Pilate’s cynical, or perhaps despairing, final reply, “What is Truth?”  (John 18:38). 

This passage is a great reminder to us all about the nature of Jesus kingdom and his kingship.  It is not of this world. 

That does not mean it is not in this world.  The Kingdom of Christ is very much in this world.  Its visible manifestation is the Catholic Church.  We could go into a description of many impressive external features of the Catholic Church: with over a billion members and 2000 years of history, it is both the world’s largest and oldest organization.  Contrary to appearances, it remains a major, perhaps the major, driver of world culture.  World institutions and concepts that everyone takes for granted—like the hospital, the university, and “human rights”—come squarely out of the cultural heritage of the Catholic Church, even if their origin is forgotten.  Even the dominant political force of our day—Western social liberalism, with its suffocating “political correctness,” “anti-discrimination,” and unsustainable government-funded welfare programs—has religious roots in Catholicism.  It’s basically Catholic charity divorced from Catholic morality.

So we could talk about visible manifestations of Christ’s kingdom, and its influence on the world, but this would be a distraction.

The heart of Christ’s kingdom is not of this world.  It is in the next. 

As Catholics, we distinguish the Church Triumphant (the saints in heaven) from the Church Militant (us struggling here below).  The heart of the Church, and the Kingdom, is with the Church Triumphant, the “Jerusalem which is above, our Mother,” to which we are joined by faith and the sacraments.

This Gospel is quite welcome after the recent election results, as a reminder that even if the very best candidates had been elected in every office, America would still be a far, far cry from being the “Kingdom of Christ.”  And while political involvement is a civic duty of the Catholic, we are not ultimately fighting for some political order, but for holiness, for communion with God, for the salvation of souls, and eternal life.  Any other goal is far too low.

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