Sunday, November 22, 2015 Feast of Christ the King
Gospel: John 18:33b-37 USCCB link for all three readings
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."
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In my research on the Feast of Christ the King I came across perhaps the most honest statement of any Church leader. The source is Pope Pius XI, who instituted the Feast of Christ the King in 1925, writing that “Documents are often read only by a few learned men; feasts move and teach all the faithful.” Someone please post this line on the bulletin board at the U.S. bishops’ conference currently in session writing documents.
There is an excellent treatment of Sunday’s feast in Adolf Adam’s The Liturgical Year: Its History and its Meaning after the Reform of the Liturgy. (1979) Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King to acknowledge the kingship of Christ, a recognition that would bring “the signal benefits of true liberty, of calm order, of harmony, and of peace,” a weapon against the destructive forces of the age. (p. 177) Ironically this proclamation occurred during the presidency of Calvin Coolidge, certainly the embodiment of calm order. Do I dare drag up the old story about “Silent Cal” when he was seated at a dinner next to a verbose woman? As the tale is passed down, she supposedly said, “Mr. President, I have a bet that I can make you say more than two words tonight.” Came the reply, “You lose.” [My personal favorite story about Coolidge involves a rooster, but you’re on your own to Google that.]
Christ the King is thus a relatively new feast. Pius XI established it on the 1600th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea, where the consubstantial relationship of Christ to his Father was solemnly defined and served as the basis for proclaiming Christ a king. Prior to 1970 the feast was observed on the last Sunday of October, just ahead of the Feast of All Saints, playing on the image of the divine king and those heroes and heroines who reflected his glory. On this feast participants at Mass would make a public consecration to the heart of the Redeemer. Pius’ innovation constituted a liturgical victory of imagination and pageantry, his preference for feasts over documents as noted before. His statement alludes to the teaching or catechetical possibilities of such a new liturgical celebration.
That said, a number of scholars and liturgists worried about having too much of a good thing. Joseph Jungmann, perhaps one of the greatest liturgical scholars of the twentieth century, summed up these sentiments well in 1941: “And yet a feeling of weariness may come over us as we view these interminable expansions of the liturgical picture of Christ.” (p. 178) When Vatican II called for a reform of the liturgy in the 1960’s, the October feast of Christ the King was carefully reconsidered. The revised Roman calendar renamed the feast “The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe” and moved it to a more fitting location in the Church’s sequential of feasts, to the very end, or the 34th Sunday of Ordinary Time. The final Sunday of the liturgical year had long been endowed with significance, known officially as “The Last Sunday after Pentecost” in the old missal or popularly as Last Judgment Sunday, with a lengthy apocalyptic Gospel from St. Matthew’s text.
The reformed liturgy for this Sunday combines the new and the old. Christ is honored as King, in this age and in the age to come. The old “Last Sunday” judgment flavor is conjoined to the timeless royal nature of Christ. Adam notes that the New Missal’s formulary is very similar to the old “Last Sunday” observance except that, with the three year cycle, there is a richer portrayal of Christ as Lord of all time, coming in glory to separate the wheat from the chaff. Year A draws from the Evangelist of that year, Matthew (Matthew 25: 31-46), and his description of the separation of the saved and the damned depending on the good works of one’s life. Year C draws from its own Evangelist Luke (Luke 23: 35-43) in the powerful and memorable account of the “Good Thief.” Even in his death throes, Jesus maintains his power to guarantee the criminal that “this day you will be with me in paradise.”
However, as we have seen throughout our current Cycle B, the Gospel of Mark is often replaced with that of John on major feasts, and next Sunday’s reading is John 18: 33b-37, (see above) a section of Jesus’ private encounter with Pilate hours before the crucifixion. The entirety of John’s Passion narrative is read every Good Friday. Given that neither Jesus nor Pilate was present in the late first century when this dialogue was written, the best assumption about this particular text is that it reflects both beliefs and difficulties of the early Church. Jesus makes clear that he is indeed a king, a king with universal reign over all who seek truth. In its particular time John may have been (1) defending the Christian mission to all the world, not just Palestine, and (2) affirming Jesus’ identity as a man and as God in the face of attacks on both flanks by enemies of the Christian movement.
Jesus’ words, “my kingdom is not of this world,” should not overshadow the fact that this conversation was taking place in this world, before a very powerful player in this world. John may have been reminding Christians that although their destiny is ultimately elsewhere, it is determined by what one does in this world. This is a theme throughout John’s Gospel, where Jesus talks about judgment in the here and now, unlike Mark who looks to an imminent future coming. Pastorally speaking, Sunday’s Gospel addresses the dilemma of how those destined for another world should conduct themselves in this one, and the potential glory of fidelity to “the way” as Christianity was called then.
The image of Christ before Pilate speaks volumes of the challenge of Baptism. Christ’s disciples will frequently be out of step and suffer dearly for it. Pilate shrewdly notes that it was Jesus’ own coreligionists, not the Roman state, that put him in a capital trial. I cannot help but think of the moral dilemmas facing Catholics today in terms of security, terrorism, and the plight of aliens. Whose world do we belong to? As Lincoln said, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right.”