[Editor’s note: the internet links in yesterday’s—Monday’s—post were inoperative; the error has been corrected. I regret the inconvenience.]
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."
+ + + + + + + +
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.”
Sunday November 15 Gospel: Mk 13:24-32 (USCCB link)
Jesus said to his disciples:
"In those days after that tribulation
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from the sky,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
"And then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in the clouds'
with great power and glory,
and then he will send out the angels
and gather his elect from the four winds,
from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.
"Learn a lesson from the fig tree.
When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves,
you know that summer is near.
In the same way, when you see these things happening,
know that he is near, at the gates.
Amen, I say to you,
this generation will not pass away
until all these things have taken place.
Heaven and earth will pass away,
but my words will not pass away.
"But of that day or hour, no one knows,
neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."
It is unfortunate that Sunday’s reading encompasses only verses 24-32, for the entirety of Chapter 13 in Mark is quite dazzling, in both a religious and an academic sense. In his commentary on Mark, Father Francis Moloney comments that a summary of sources on the treatment of Chapter 13 would take up an entire volume, and in fact two such books do exist. (249)
To begin with, Chapter 13 belongs to a literary form known as “apocalyptic.” The Encyclopedia Britannica provides the best brief summary of apocalyptic, the speculation about and prediction of the end times. Apocalyptic literature predates Christ and takes its roots in Jewish persecution. Because its authors were often at odds with reigning enemies, apocalyptic literature is written under pseudonyms as a rule, and likewise the targets of the literature (for example, Roman Emperors in the Book of Revelation) are depicted symbolically as monsters or other substitutes. The audience is usually a people under persecution, and the purpose of the text is encouragement to hang on longer; the Lord will come to punish and destroy persecutors and richly reward the elect who maintained faith.
The three synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) all contain “little apocalypses,” and after the pattern of Mark, the other two evangelists place them at the conclusion of Jesus’ ministry at his last entry into Jerusalem for the Last Supper and Crucifixion. That the evangelists see the coming death of Christ as the ushering of the Kingdom is beyond dispute. Beyond that the language and the structuring of the material has raised multiple questions. Even a simple reading of Chapter 13 reveals the conjoining of several separate statements and teaching objectives.
The first unit (Mark 13: 1-8) addresses the future of Jerusalem and the body of Israel. Jesus predicts to his disciples that the Temple will be destroyed, though without temporal specificity. His inner circle of disciples later ask for more detail, and Jesus becomes more specific about the imminent trials to unfold. He mentions specifically the signs of those times, namely false prophets, “wars and rumors of war,” and the “abomination of desolation.” In a cryptic remark about wars and the abomination of desolation, Mark adds, “let the reader understand.” This would be typical of apocalyptic literature, where the “insider” knows the hidden meaning of the images. The abomination of desolation is an actual reference to an event two centuries earlier, when the Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes (a gentile) defamed the Temple by placing a statue of Jupiter in its holy enclosure. Jewish Christians would be well aware of the comparison of Antiochus to the present day Roman Emperor besieging Rome and the point would be made without antagonizing local Roman officials further.
But in 13:9ff Jesus turns to the persecutions to be suffered personally by his disciples, a very prominent theme throughout this Gospel. In this paragraph the disciples are warned that they will be physically and intellectually abused. Moloney observes that the persecutions will go on into the future well past the outcome of the Roman struggle in Palestine (this Gospel was probably composed before 70 AD) We have here in Mark the only explicit mention of the Holy Spirit in his original text, as the inspiration for their testimony in time of trial and persecution. In Mark 13: 14-23 we have more detailed information of the harrowing suffering and disarray of Judean refugees during the general Titus’s siege of Jerusalem, much of which appears to be factual reports from eye witnesses, though certain details of the account do not square with geographic and other factors of the time.
Marl 13:24-37, of which Sunday’s reading is a portion, goes on to describe the cosmic dimensions of events that will follow the earthly struggle described above. “After these things” (a common apocalyptic literary connector) the sun will be darkened and the moon dimmed, and stars will fall from the sky. The darkening of the sun, hardly by accident, is reported also later in Mark when Jesus is raised on the cross. Here God will give his answer: the Son of Man will appear coming in the clouds with great power and glory. He will send out his angels to gather the elect. The term “Son of Man” has been applied to Jesus throughout the Synoptic Gospels; there can be little doubt that what is referred to is the return of the Son of Man in all his glory, a prediction Mark has recorded before the Sanhedrin during Jesus’ trial.
This, in turn, leads us to Sunday’s text cited above. As we have it here, there are three emphases: (1) in the midst of a cosmic turmoil, the Son of Man will return in glory and gather the elect; (2) a parable about the blossoming of a fig tree and recognizing the signs of things to come, and (3) the mystery of the future, the Father’s exclusive knowledge, and the need for all to be on perpetual watch. It is probably worth noting that one of the great struggles of the early Church was precisely the issue of when Jesus would return in glory. The first New Testament book, 1 Thessalonians, is devoted to the question of the fate of the baptized who die before the sound of Michael’s trumpet. Luke’s Gospel, the text for the upcoming Cycle C, will address how the Church came to live in “the long haul” without losing its apocalyptic hypervigilance.
This Sunday is the final weekend of St. Mark’s narrative. We will next see him in late November, 2017. Cycle C begins with St. Luke on November 29, the First Sunday of Advent—and ironically, the text is the Lukan version of Mark’s Gospel above.
November 8 Sunday Gospel from USCCB site.
In the course of his teaching Jesus said to the crowds,
"Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes
and accept greetings in the marketplaces,
seats of honor in synagogues,
and places of honor at banquets.
They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext
recite lengthy prayers.
They will receive a very severe condemnation."
He sat down opposite the treasury
and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury.
Many rich people put in large sums.
A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents.
Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them,
"Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more
than all the other contributors to the treasury.
For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth,
but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had,
her whole livelihood."
We are coming quickly to the end of the liturgical year and the narrative of Mark as captured in the Lectionary of Sunday readings. This Sunday’s (32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time) reading from Mark is the penultimate Markan appearance; on the following Sunday (November 15) the apocalyptic forecast of the last days will be Mark’s final Sunday appearance in Cycle B. The final Sunday of Year B is the Feast of Christ the King, which replaces the 34th Sunday of Ordinary time, and the Gospel will be drawn from St. John. On Thanksgiving weekend the Church begins with Cycle C and the narrative of St. Luke.
This weekend’s Gospel is a pairing of two separate narratives that compose a diptych. Mark 12:38-40 is Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes or lawyers of the Jewish Law, and Mark 12:41-44 is his observations about a poor widow’s humble gift to the Temple treasury. Father Daniel Harrington’s commentary in The Jerome Biblical Commentary (623) provides much useful information. Harrington observes that the connecting word of the two pieces is “widow.” In the first paragraph Jesus warns his listeners to be on guard for scribes who dress in long robes. Harrington is quick to point out that Jesus is not referring to prayer shawls, which were not uncommon, but to a wardrobe arranged specifically to impress and bring honor to themselves; this is clear from the “rewards” of such strutting, such as social popularity, places of respect in the synagogue, and places of honor at banquet. So far, their sin seems to be narcissism.
But Jesus goes on with a more serious indictment: as a group, “they devour the houses of widows.” Jesus’ words take on their full sense if one looks at the legal mores of the time. Typically, a widow was an individual of considerable vulnerability. Biblical texts of both Testaments attest to the need of “widows and orphans” as a moral obligation of the highest order. Widows, then as today, entrusted management and protection of their belongings, large and small, to knowledgeable and trustworthy men, something like our executor of an estate. In Jesus’ day, who better for a vulnerable woman to turn to than a master of the Law who is highly esteemed in a community’s Jewish society? And, as Harrington notes, “a common way of receiving their fee was to get a share of the widow’s house.” Jesus’ term for this practice was “devouring.” Lawyers with reputations for piety would have been very popular choices as executor. Jesus is thus condemning the practice of imitating and showboating religious fervor to grow rich from executor fees; Mark does not mention that afflicting the poor and vulnerable was a principle target of Old Testament classical prophets.
From here the text proceeds to a different setting (the Temple area itself) and a different audience, his disciples. The scribes are not mentioned by name, though the location, the collection, and the number of rich donors would certainly bring the scribes to mind. The heart of the story is well known, but Jesus’ interpretation is worth scrutinizing. There is a not-so-subtle displeasure with rich donors who are contributing from “discretionary income” as we would say today, while the widow donates two lepka, the smallest minted coins in existence at that time. It is not stated in the text whether the temple offerings were tithes (10%); Jesus says that she donated “all that she had,” which of course would be much more than a tithe. Moreover, he adds that her offering was greater than all the other offerings made in his presence.
There is, to be sure, an element of judgment and warning in Jesus’ commentary here. Harrington indicates that we are seeing the measure by which God will judge at the inevitable coming of his kingdom. It is worth noting here that the following chapter of Mark (13) describes the terrors of the last days, and does so in two parts: (1) the destruction of the Temple, and (2) the cosmic signs. The twin episodes of the wicked scribes and the casual/total donors above can be seen as the district attorney concluding his case that the official Temple worship by the current custodians—its teachers and supporters, for that matter—had drifted far afield from the intent of the Revelation given at Mount Sinai, and that the new Kingdom will, in a dramatic topsy-turvy fashion, restore Israel to a way of life that, for all practical purposes, had been lost over time.