Commentary on Daniel 7:13-14; Revelation 1:5-8; John 18:33-37
WE HAVE REACHED the end of the Church year. Today is the 34th and final Sunday of the year. And, as usual, we celebrate today the feast of Christ the Universal King.
There is a great contrast between the readings. The First Reading is from the Book of Daniel and the Second is from the Book of Revelation. These are what we call apocalyptic books. The word ‘apocalypse’ comes from a Greek word (apokalypsis, ἀποκάλυψις) which means an ‘uncovering’ or a ‘revelation’ of something hidden. The books reveal the inner meaning of life and both were written for people who were suffering great persecution for fidelity to their religious beliefs – Jews in one case and early Christians in the other. The books are full of hope and look forward to a day when God will come in triumph and overcome the earthly powers which commit so many evils and bring so much suffering.
Son of Man
The Book of Daniel was written during the time of King Antiochus Epiphanes who desecrated the Temple of Jerusalem and forced many Jews to adopt idolatrous customs and to abandon the requirements of their Law. Many resisted and paid for their actions with torture and death. It is in this dark atmosphere that the author of Daniel wrote in today’s reading: “I saw one like a son of man coming, on the clouds of heaven.”
Christians, of course, see in the “son of man” Jesus their Lord who often referred to himself as the “Son of Man”. He was presented before the “Ancient One”, God the Father, from whom he received “dominion, glory – and kingship”. And this kingdom, unlike all those which have gone before, “is an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away, his kingship shall not be destroyed”. As Jesus himself was to say, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” This kingdom is indestructible and everlasting.
The Book of Revelation from which our Second Reading comes was written in similar circumstances to Daniel. The Church in parts of the Roman Empire was undergoing fierce persecution. Many were being arrested and martyred while others were driven underground. The Book of Revelation represents an underground document intended to rally morale and build up the courage of Christians. It is full of symbolical language and imagery, which the Christians could understand but which made little sense to their non-Christian persecutors. While the meaning of much of the symbolism and images has been recovered, there are still parts of the book whose meaning we can only guess at. (Thus giving a field day to some evangelical preachers to see in these symbols references to present day events. Most of these speculations are quite unjustified.)
Today’s reading comes from the opening chapter and is a hymn of praise for Jesus, “the first-born from the dead and ruler of the kings of earth”. Echoing the Book of Daniel, it sings, “See, he comes amid the clouds!” It continues: “Every eye shall see him, even those who pierced him”, namely, those who condemned him to death on the cross.
“All the peoples of the earth shall lament him bitterly.” Both out of compassion for his sufferings and out of guilt in so far as their sins caused them. And, in a way, that includes all of us. For, it was because of our sins that he died on the cross. There is none of us who can say: “It does not touch me.”
Alpha and Omega
But, as the Lord says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the One who is and who was and who is to come.” Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. They represent the beginning and the end. Jesus Christ is, as Paul in the letter to the Colossians and John in his gospel tell us, the source of all that is, the Alpha. Through him, the creating Word of God, all things were created.
And he is the Omega, the final goal for all creation. Every experience, every dream, every achievement is subordinated to this. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts will never rest until they rest in you,” said Augustine. This is another way of saying that Jesus Christ is our King. He alone gives meaning to our existence, to our lives.
The King before his judges
The Gospel brings us to a totally different setting. Jesus has been arrested in the garden. He has been subjected to a summary trial by his enemies and found guilty of the capital crime of blasphemy for equating himself with God. However, the Jews have no authority to carry out capital punishment so they have to submit their prisoner to the Roman authorities.
Jesus now stands before Pontius Pilate the Roman governor of Palestine. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asks Jesus. It is hard not to hear a mocking tone in the question as Jesus stands there before him, a dishevelled prisoner in his simple garment. Immediately, as happened before the Sanhedrin, Pilate experiences the power and dignity of Jesus. “Are you saying this on your own, or have others been telling you about me?” Pilate was not used to being addressed like this, especially by one of his subjugated people. And it is a challenge to Pilate the Roman to come forward with the kind of firm evidence that was required by a Roman law court. (It is a challenge to us too. Is our knowledge of Jesus based on personal experience or simply on what we have been told in catechism class or sermons?)
Anger and contempt
Not used to being challenged by Jews, there is anger and contempt in Pilate’s retort: “I am no Jew! It is your own people and the chief priests who have handed you over to me. What have you done?” There again is the phrase “handed over”, which echoes right through the Gospel. John the Baptist, Jesus and his disciples are all “handed over” into the hands of those who would wish to destroy them. And in the Eucharist – in a very different and loving way – the Body of Christ is “handed over” to us to be broken and shared among us.
And the question: “What have you done?” How is it to be answered in a few words? It is the story of Jesus from the moment of the Annunciation, through Bethlehem and Nazareth, to the public life of preaching and teaching, healing and liberating and finally suffering, dying and rising – out of love. Instead of answering, Jesus speaks of the nature of his kingship.
It does not belong to this world; it is on a different level altogether. If it was a political kingdom, then his followers would rally together to save him from being “handed over” to his own people. But no one is rallying to his cause. His followers, with one or two exceptions, have fled in fear and confusion. His kingship is on a different level, a level over which Pilate has no control.
‘I am a king’
Again, Pilate asks – now a little more respectful in response to the dignity and power he recognises in Jesus: “So, then, you are a king?” “If you say so, I am a king.” But Jesus goes on to explain what being a king for him means: “The reason I was born, the reason why I came into this world, is to give witness to the truth.” Jesus’ kingship is not one of executive or coercive power. It is to open people’s eyes to the real meaning of life, of their existence and that of the whole world in which they live. And, he continues, “Anyone committed to the truth hears my voice.”
They are words of challenge thrown to Pilate, to his Jewish judges – and to all of us. And that is how one becomes a subject of this King, by sharing fully with him his vision of what is real, his vision of life and to share his goals.
To be subject to this King is to experience an extraordinary liberation and an exciting new outlook on life. Earlier he had said, “The truth will make you free.” Many see Christianity as a religion of bondage. They imagine they have a greater sense of liberation by leaving the Church. But this is a distorted reading of the meaning of Jesus and his mission (a distortion, it must be said, not always of their own making).
No one is more free than the one who has seen the truth through the eyes of Jesus his King and who accepts that truth as the Way to Life in its fullness. “I have come that they may have life, life in abundance” and “the Truth shall make you free”.
Today then we celebrate Jesus Christ as our King. And not only our King but the King of people everywhere, whether they are Christians or not. We are all called to submit ourselves to the same Truth, the same Reality which governs all things. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End of all things. Through him as the Word of God, we are led to the throne of the one who is all Truth and all Love. “Our hearts will find no rest until they rest in Him.”