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CHRIST THE KING
Patricia Datchuck Sánchez
A Once, Now and Future Reign
For the most part, contemporary believers have little first-hand experience of kings, queens and their royal reigns. Most nations of the world are no longer governed by monarchs and in those countries where royal families continue to perdure, their roles are usually limited to that of figureheads. Since 1975, Juan Carlos has been honored as king of Spain; Beatrix succeeded Juliana on throne in the Netherlands in 1980, and Elizabeth II of the House of Windsor has been queen of England since 1952. Japan still venerates Emperor Akihito, and Thailand pays homage to Bhumibol Adulydadej; but of the worlds twenty-six remaining monarchs, few function in anything other than a symbolic capacity. Like vestiges of a fargone era, their presence is respectfully tolerated and garner a fair amount of curiosity, but is generally warranted as unnecessary. In some instances, the royals have even become objects of ridicule and fodder for unprincipled tabloid reporters. Not too long ago, circumstances in which members of a royal family were involved had so deteriorated that the head of their family bemoaned what had been an annis horribilis or horrible year. In complete juxtaposition to these earthly sovereigns, whose reigns are limited and whose territorial dominions are relegated to only a certain geographical locale and portion of the worlds population, Jesus and his reign are forever and absolute.
Today, as we celebrate the unique and distinctive sovereignty of Jesus, we affirm the fact that he exercises a supra-political, spiritual and life-giving authority over every aspect of the human experience. Unlike earthly kingdoms that continue to exist even when the earthly ruler dies or accedes the throne to a successor, without Jesus there would be no kingdom (basileia) or reign. But with him, and in him and because of him, there is a kingdom and a reign whose realities can be recognized and realized in the hearts of all who believe.
As John P. Meier (A Marginal Jew, Vol. II, Doubleday, New York: 1994) has explained, the concept or symbol of the kingdom or reign of God and therefore, the role which Jesus had in establishing it evolved through the centuries. For example, in the post-exilic period and most especially in the eschatological and apocalyptic literature (see first and second readings from Daniel and Revelation), the symbol of Gods kingdom or reign was connected with the hope that God would bring an end to the present state of the world and would embark upon a full and definitive rule over all creation. When Jesus appeared in flesh and blood in the midst of time and space he brought to light another aspect of the reign of God. In addition to being a future event or action by which Gods rule would be established, Jesus also taught of the reign or kingdom as Gods timeless and ever-present rule in daily life. Certain of Jesus sayings, e.g. the kingdom of God has come upon you (Luke 11:20) and the kingdom of God is in your midst (Luke 17:21) attest to the belief that through Jesus the future reign of God had begun to impinge on the present human experience.
However, as Meier has further noted, Jesus did not simply speak about the kingdom, he also acted - indeed acted out its presence. In his exorcisms, in his other striking deeds which were judged as miraculous by his contemporaries in his formation of a group of disciples, in his table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners, in his cleansing of the temple, in all these deeds he was acting out the message, viz., the kingdom of God which was future, was also present. Jesus was, in effect, making a startling identification: each of his powerful deeds was to be understood as a partial and preliminary realization of Gods reign which was yet to be displayed in full force.
As to his special role in the process of realizing Gods reign, we now call him king, but during his earthly ministry, Jesus served in another capacity. Acting as an eschatological prophet, Jesus proclaimed an imminent-future coming of Gods reign, called for baptism as a ritual of preparation for that reign, taught his disciples to pray for the kingdoms arrival, prophesied the ingathering of all peoples under Gods dominion, while at the same time, Jesus mediated the kingdom as already present among those whom he healed and exorcised.
Inasmuch as the church continues Jesus ministry of prophesying, teaching, mediating and healing, the kingdom of God and our king Jesus continue to evolve in our presence.
Having been initiated into the world of Daniel on the Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (first reading for November 16), the gathered assembly is invited today to travel further into the realm of apocalyptic with the second century B.C.E. author as their capable guide. As noted previously, apocalyptic was literature borne of suffering and crisis; its intended goal was to strengthen the persecuted with the assurance that evil would not triumph over goodness, nor would God ever abandon those who remain faithful.
Through visions and dreams, Daniel offered a cryptic commentary and interpretation of the unfolding history of his people. Todays first reading is an excerpt representing the dramatic climax of one of those visions. In the verses immediately preceding this short pericope (7:1-8), Daniel had seen a series of beasts emerging from the Great Sea, i.e. the tehom or great abyss which was the realm of primordial chaos and evil (Genesis 1:1). The first beast, a lion with eagles wings and a human heart represented the Babylonian empire that had plundered Judah and exiled its elite in the sixth century B.C.E. After the lion, appeared a bear with three ribs hanging garishly from its teeth, representing the empire of the Medes. Soon, the bear was replaced by a leopard with four heads and four wings: the Persian empire. Finally, a fourth beast with iron teeth for crushing and great feet for trampling made its terrifying entrance; so monstrous that no animal could serve as its symbol, this last beast represented the Greek empire and its ten horns signified the ten kings of the Seleucid dynasty.
Suddenly, as Daniel watched, the scene shifted to a celestial court (vv. 9-14) where one of great age (the Ancient One) sat enthroned in the company of tens of thousands. As witness to all of human history, the Ancient One could pass judgment on all that had transpired. After the books of human words and works (v. 10) were opened and read, sentence was passed. The fourth beast was executed and the others rendered powerless. With this vision, Daniels contemporaries were assured that their oppressors would one day be vanquished.
But then the vision continued. One like a son of man appeared on the clouds of heaven. Upon him, the Ancient One conferred the sovereignty and glory that had been shared by each of the beasts. Unlike the beasts who emerged from the abode of evil, the one like a son of man came from heaven, i.e. from God, the source of all goodness. Whereas the beasts had been abusive of their power and the people over whom they ruled for a limited period of time, the son of man was to rule in glory over all people for all ages.
In Jewish tradition, Daniels vision of the apocalyptic son of man evolved and eventually included notions of: (1) a hidden heavenly man who would appear at the end of time to judge and to save (Enoch, 2 Esdras); (2) a heavenly ideal man (Philo). By the time of Jesus first appearance, the ideas of judge and savior had become synonymous with the future and eagerly anticipated son of man. Although Jesus did use this title as a self-designation, it is significant that he tempered the image of the glorious, kingly son of man with the harsh realities of suffering and service (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33). Jesus would indeed appear as judge and savior and receive dominion, honor, glory and kingship but only after he himself had been judged and found guilty, crowned with thorns and enthroned on the cross. As subjects in his present and future dominion, believers should expect that their paths to glory will follow a similar route.
Daniel had succeeded in lending strength and support to his second century B.C.E. contemporaries by sharing with them his visions of a cavalcade of history. Those who thought their present experience to be intolerable were heartened by the promise that all would end happily. Following in the footsteps of his predecessor and with the same literary tools (apocalyptic literature and imagery), the late first century C.E. author of Revelation served his readers in similar fashion.
Although he identified himself as John (1:1, 4, 9; 22:8) and although very early tradition has ascribed the authorship of Revelation to John, the apostle and son of Zebedee, there is no clear evidence in this regard. Except for the coincidence of his name and the probability of his Jewish origin, little else is known of Revelations seer.
As regards the times during which he wrote however, readers of Johns work can be more certain. Once the apocalyptic symbolism has been pierced and the books protagonists (beasts) are identified, we can deduce that the author lived and wrote during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian (81-96 C.E.). Brother of Titus and son of Vespasian, Domitian insisted that he be universally revered as Dominus et Deus Noster - our lord and god. He commissioned statues to be built in his likeness and erected throughout the empire. When Jews and Christians refused to burn incense in worship before his likeness, they were persecuted with the full clout of Roman might.
Aware of and a sharer in their desperate circumstances, the author of Revelation summoned his readers to remember and proclaim their loyalties to a greater king than Domitian, viz., Jesus Christ, ruler of the kings of the earth (v. 5). Similarly, he reminded his contemporaries (and us) that they (we) are members of a far more prestigious and royal household than even that of imperial Rome; indeed believers, then and now, are a royal nation of priests (v. 6).
In honor of Jesus royal reign and as a boost to his readers flagging spirits, the Revelation author leads all who suffer persecution for their faith in a triple cheer (actually a doxology, vv. 5-6). Comprised of a collage of texts from the Hebrew scriptures (Psalm 89:28; Isaiah 55:4; Zechariah 12:10; Daniel 7:13) and heavily reliant on the concept of the Day of the Lord, John invites us to glory in Jesus, born from the dead to the victory and glory of an everlasting reign. As believers baptized into the dying and rising of Jesus, his glory is our glory, his victory our own! So it is to be! Amen!
Of all the thousands of officials who wielded some measure of power during Romes half-millennial rule, the name of only one has continued to be spoken for centuries. In the gospels and in the creed by which millions of Christians profess their faith, Pontius Pilate is memorialized. Both the Nicene Creed, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and the Apostles Creed, he suffered under Pontius Pilate, make mention of the Roman prefect, not in an effort to exact blame but in order to firmly establish the Christ-event in reality. As Stanley B. Marrow (The Gospel of John, Paulist Press, New York: 1995) affirms, this statement rivets revelation to history; it takes the credal formulation about Jesus out of the realm of religious myth and sets it firmly within the flesh and blood, time and space existence which is human history.
In addition to providing a setting in history for the saving work of Jesus, the fourth evangelist used the figure of Pilate and the interchanges between him and Jews to clarify certain christological and soteriological points, viz., (1) that Jesus was indeed a king, (2) that his reign and authority were divine in origin, (3) that those who should have recognized the truth about Jesus but refused to do so were culpable.
As the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate unfolded, the non-political, non-partisan and non-parochial character of Jesus royal reign is gradually clarified. While he tacitly accepted the title of king, the Johannine Jesus reinterpreted what his kingship and kingdom truly signified. Just as the incarnate word of God was not of the world (John 1:10) and just as Jesus disciples were not to be of the world (15:19; 17:14), so, Jesus kingdom was not of this world (v. 36). Recall the fourth gospels distinction between world as the created universe and world as that element which is hostile to truth and light. Perhaps both nuances of meaning were implied by Jesus disclaimer. Not of the world, i.e. not created, Jesus and the kingdom are divine in origin. This kingdom is to be established not by human devising or ambitious political machinations but by God alone and through the one whom God has sent, Jesus.
Born into the world by Gods will to witness to the truth, the presence of Jesus extends to all of humankind the challenge of accepting that truth (v. 37). Those who open themselves to the penetrating and illuminating power of the truth and who respond morally and faithfully to its demands will recognize the presence of God in the person and mission of Jesus. The recognition of that presence is an experience of the kingdom that has begun in Jesus and will forever continue in him until its climactic culmination.
For those whose democratic sensibilities cause them to shy away from the notion of kings and kingdoms and to regard todays feast as a vestige of arcane theology, Roland Faley (Footprints on the Mountain, Paulist Press, New York: 1994) suggests that we get beyond the title and understand the reality of what the church is celebrating and acknowledging today before God and before Jesus... Totus tuus! Totally yours!
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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.
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