Long Live Christ the King!

34th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: Nov. 21-22, 2009
Our Lord Jesus Christ the King

Dan 7:13-14; Ps 93:1-2, 5; Rev 1:5-8; John 18:33-37

Pilate said to Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And Jesus answered him by speaking about his kingdom. “My kingdom does not belong to this world.” What does he mean by this? If Jesus is a king, what is his kingdom like?

  • When we think of “a kingdom” in the ordinary sense, perhaps the first thing we think of is: land. A particular territory of land, with boundaries that mark it off as separate from other territories of land. Jesus didn’t come to take over an area of land.
  • And perhaps we also think of the royal army that defends those borders against aggressors. But Jesus said, “If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.” Clearly, Jesus did not come to set up an army to defend his land.

And yet, even a kingdom that truly belongs to this world is not only its land and its armies. On a more fundamental level, every kingdom is its people: all the people who acknowledge the king as king; who follow the king, who obey him; whose lives are shaped by their relationship to the king; and who are joined together with each other, by the relationship that each of them has with the king. Any kingdom—indeed, any country, no matter what form of government it has—is about “hearts and minds.” It is about identity, about who we are; about what we love; what we hope for; what we work for; what values and actions we encourage and reward; what values and actions we discourage and punish.

But if a kingdom is fundamentally about the relationships between the king and his subjects, then a lot depends on just what we think of kings. As Americans, we might think of how the Declaration of Independence accused King George III “of repeated injuries and usurpations” seeking “the establishment of an absolute tyranny.” But as people living in the 21st century, we have seen many images of the constitutional monarchies in some European countries—who are basically figureheads living out public roles that have a lot to do with clothes, ceremonies, and public gestures of good will. If Christ is a king, is he a tyrant to be feared and opposed? A distant figurehead to be envied or pitied, but definitely ignored?

But there is another image of a king that we have seen recently in books and movies: the figure of Aragorn, the long-awaited king in the Lord of the Rings books and movies. For there we saw a man who was neither a tyrant nor a figurehead, but who was strong and brave and wise; even young and handsome; who faced danger, led others on long journeys through unknown lands, rallied troops for battle, and defended the weak; whose public arrival fulfilled prophecies, and brought hope and wholeness to a despairing city; and who had a major role in defeating the dark enemy of those books and transforming their whole world. It is no accident that J.R.R. Tolkien, a devout Catholic, created Aragorn in such a way that he resembled our Lord Jesus Christ the King in many ways.

And it is a figure like Aragorn that we see in our gospel reading today, as Jesus stood face to face with the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. This is in the midst of the trial that will quickly lead to Jesus’ crucifixion and death; and, as Pilate says to Jesus just a little later in the Gospel of John [19:10], Pilate has “power to release” him and “power to crucify” him.

When Pilate asks Jesus the question, “Are you the King of the Jews?”, he has his own definite idea of what such a king would be. To Pilate, someone who claimed the title “King of the Jews” was working on an armed rebellion, to throw the Roman Empire out of the Holy Land and reestablish an independent Kingdom of Israel. This was not Jesus’ plan; and so he makes the point strongly to Pilate: “My kingdom does not belong to this world.” Yes, Jesus is a king; no, he will not be raising an army to take control of the Holy Land.

So Pilate has nothing to worry about, right? Wrong. Although Christ’s kingdom is not about territory or armies, it is very much about hearts and minds, identity, relationships, hopes and values—all those things that every kingdom of this world is also about. Pope Pius XI, in establishing this feast, wrote [Quas Primas, 33]:

He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls.

From Pilate and Herod to the present day, almost no king, governor, prince, or president has wanted someone else to have such a hold on their subjects. When Jesus said, “Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God,” this was not music to the ears of earthly rulers. They don’t want this radical division: they want control of their subjects’ minds, wills, hearts, and bodies themselves! And so the pages of history are filled with different examples of governments trying to co-opt the Church, as a tool of their own greater power; or to control the Church; or to oppress the Church; or even trying to destroy the Church.

In those times of struggle and persecution by the kingdoms of this world, the Church has held even more tightly to Christ the King. During the French Revolution, some used the symbol of the Sacred Heart with the words, “Dieu le Roi: God is King.” A hundred years later, during heavy persecution by secular forces in Mexico, some used the cry, “Viva Cristo Rey: Long live Christ the King!”—including the martyr, Blessed Father Miguel Pro, whose feast day we celebrate tomorrow.

It is a cry that we also may have to take up in coming years, as our struggles with our governments seem to be seriously increasing. Just this past Friday, November 20, a group of 148 Catholic and Protestant leaders in the U.S. released a document called the Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience. Among these were 14 Catholic bishops, including our own Archbishop Donald Wuerl, and Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York. The document describes the threats in our country today to the lives of the unborn, the disabled, and the elderly; threats to the institution of marriage; and threats to freedom of religion and the rights of conscience. And it concludes with this paragraph:

Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.

This then is the current state of the struggle in our country. We need to prepare ourselves for harder days ahead. But to be prepared for the outer struggle, we first need to engage an inner struggle—a struggle to make Christ truly king of each of our lives. If you were somehow put on trial for being a devoted follower of Christ the King—would there be enough evidence to convict you? Suppose your mind, will, heart, and body were closely examined; indeed, your checkbook and your day planner—what would the investigators find? Who is the king of your life? Is it yourself? Your boss? Your kids; your spouse; your parents? Some ideology or cause? A sports team? A hobby; a pleasure; a sin? In the 3rd century, the theologian Origen wrote:

The kingdom of God cannot exist alongside the reign of sin. Therefore, if we wish God to reign in us, in no way should sin reign in our mortal body … There should be in us a kind of spiritual paradise where God may walk and be our sole ruler with his Christ.

Christ is not a tyrant king to be feared; nor is he a figurehead king to be ignored. He is a strong and wise king who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood. At this Mass, as we kneel before His Majesty, let us resolve to follow him more closely and to bring more of our lives under his kingly rule, so that our whole lives may proclaim, “Long live Christ the King!”


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Published in: on November 22, 2009 at 9:54 am  Leave a Comment  

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