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Homily notes: Feast of Christ the King, Year B, 25 November 2018

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ  |  16 November 2018

Lectionary reading

First reading: Daniel 7:13-14.

Responsorial Psalm: 92(93):1-2, 5.

Second reading: Apocalypse 1:5-8.

Gospel: John 18:33-37.

Link to readings.

Commentary

Today the Church’s liturgical year (Year B) comes to a close with the feast of Christ the King – for many, doubtless, an anachronistic and alien image.

The early generations of believers probably faced much the same problem. The idea of Christ as King, which was inevitably bound up with recognition of him as the Jewish Messiah, had overtones of power and domination that must have seemed incongruous in view of what they believed concerning Jesus. They too had to reclaim and remint the idea of kingship before it could be appropriately applied to him. This is in fact what we see happening in the extract from the Fourth Gospel’s presentation of the trial before Pilate, which forms the Gospel for today.

To prepare for this we have, as First Reading, a celebrated passage from the Book of Daniel (7:13-14). As I explained in connection with last week’s readings, apocalyptic literature, of which Daniel is the archetype, is basically designed to give reassurance and comfort to the suffering faithful. It does so by depicting their coming rescue and vindication in scenes of vivid imagery and symbolism. Just before this particular vision, all the empires that have historically oppressed God’s people have been depicted in a series of horrible beasts. The phrase “one like a son of man” refers, in first instance, to a human figure in contrast to all those beasts. The human figure represents the suffering faithful of God’s people, to whom in due course world sovereignty will be given. The choice of a human figure as symbol indicates a sovereignty that will not be exploitative or violent – like that of the beasts – but the restoration of the true human flourishing that was God’s original intent for humankind.

In later Jewish tradition the “one like a son of man” lost its purely symbolic reference and “Son of Man” came to be understood as a transcendent heavenly figure whose coming was awaited for the liberation of God’s people. It was in such form that the title Son of Man came to be applied to Jesus. Its origins in Daniel gave it the sense of one who comes to sovereignty and power out of faithfulness in great suffering – something that made it far more appropriate for Jesus than the title “Messiah”. In fact, the Gospel tradition seems to have used the “Son of Man” title and its associations as a way of turning the kingly associations of “Messiah” in a more suitable direction. In this sense the reading from Daniel is highly appropriate for this feast.

The Book of Revelation (Apocalypse), the beginning of which provides the Second Reading, 1:5-8, is rather much a re-writing of Daniel in the light of Jesus Christ. Replete with biblical allusions, it assures the Christian community, oppressed by the power of the Roman empire, of the triumph of Christ, who himself once stood before the power of Rome (Pilate) as a faithful witness and whose sufferings brought them into being as a royal and priestly people, like Israel of old (Exod 19:6). Though they are now oppressed and suffering, they will soon share in the triumph of Christ, who is the beginning (Alpha) and end (Omega) of all human history.

The centrepiece of the Passion story in the Fourth Gospel is the long confrontation between Jesus and the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, before whom he is on trial. Jesus’ adversaries are trying to make out that Jesus is a king (“King of the Jews”) in the sense of a messianic pretender to the throne of David and hence a threat to the rule of Rome. In the extract that forms today’s Gospel, John 18:33-37, Jesus owns his kingship but radically redefines it away from the kind of worldly rule that could rival that of Rome. All kingship requires allegiance. The allegiance that Jesus has as king is an allegiance from all those who are “on the side of” truth, an allegiance fundamentally of love in that, “lifted up” (on the cross), he will draw all people to himself (12:32).

Later (v 38), Pilate will ask, “What is truth?” and not wait for an answer. “Truth” in the sense of this Gospel basically means the revelation of God, as Jesus reveals God to be, and the view of human life that flows from that vision. Jesus’ whole life has been a revelation, defense and witness to “truth” in this sense. Now he is on trial for it – as countless others, down to and including our time, will be on trial in the same cause. Pilate may have the physical power of Rome behind him. Jesus has the allegiance of all who seek the truth. They will suffer for bearing witness to it, as he did. Today’s feast asserts that they who have shared his witness will share his victory as well.

Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost 40 years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media

 

 

 

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