Why Christ Is King
Understanding the meaning of kingship through the solemnity’s Gospel of John
The Church highlights the closing of each liturgical year by celebrating the solemnity of Christ the King. As liturgical feast days go, this one is relatively new. It was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 with the publication of his encyclical Quas Primas (“In the First”).
The encyclical was a response to the growing nationalism and secularism taking place throughout Europe and other places in the world. People were afraid and desperate. They clung to anyone who offered them hope or any kind of direction out of this chaos. They gravitated especially to emerging dictators who would eventually be known as Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin.
The Church and her moral teachings were considered out of date and no longer relevant for modern times. Therefore, the feast day was established to proclaim that Jesus Christ is the only sovereign king. Christ is our spiritual king and ruler who rules by truth and love.
In our own day, nationalism and secularism seem to be on the increase throughout much of the world. Conflicts within the Church make it very difficult to provide guidance and hope. In many ways, the Church seems to be using the same methods as those who find religion outdated and just another political tool for exercising power and domination over others.
In such a situation, making reference to Jesus Christ as king would appear to be the last thing we need to do. Would that not only confirm just how out of touch the Church is with the modern world? Perhaps we need to explore this a bit more carefully before passing a negative judgment on Jesus Christ being a king.
We all have our understandings of what kingship and royalty stand for. They fit in with the monarchies of the Middle Ages and survive today only as figureheads in a few countries. They are not a form of government to which most modern nations wish to return. Interestingly enough, Jesus himself was not enamored with kings and royalty during his own lifetime and ministry.
Call to mind how right after Jesus had fed 5,000-plus people with five barley loaves and two fish, according to the Gospel of John, “Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone” (6:15). Jesus and these people from whom he is fleeing are not on the same page regarding what it means to be a king.
Gospel of John
The Gospel for this year’s solemnity of Christ the King is John 18:33-37. Focusing carefully on the context of that passage, Jesus has just been arrested by the soldiers and guards from the chief priests and Pharisees. He is about to undergo an interrogation from Pontius Pilate. For this purpose, Jesus has been brought from a meeting with the high priest Caiaphas to the praetorium. The praetorium was Pilate’s residence and the Jewish leaders would not enter it lest they become ritually impure and not be able to eat during the Passover.
Ritual purity was more important than an innocent man’s life. The motivation for this move stems from the fact that Jews could not implement the death penalty. Therefore, the Jewish officials want Pilate to do this for them. Pilate, however, is not a bit interested in getting involved in what he considers to be an in-house religious squabble. Therefore, he wants to know the charges brought against Jesus as well as why the Jewish leaders do not handle this themselves. Pilate wants to distance himself from this whole situation.
His track record for dealing effectively with these kinds of conflicts was not good. Rome was watching him carefully, and he knew it. Therefore, he gets right to the point by asking Jesus in a very straightforward manner this question, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus refuses to answer Pilate directly but instead, he directs his own question toward Pilate, “Do you say this on your own or have others told you about me?”
It is very important to notice what has just happened here. Very cleverly, Jesus has turned the tables and is now interrogating Pilate. This reversal will continue throughout the whole narrative. Pilate and the Jewish officials are now on trial, and Jesus is in charge of the questioning. This is a unique feature of the Passion narrative of John.
When Jesus does finally respond to Pilate he does not speak about himself as a king. Instead, he talks about the Kingdom, which does not belong to this world. It does not get its power from this world or the values that Pilate and the Jewish leaders represent.
The Kingdom is a place where God reigns. It is a community of those who are of God, of the truth and respond to the voice of Jesus, and thereby are ready to see and enter into that kingdom. Nevertheless, neither Pilate nor the Jewish leaders grant Jesus the status of king of the Jews.
No doubt, there was fear on the part of Pilate and the Jewish officials that Jesus was in fact a competitor for secular kingly power. However, during his public ministry, Jesus did not ever give way to a messianic enthusiasm mixed with human hopes and temporal aspirations. Anyone who would have claimed to be such a king would have found himself at odds with Roman authorities. Jesus consistently shows no interest in any of this.
Pilate makes every effort to get Jesus to claim the title of king for himself. Since Jesus has spoken freely about the kingdom, this leads Pilate to ask further, “Then you are a king?”
Jesus quickly dismisses this conclusion of Pilate and moves the dialogue to the important issue of mission. Jesus did not come into the world to assume political power in the form of a royal kingship. He came into the world to testify to the truth and everyone who belongs to the truth listens to his voice (cf. v. 37).
Jesus clearly prefers to identify himself as a witness to the truth rather than as a king. Pilate, therefore, responds to Jesus with his famous question, “What is truth?” With this response, Pilate makes it clear that he does not hear or understand Jesus at all. He does not recognize the truth standing right in front of him.
Witness to the Truth
Some of those who encounter Jesus during his ministry will acknowledge him as a king. They are searching for a successor to the great King David who will lead his people to victory over the Roman Empire.
Jesus always avoids such overtures, and he himself does not ever claim the title king. Still, it is possible to perceive him as king, but only in a unique way. If he is seen as a king it is also clear that he does not attain his kingship by seizing the royal throne or allowing others to do it for him.
His kingly vocation is carried out in bearing witness to the truth. The Gospel of John makes it clear that the way to his royal acclamation, to his exaltation, lies through his death on the cross. He will be crucified not because he has done evil but because he has borne witness to the truth publicly and openly.
Jesus exercises his royalty in making God known to the world, bearing witness to the truth and drawing all those who are of the truth into his unique kingdom.
Opportunities for Teaching and Preaching
So, what are the opportunities for teaching and preaching on this solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe?
The best practice is to follow the lead of Jesus especially as it is presented in the Gospel of John. Here we discover that both Jesus and Pilate use the word “king,” but they by no means understand that word in the same way. Pilate is always focused on the political aspects of king and kingship. At the heart of all this is the quest for power and domination. Much of this gets captured by the term “royalty.”
When Jesus uses these same words he does not understand them in the same way as does Pilate. Jesus redefines what it means to be a king with a kingdom. He represents a royalty that is visible only from the perspective of the Cross.
To see this, however, requires faith. Jesus declares that his kingship and kingdom are not of this world. That means that they cannot be identified with any earthly kingdom — past, present or future. Jesus’ kingdom will be brought about through the death and resurrection of the king. The dynamic here is total surrender rather than domination. It is a giving up of life rather than taking the life of others. Jesus’ kingdom is unlike any the world recognizes or admires.
Revelation of Truth
Jesus’ mission as king is to reveal God’s truth to the world. His kingly vocation is carried out in bearing witness to this truth. The way he achieves royal acclamation and divine exaltation lies through his death on the cross. The cross is Jesus’ throne. He will be crucified, not because he has done evil, but because he has borne witness to the truth in a public and open manner.
The reason Jesus was born was to bear witness to the truth. This in turn must be the mission of everyone who desires to be a follower of Jesus.
Truth today is constantly under attack. George Orwell is attributed with saying, “The further a society drifts from the truth the more it will hate those who will speak it.”
That was certainly the experience of Jesus, and it remains so today for his faithful followers. Jesus redefines kingship and kingdom in terms of bearing witness to the truth. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “This witness is a transmission of the faith in words and deeds. Witness is an act of justice that establishes the truth or makes it known” (No. 2472).
This understanding of bearing witness to the truth as the heart of Jesus’ kingship is captured very clearly in the words of Pope Francis. “The kingdoms of this world at times are sustained by arrogance, rivalries and oppression; the reign of Christ is a ‘kingdom of justice, love and peace.’ … For a Christian, speaking of power and strength means referring to the power of the Cross, and the strength of Jesus’ love: a love which remains steadfast and complete, even when faced with rejection, and it is shown as the fulfillment of a life expanded in the total surrender of oneself for the benefit of humanity” (Angelus address of Pope Francis, Solemnity of Christ the King, Nov. 22, 2015).
FATHER EUGENE HENSELL, OSB, is a monk of St. Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, Indiana, and an associate professor of Scripture at St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology.
‘Worthy Is the Lamb’
“I looked again and heard the voices of many angels who surrounded the throne and the living creatures and the elders. They were countless in number, and they cried out in a loud voice:
“ ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain / to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, / honor and glory and blessing.’
“Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, everything in the universe, cry out:
“ ‘To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb / be blessing and honor, glory and might, / forever and ever’” (Rv 11-13).