A Kingdom not of this world
(Readings: Daniel 7:13-14; Apocalypse 1:5-8; John 18:33-37)
Introduction to Mass
Today is the feast of Christ the King. Standing before Pontius Pilate Jesus describes himself as king of a kingdom "not of this world" and as one sent to bear witness to the truth. The readings suggest ways in which, as followers of Christ, we might act as citizens of his kingdom.
My brothers and sisters, to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries...
Today's feast celebrates the exalted position Jesus occupies as the redeemer of mankind, and there are a few points or lessons we can draw from today's readings that help us to understand what the Christian tradition means when it refers to Jesus as "Lord" and "King".
First there's what we might call the sense of God's majesty as Creator and our smallness as his creatures, and flawed creatures at that, which has always been a fundamental part of a religious outlook on life.
The authors of the books of the Old Testament frequently used the symbols associated with kingship or royalty to convey their sense of God's greatness and superiority over his creatures, which was never the greatness and superiority of an earthly ruler, often established by subjugating others. It was a greatness or majesty based on God's complete holiness and on the fact that God is so far above and beyond us: his transcendence.
The psalm today is a good example. "The Lord is king, with majesty enrobed," says the writer. "...your throne has stood firm from of old...Holiness is fitting for your house".
The person who wrote the psalm is speaking for all the people who have become aware of God's presence and guidance in their lives. They react with a sense of awe and they feel compelled to respond to God by giving him honour and glory and worship. The language of their prayer expresses dependence, gratitude, adoration - very much the language of a subject looking up to his lord and king.
So that's the first thing we can reflect on as regards the symbolism of today's feast: that as we develop our spiritual sense and genuinely get to know God, we tend to acquire a conviction of God's majesty and holiness and we realise that the only appropriate way to relate to him is with adoration and worship.
The second point emerges perhaps from the circumstances of the gospel passage for today's feast.
Saint John shows Jesus, representing God's kingdom - the kingdom "not of this world" - confronting the representative of Caesar's kingdom, a kingdom very much of this world, a kingdom spread by force, conquest and exploitation.
During his ministry Jesus had been a powerful preacher and miracle worker, someone who argued passionately with his opponents and came across to people as a spiritual teacher with great authority and presence.
But it's not that image of strength that Saint John uses to portray Jesus as king. It's the image of Jesus weak and subject, preparing to take up the Cross rather than defend himself by violence, that John and the other gospel writers turn to, to show the real nature of Christ's kingship.
This "mystery of the cross" which is at the heart of the Christian faith, isn't something that appeals to us or even makes sense at first glance. It runs counter to our natural inclinations and we resist it the way the disciples resisted it when Jesus tried to make it clear to them during his ministry.
But again, the further we progress in our knowledge of God and the more we come under God's influence, the more we find ourselves turning willingly to the way of the cross. We start to realise that following God in the world as it is, deeply marked by sin, inevitably involves walking the way of the Cross. That change in mentality is part of the impact God makes on us, the conversion he brings about in us.
All the basically self-interested goals that we spend so much time struggling and competing for start to lose their attractiveness. All our ingrained habits and reflexes of asserting ourselves and pushing our own interests at the expense of other people, start to wither away. And the more we move in that direction the more we're also becoming representatives of the kingdom not of this world, after the pattern of Christ himself.
That's part of the meaning we can take from this encounter between Christ and Pilate.
The third point relates to what Jesus says at the end of the gospel passage: "I was born for this, I came into the world for this: to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice".
There was no confusion or ambiguity in Jesus' mind about the unique part he was playing in God's plan of salvation. There was no confusion or ambiguity in the minds of his disciples, after his Resurrection and after their experience at Pentecost.
Christ's whole work of redemption was a turning point in the history of God's dealings with humanity. The Old Covenant with Israel was finished and the first followers of Christ now had the job of announcing the new message of salvation as far and wide as possible, and drawing as many people as possible into the new community of salvation, the Church: "Go and baptise all nations, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit". That was their commission, then, and it's still ours, now.
But at present, it seems there's a tendency for many Christian believers to undermine their own faith in that commission by doubting the pivotal role Christ has played in history. There's a notion instead that insisting on Christ's unique role involves belittling other religions and philosophies. And connected to that there's a conviction that explicit faith in Christ isn't all that important as long as thereís a commitment to decency and justice and so on.
This isn't the place to answer those confusions in detail, but they're worth mentioning today because the feast of Christ the King has also been labelled National Youth Sunday, and my own conviction is that the best way to hand on the faith to the younger generation is by emphasising what is essential and distinctive about faith in Christ and his work of salvation, not by presenting the Church as a social club, a form of entertainment, or as a pressure group campaigning for various good causes.
We're failing in our job to hand on the faith to the next generation if we don't first of all try to foster in children and young people a sense of the majesty of Godís holiness: that Christian faith is a matter of striving to make contact with the transcendent God, opening ourselves to his influence, entering the mystery of his life.
We're failing in our job if we don't try to convey the mystery of the Cross at the heart of the Christian faith, the fact that we're called to be citizens of a kingdom not of this world, a kingdom that stands in opposition to all the egotism and self-seeking of this world.
We're failing in our duty if we don't present Christ as the turning-point in history, if we give the impression that all religions and philosophies are of equal value and people should just pick them off the shelf according to taste and inclination. That's not recognising the truth of Christ's witness that he claims to be making in the gospel today.
There are many young people now in our culture at least who have been brought up against a conventional background of church attendance and so on, and its obvious that they have no sense of God at all, no real relationship of their own with God, and no sense of what the gospel entails.
The reason is that for the whole of their childhood and youth they've had a religion that hardly went beyond discos, social events, fundraising and humanitarian efforts. But "even the pagans do as much" - and with many of those activities they actually do it better.
So maybe today's feast at the end of the church year, presenting Christ under the symbols of Lord and Universal King, can help us reflect on, and recover, some of the great classical features of Christian belief and also help us recover some of the confidence we're supposed to have in proclaiming the faith to others and inviting them to accept it.