In 1925, Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King as a response to the secularism which had pervaded culture, and had in some places become actual hostility and persecution. The full name of the Solemnity is “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.” When I started going to interfaith Seders, I learned that the Jewish prayer of blessing includes a phrase, melech ha olam, which literally means King of the universe. While the title of the feast was probably not chosen for that reason,* it does show a commonality in our understanding of God.
In the reform of the liturgy after Vatican II, it was moved from the last Sunday of October to the last Sunday in Ordinary Time, and no other Mass was given for the 34th Sunday in Ordinary Time. In other words, unlike All Saints Day, which this year happened to fall on the 30th Sunday and replaced the usual Mass for that day, today’s feast — including the readings — does not displace any others which might normally occur on this Sunday.
The first two readings — Daniel 7:13-14 and Revelation 1:5-8 — give us similar apocalyptic imagery of one who comes on the clouds of heaven. We identify Daniel’s “one like a Son of man” with Jesus. Originally, the author may have understood him as a personification of the people of Israel, rescued from persecution. He is depicted as entering the presence of the Father and receiving a worldwide and everlasting kingship. Applying it to Jesus, we can think of this as happening preeminently after his sufferings and resurrection, at his Ascension. Revelation presents Jesus as returning at the end of time in the glory the Father gave him. Both readings tell us that Jesus, the Son of man, is to be acknowledged by all nations, superior to all earthly kings. Revelation adds that he is our redeemer and is almighty. His people are God’s kingdom and his priests.
The responsorial psalm — Ps. 93:1-2, 5 — is our acknowledgment of the Lord’s eternal kingship.
The gospel — John 18:33b-37 — is part of the Passion narrative which we hear on Good Friday. This excerpt clarifies for us the true meaning of Christ’s kingship. Clearly the cosmic kingship of which we hear in the first two readings has not been activated in history, and we do not know what a videocamera would show when that full realization occurs at the end of time. In the gospel, the universal king stands before a provincial governor to be judged. His kingdom does not belong to this world. His kingdom has to do with bearing witness to the truth.
What is the truth to which he bears witness? Well, it is the entirety of God’s revelation to humanity. Above all, perhaps we can say, it is the truth that God loves each and every one of us. The context of this dialogue with Pilate reminds us that Jesus’ kingship is based on his dying on the cross. It was on the cross, as we hear on this feast in Year C, that he promised paradise to the criminal who asked Jesus to remember him when Jesus came into his kingdom. His death on the cross is the supreme witness to the truth of God’s love.
But if it is true that Jesus does not have the obedience of all political authorities, if his kingship is not acknowledged by all nations, that does not mean that his people are indifferent to the world and the doings of rulers. We are also anointed at our baptism to share in his kingship. This does not require us to hold public office. But when we act as members of God’s people, when we behave as Jesus would, as he would have us behave (which encompasses the whole of morality, summed up in the law of love of God and neighbor), when we do this in all situations of our lives, home and family, work, neighborhood, community, citizenship (including voting), we have an effect on the world; we make it more the kind of place God wants it it be, and in that way, subject to the rule of the king of the universe.
* On the other hand, in the post-Vatican liturgical revisions, the beginning of the prayers for offering the bread and the wine, “Blessed are you, Lord God, King of the universe,” seems to have been intended as a direct translation of “Baruch ata adonai, eloheinu melech ha olam,” which would presumably have been said by Jesus at the Last Supper when he blessed the bread and again when he blessed the wine.