BY FATHER DONALD DILGER
Solemnity of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe
First Reading: Daniel 7:13-14; Response: Psalm 93:1, 1-2, 5; Second Reading: Revelation 1:5-8; Gospel: John 18:13b-37
In the seventh chapter of the Book of Daniel, the young star of the story has a dream-vision. The four winds stir up the sea. That’s a bad omen. Out of the sea emerge four beasts. The first is a winged lion with its wings torn off. The second is a bear consuming ribs stuck in its teeth. The third is a leopard with four wings and great power. The fourth is a fearful, terrifying, strong beast with iron teeth. It ate, crushed and trampled all in its way. It had 10 horns. A little horn was sprouting among the 10 horns. Three of the ten were pulled out to make room for the little horn. It had human eyes and a mouth full of arrogant boasting. The scene changes to the sky and a vision of heaven including God himself on his throne. Daniel witnesses the destruction of the beast (the little horn), and sees its body burned. The four original beasts lost their power. As today’s first reading begins, Daniel sees, approaching the throne of God, “one like a son of man,” (a human being). God gives this son of man dominion, glory and kingship that will last forever. The whole universe will be subject to him. Our reading ends at this point.
Daniel is confused after the vision. A heavenly being interprets for him. The four beasts from the sea are four kingdoms that oppressed the Israelites/Jews over the centuries. The little horn, though not identified by name, is King Antiochus IV of Syria, persecutor of the Jews during the years 168-164 B.C. The Book of Daniel is a response to that persecution. The basic message of the story of the vision is this, “We Shall Overcome!” God would destroy the persecuting beasts including the little horn. The interpreter identifies the son of man (human being) who came to the throne of the Most High and received an everlasting kingdom. He is not an individual, but a symbol of “the saints of the Most High.” He represents the pious Jews who passively resisted the attempts of the King of Syria to destroy their religion. In real history the Jews eventually won independence from Syrian control under the leadership of the Maccabee family. See 1 & 2 Maccabees. In later interpretation of Daniel’s vision, the symbolic human being evolved into an individual who was expected to restore a Jewish kingdom by defeating Roman occupation. Christian interpretation took the son of man a step farther. In our four gospels Jesus is the Son of Man sent by the Father to establish the Kingdom of God. This reading serves as background to the discussion of Jesus’ kingship and kingdom in the second reading and in today’s gospel.
Psalm 93 celebrates the kingship of the Lord God. Today’s liturgy extends the meaning of the psalm to the kingship of Jesus. The psalmist imagines God as kings were dressed in his experi-ence. “The Lord is king in splendor robed . . . clothed with strength.” Unlike other kings, this King created the world, “made it firm, not to be moved.” (This poetic expression of the immobility of the earth was an argument by the ignorant against Copernicus and Galileo, who dared to propose that the earth moved around the sun rather than the sun around the earth. Four hundred years later St. John Paul II noted that Galileo understood the Scriptures better than some theologians.)
The reading from the Book of Revelation begins, “Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and ruler of the kings of the earth.” Unfortunately, there are few “kings of the earth” who recognize Jesus as their ruler. Jesus made us into a kingdom and made us priests to God the Father. In these brief statement, the author of Hebrews catechizes us about Jesus’ obedience to his Father, his resurrection from the dead, his kingship and our dignity as priests in the priesthood of the faithful acquired in baptism.
The gospel is part of the Passion Narrative of Jesus’ trial before Pilate, prefect/governor of Judea for the Roman Empire. In the other three gospels Jesus is mostly silent during this trial. In the Gospel of John there is an extended dialogue in which Jesus takes over. He is, after all, a king; and even more so in John’s gospel than in the other gospels. Pilate begins the dialogue, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He claimed this was the accusation made by his lethal opponents of the upper class priests. Pilate’s question was political. If Jesus claimed to be King of the Jews, he was in rebellion against Rome. There were kings in the Roman Empire, but only those recognized as such or appointed by Caesar or the Roman Senate. In his response to Pilate, Jesus does not deny that he is a king, not even that he is King of the Jews. Pilate is suspicious and has to be so to guard his own neck. If he did not handle this situation correctly, he could be reported to Caesar. Jesus seems to relieve Pilate’s suspicions. “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my followers would have defended me from being handed over to my enemies. My kingdom is not from here.” Pilate is not quite satisfied, and asks, “So you are a king?”
Jesus’ answer could be translated, “Yes, you could say that.” He explains what kind of king. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth.” What truth? The salvation that he brings to the world from the Father, which perfects the revelation brought through Moses. Basis for this definition of truth is John 1:17, “The Torah was given through Moses. Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” According to Jewish law and practice, two witnesses were required to establish the truth of a claim. John’s theology provides the two witnesses, “The Father who sent me bears witness to me,” John 8:18. The other witness: the works that the Father granted Jesus to do as proof or witness of his mission. See John 5:36. The dialogue between Jesus and Pilate closes, as Jesus says, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate was not one of those listening to Jesus’ voice. His response: “What is truth?” It should not surprise us that a practical politician, chief executive officer of a government, seems to doubt or at least ignore that there is something called truth.