Today’s feast, Christ the King, dates back only to 1925. Pope Pius XI established it. The feast of Christ the King’s origin is regarded as an attempt to compensate with a royal title after an earlier claim of papal infallibility following the loss of face stemming from losing the papal states in Italy some years earlier.
As Americans, we may have difficulty with the word “king.” We became a nation because we revolted against a king and an empire.
Yet, some of our religious practices are courtly, we bow our heads in church. Some genuflect - an ancient sign of respect for royalty. The newer way of receiving our Lord in the hand (which is not newer but older) recalls the words of Cyril of Jerusalem to newly baptized: “Make your left hand a throne for the right, for it is about to receive a king.” [Mystagogia lecture v, 21]
On this last Sunday of Ordinary Time, the lectionary departs from the final year Gospel of mark to hear John’s account of Jesus before Pilate. It is Jesus’ only direct encounter with political power.
It is so ironic that Jesus was arrested on the charge of being a political insurrectionist - which is what some Jews wanted him to be. He rejected that title at every turn, and now he is accused of being just that. Later, Pilate will place the inscription atop the cross: “Jesus the Nazorean, king of the Jews.” Still later, Pilate refused to change it or remove it.
The accusers of Jesus are outside the court; Jesus is inside. Pilate physically goes back and forth - appropriate for the way he vacillates. Jesus’ speaking with the Jews has become futile. Now, he speaks only with Pilate, who might possibly listen.
Pilate, the interrogator asks four questions, all aimed at establishing the true identity of Jesus. Pilate’s issue is contained in the first question to Jesus, “are you the king of the Jews?” John is using his favorite device, “misunderstanding”, to expose the two different levels of the exchange. Pilate wants to know what political rights Jesus is claiming for himself. Jesus, on the other hand, is speaking of the spiritual reality, which has absolutely nothing to do with Pilate’s political power.
If anything, Jesus’ kingship redefines the very nature of what it means to be a leader. Jesus’ authority comes from God, and his leadership is exercised through self-giving service - motivated by love. He makes some powerful enemies along the way. His ultimate act will be to die on the cross for his unwavering dedication to his message.
The contrast between these two “powers” increases as a wary Pilate, seeking to make Jesus deny or affirm he is king of the Jews, fails to grasp the real meaning of “my kingdom does not belong to this world.” Pilate the politician sees only the earthly, the political. Jesus tries to lead Pilate to see at another level, where not politics, but the truth of god in Jesus resides. Pilate has the power of life and death; Jesus has the real authority. The difference between power and authority is made clear in G. K. Chesterton’s humorous remark: “If a rhinoceros were to enter this room there would be no denying he had power, but I would rise and assure him he had no authority.”
When one listens to Jesus’ words, one thereby allows Jesus to rule our hearts. If we do not like the word “king,” we may substitute ‘the One’ in our hearts. More than anything, more than any relationship: mother, father, and spouse, even children - our prime relationship must first be with God.
That is the truth that Jesus invited Pilate to acknowledge. It was Pilate’s great opportunity to discover truth. Harvard University had as its original motto: “Veritas Christo et ecclesiae” [Truth - for Christ and church.] In the dark of some night, Harvard’s motto was shortened to simply “Veritas”, that is, “truth.”
Christ’s rule in our heart is the truth that the Church reminds us to recognize on this feast: the special prayers, the special preface where we proclaim Jesus as king of truth and life, king of holiness and goodness, king of justice, love and peace.