On the last Sunday of the church year, we celebrate the Reign of Christ. The feast helps us remember that the peasant infant whose arrival we will anticipate with joy and festivities over the season of Advent is the same divine Person who was raised to the glory of God in heaven, was one with God from before Creation, and will usher in the new way for it to exist with God at the end of all time. This comparatively recent feast was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, who was alarmed by the rising and clashing of the dictatorial atheist regimes in Europe of his time; by life becoming increasingly dispensable, and Creator’s sovereignty over it, merely “das Opium des Volkes”.
What a contrast with Christ, who had not publicly claimed to be any kind of King (of Creation, Israel, or the Jews) until his trial and death. Whose actions alone -- from the signs and healings, to simply giving dignity to people who lacked it all their lives -- were enough to create a following of people who had longed for God’s intervention in this evil world. Granted, if Jesus had tried to openly speak of himself as King, his death would come even sooner. As an infant, he had already been put in grave danger by the innocuous question of the Magi, "Where is he that is born King of the Jews?" (Mt), resulting in his family’s flight into Egypt, and the massacre of innocent babies. The peripheral governors of the Empire were vigilant to uncover and repress any charismatic leaders to challenge the central power of Rome. He was not the only Jew in antiquity to attribute to himself the ancient writings of his people; and the Romans reacted violently against each one, executing them for political insurgency. As such, historians believe that Jesus’ triumphant entry to Jerusalem is unlikely to have happened, given the increase in the presence of the troops at the time of any religious festival, aimed to prevent civil disturbances. Yet, the actual attention of the masses he did begin to attract was enough even without it to cause the need for both Roman and Jewish authorities to remove him.
This brings us to today’s reading, Jesus on trial before Pontius Pilate; the first time when Jesus answers truly, or at least doesn’t deny (depending on who is writing), his conviction that he was the Anointed One, which the kings of Israel were sometimes called (“mashia” in Hebrew, and “kristos” in Greek). This king was still expected centuries after Israel's demise in the 400s BC, based on 2 Sam 7:13–16 that promised David that he would always have a descendant on the throne. As such, the charge against Jesus was solely a political one; not that he was God the Pantocrator, which at the time no Jew or gentile could have imagined, or even “one with the Father”, which is a saying that only appears in the much later gospel of John. How did the political charge come about? Well, after Jesus was arrested, it is the Jewish authorities that say to Pilate, "If thou release this man, thou art not Caesar's friend: every one that maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar. Crucify him! ... We have no king but Caesar.” (Jn) This kind of talk Pilate cannot ignore. But, the arrest itself came through the betrayal of one of his closest followers. And, it seems likely that the essential part of Judas’ betrayal was not in revealing Jesus’ whereabouts, which the Romans probably already knew, but the teachings that Jesus had given to his disciples in private.
What Jesus taught openly as an apocalyptic prophet was that someone called the Son of Man was about to establish the new and perfect kingdom of God on earth. What Jesus taught privately was that the Son of Man was himself. A saying that appears both in Matt and Lk (meaning that it comes from an earlier source), has Jesus telling his disciples that they would be the rulers of the 12 Tribes of Israel in the kingdom to arise within their lifetimes. Implying that if Jesus was then their leader, he would also be the ultimate ruler of the reinstated Jewish kingdom. This is the secret that Judas might have betrayed. Regardless of religious implications, this constituted a political threat to Rome, enough reason for Pilate to wash his hands, and for Jesus to be dead within 6 hours. So ironically, it is the gentiles who first publicly name Jesus as the Jewish King: the Magi, Pontius Pilate, and the Roman soldiers who robe and crown him, and mock him, "If thou art the King of the Jews, save thyself” (Lk). The Jewish elite echoes this: "He is the King of Israel; let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe in him" (Mt), and “Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe” (Mk; note the contrast: the King of Israel vs. that of the Jews). They echo only in jest, of course, as to Pilate they say, "Do not write King of the Jews” -- on the plaque at the top of this cross, that is -- but, he wrote it anyway, "What I have written, I have written."
You see, prior to the Christian interpretation of Isaiah’s suffering servant’s text, no Jew thought that the long-awaited, conquering King would in fact be the one to suffer and die. The miracle of our faith is in this leap that we now make. The leap is enabled by God’s grace, which inspired the collective wisdom of both scholarly writers, and less educated people who passed down stories of Jesus’ resurrection by oral tradition starting soon after his death. Within 60 years, the writer of John’s gospel felt compelled to change the day of Jesus’ death to the day of Passover, formalizing the circulating belief in him as the Lamb of God, the embodiment of God’s ultimate forgiveness. Within centuries, millions of people throughout the Roman Empire came to believe in Jesus not as a failed prophet, but as a divine being of one essence with the Creator God.
We are their heirs in faith. We have not always used the power of religion for good; we have not always held Jesus as the true Sovereign of our own lives. But, by God’s grace, we continue to derive our hope, joy, and comfort from both what we have been taught and from the insights gifted to us in prayer. And we also use these to contribute what we can to the growth of his Kingdom on this earth, and in the world to come. Thanks be to God.
PS: many of the ideas expressed in this reflection are expertly elaborated in the course "How Jesus became God", taught by Dr. Bart D. Ehrman of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which was a great aid to me in distilling my own understanding.