The church comes to the close of the liturgical year by celebrating the solemnity of Christ the King. As Blessed John Paul II once reflected, this solemnity is “a synthesis of the entire salvific mystery.” The Scriptures we use are both triumphal and paradoxical. In our first reading, from the Book of Daniel, Daniel envisions the “son of man coming on the clouds of heaven, receiving everlasting dominion, glory and kingship.” This image is also reflected in the second reading from Revelation: “Behold, he is coming amid the clouds.”
But our Gospel reading, which brings us through a portion of Jesus’ trial with Pilate, presents us with a paradox: the king is simultaneously the crucified one. This is a regular theme in John’s Gospel, where the cross is paradoxically Jesus’ place of glory (17:1). The cross is the place where he reveals his divine status (8:28) and draws all to himself (12:32).
Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He responds, “My kingdom does not belong to this world.” Jesus’ response is an instance of a kind of dualism in John, where sharp divisions are often raised, such as spirit versus flesh, light versus darkness. Given this kind of framework, Satan is the “ruler of this world” (12:31, 16:11) and Jesus of another. These contrasts plunge us into making a decision on where we stand: With the flesh or the spirit? With darkness or light? With the ruler of this world or the king of God’s world? While the language is sharp, it has to be understood rightly. This is not a decision between our bodies and our souls or between the created world and heaven. Indeed, “The earth is the Lord’s and all it holds” (Ps 24:1), and “God so loved the world that he gave his only son” (Jn 3:16). Rather, it is a decision about what rules our lives: sin and evil or virtue and Christ. This feels like another paradox: to reject the world (worldliness) is to love creation, to renounce the flesh (disordered desires) is to honor the body, to reject the ruler of this world is to live here and now as a free child of God.
There is plenty to reflect on here. When Pope Pius XI instituted this feast, he wanted to address a world suffering under the illusions of such false lords as consumerism, free-market exploitation, nationalism, secularism and mass injustice. In contrast to “strife and discord and hurrying along the road to ruin and death,” he wrote in his encyclical “Quas Primas” (1925, No. 4), he envisioned “a dominion by a King of Peace who came to reconcile all things, who came not to be ministered unto but to minister” (No. 20) with us “as instruments of justice unto God” (No. 33).
Paradoxically, to follow the savior whose “kingdom does not belong to this world” is to engage the world deeply and lovingly. Pope John Paul II referred to the “interior dynamism” of the kingdom as “leaven and a sign of salvation to build a more just, more fraternal world, one with more solidarity, inspired by the evangelic values of hope and of the future happiness to which we are all called” (Address, Nov. 26, 1989). Here the pope reflects the teachings of the Second Vatican Council that on this earth, the kingdom is already present and that expectations of “a new earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our concern for cultivating this one.... When the Lord comes it will be brought into full flower” (“Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” No. 39).
There is an additional image in today’s readings. The Book of Revelation teaches us that Christ has made us all into a kingdom of priests for God. The First Letter of Peter says the same as we all “offer spiritual sacrifices” (2:5). Within Christ’s kingdom, we consecrate and sanctify the world, offering it to God through the high priesthood of Christ. The world is our altar; and our acts of love, justice and compassion are gifts we place on that altar, made sacred by our intention and by God’s presence within them. The universe is holy, and so are we.