Kingship is not very popular today. For that matter, neither is queenship. In a world in which most people favor democratic governance, rule by one person can seem to be too close to tyranny for comfort. But such rule is not really what today’s feast is about. The Gospel tells us that Jesus himself rejected the notion of human kingship. Then what are we commemorating?
The readings describe enthronement in heaven. Daniel tells of the mysterious Son of Man, with whom Jesus would later identify himself, coming on the clouds, glorified by God and given dominion that will last forever. In the Book of Revelation, the risen Christ comes amid the clouds as the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last of all things. These cosmic images have very little to do with royal rule as we know it.
Christ’s enthronement in heaven recalls elements of an ancient Near Eastern myth of creation. In it, after the cosmic warrior-god defeated the monster of chaos and established order in the universe, this god was enthroned in a palace constructed for him in the heavens. From this heavenly throne he ruled over all creation. Ancient Israel reshaped this myth, casting its own God in the role of victorious king. This is the background of today’s psalm, which praises the majesty of the creator-god. Finally, as they did with so much of ancient Israelite tradition, New Testament writers reinterpreted the story from a Christian point of view.
While the Christian reinterpretation of this cosmic drama shares many of the characteristics of the other versions, it highlights significant differences. First, Christ certainly did overcome the powers of evil and chaos. He did it not through force of arms, but by emptying himself of all divine privilege (Phil 2:6-7) and enduring bitter suffering and an ignominious death. He is indeed enthroned over all, but he won this distinction not through the conquest of another, but through the shedding of his own blood.
It is of this rule that Jesus speaks in the Gospel, when he asserts that his kingdom “does not belong to this world.” He emptied kingship of its conventional significance and gave his reign a new meaning. He rules through service of others rather than through domination of them. His authority is rooted in truth, not physical force.
When Jesus said that his kingdom was not “of this world,” he did not mean that it was not “in this world.” He constantly called people to live lives of justice and compassion, understanding and generosity. His kingdom, the reign of God, is based on the beatitudes, not on some of the principles that seem to have such a hold on modern society.
Apocalyptic is an apt way of describing the “otherworldliness” of Jesus’ rule. While its exotic character seems to carry us out of space and time, it really invites us into a deeper dimension of reality, one beneath the surface. Apocalyptic may include descriptions of frightful disasters, but these disasters are always resolved, and good triumphs over evil—just as we saw in the ancient story of the primeval victory over chaos. In other words, its message is one of hope.
These apocalyptic readings have meaning for the feast of Christ the King, for the end of the liturgical year and for the world in which we find ourselves today. First, they remind us of the nature of the authentic rule of Christ. It is a rule of victory through self-giving. It is a rule where authority springs from truth. Whenever we follow the example set for us by Christ, we participate “in this world” in the reign of God, which is not “of this world.”
The liturgical year is a kind of journey through the mysteries of salvation. The end of the year, which we mark today, brings us to the end of the journey, and here we find the victorious Christ enthroned in glory. In faith we believe that he has indeed conquered the forces of sin and death, and he is already enthroned with God. In anticipation, we look forward to his final glorious appearance.
How is this theology relevant today? So much in this world could lead to hopelessness. Besides the usual pitfalls that we always find on the path of life, today we have come to realize that in no place on the globe are we really safe. Furthermore, our confidence in both religious and political leadership has been shaken. Finally, job security has collapsed; poverty has eaten away the fabric of many communities; and crime seems to be rampant. For many, circumstances appear to be going from bad to worse. This feast, with its apocalyptic themes, could not have come at a better time. It reminds us that the battle has already been won; Christ is really triumphant. Now it is up to us to make his reign present in our world.