November 25, 2018
The Reign of Christ
A liturgical background
According to the liturgical calendar, the new year begins next week with the season of Advent, so today is the final Sunday of ordinary time. Also, in the Catholic, the Anglican, and most mainline Protestant churches, we observe this holy day as the Reign of Christ. Interestingly, though, the Gospel passage we read today is a portion of the same Gospel we read on Good Friday that points to the meditation on the Cross of Jesus. Here, we might as well question why suddenly we are talking about the story of Jesus confronting Pilate today, where the event leads to the crucifixion ultimately. What is the meaning of the Reign of Christ?
To answer this question, we need to go back to 1925 when Pope Pius XI instituted the feast of Christ the King, also called the Reign of Christ, in the western calendar, relating the increasing denial of Christ as King to the rise of secularism. Pius hoped that the nations would see that the Church has the right to freedom from the state and that the faithful would gain strength from the celebration of the Reign of Christ. Thus, we commemorate this holy day, reminding ourselves that Christ must reign in our hearts, minds, souls, and bodies.
Nowadays, however, the language of kingship is so antiquated. Besides, secularism permeates all facets of our society, infused with postmodern ideas that reject absolute values and distrusts authority, like ancient Israel, as the book of Judges records: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25). As a consequence, the respect for Christ as our sovereign king and the authority of His Church are diminishing.
The trial of Jesus
Who is Christ? Today’s Gospel starts with this fundamental question about the identity of Jesus as Pilate interrogates Him: “Are you the king of the Jews?” Although there are only two people appearing in the given passage, this court trial is very complex, interlaced with all seven scenes (18:29-32, 33-38a, 38b-40; 19:1-3, 4-7, 8-11, 12-15), if we look at the wider context in which John accounts for Jesus’ trial extensively. Pilate goes back and forth between Jesus inside the praetorium and the Jewish opponents outside. The praetorium is the headquarters of the Roman military governor, which was built along the wall of the temple complex. At the time of Jesus’ trial, the Jewish leaders did not want to go inside because they should not be defiled before eating the Passover.
The night of His arrest, Jesus was brought before an assembly of religious leaders (John 18:19-24) and charged in this ecclesiastical trial with blasphemy. After that, He was taken before the Roman governor Pilate (John 18:28), then He was sent off to Herod (Luke 23:7) and returned to Pilate (Luke 23:11-12), who finally sentenced Him to death.
Although Pilate found no case against Jesus (18:38) and tried to set Him free, the Jewish opponents kept shouting that if he let Jesus go, he would be no friend of Caesar, and anyone who claimed to be a king would oppose Caesar (19:12).
While Jesus was standing on the truth of His kingdom, more lies against Him were reported to Pilate. Both the chief priests and the teachers of the law said, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king” (Luke 23:2). But, the fact of the matter is that Jesus told the people to “render to the emperor the things that are emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).
To put Pilate in greater dilemma, his wife told him not to do anything related to that innocent man (Matthew 27:19), but Pilate did not have the courage to fight his way to Truth, and in the end, he listened to the Jews who wanted to crucify Jesus. Pilate had a chance to say what he believed as truth, but sadly, the human judge, who was supposed to seek the truth, gave up the truth. Let us take a moment here and detain ourselves with any speculations quickly accusing Pilate of his craven behaviour.
Two thousand years back, the region of Palestine was in turmoil as it is today, divided by religious and cultural barriers, Jews, Greeks, and Syrians populated around with tensions among them, creating flash points for trades and politics. It was a time of unprecedented opportunity for the rich and powerful, yet it was also a time of horrific oppression for the rest.
Let’s say that we situate ourselves in that time period in history and consider ourselves taking part of this trial in that place. More specifically, you be Pilate, who has power over life and death and can even reverse capital sentences (cf. John 19:10). You are a ruler of a powerful nation in the world, dispatched to a foreign country, charged with maintaining your rule while working with a tyranny such as Herod. At the same time, you are pressured by the local elders who have their own political and religious power. What would be your verdict?
Jesus is innocent. There is great tension in this trial. It is an inexplicably frustrating situation. I am petrified facing the Lamb of God who is scourged and mocked by soldiers who put a crown of thorns and a purple robe on Him (19:1-3). Betrayed by His own disciple Judas, Jesus is standing in front of such cruel liars and hypocrites as the Sanhedrin, the assembly of religious leaders. I feel urged to release this Innocent Lamb. I am seized by Truth with a sense of unimaginable grief Jesus had. Humanly speaking, however, I am also terrified by those vile crowds. I am on the verge of failing to resist the untruth. I feel trapped by this political dilemma.
What is Truth?
About two thousand years have since elapsed, and we can still juxtapose Jesus’ time with our contemporary time. Today we are living in a confusing era, where so many different voices are to be heard, valued, and accepted with open arms. New agers look for a god within themselves. In this postmodern period, it seems that there is no absolute truth but only a relative truth. Then, how do we define truth? How do we discern truth and untruth?
Is telling the truth a comfortable thing? We tend to judge people who lie, but what about those who remain silent? This is very complicated. Truth is not necessarily what many people vote for; it is not necessarily what works favourably for us; it is not necessarily what makes sense all the time. As Leo Tolstoy said, “truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth but by washing away from it all that is not gold.”
Today, Jesus tells us to face the truth about our identity and our relationship with God, and furthermore, He admonishes us to re-examine our relationship with the world. Once Truth did reign in the Garden, and it was paradise. But, since the Fall, human beings have been living in the world where falsehood pervades almost everywhere in the forms of sins, lies, negligence, and unjust systems. We might as well stay back under the impulse of fear or even contradict the truth. We may undergo spiritual trials in our faith journeys, too. Fear is a fact of life on earth. We cannot be immune to fear. But, fear is not in the Lord.
Therefore, when we feel fear and when we are tempted to run away from what we know as truth, we ought to be motivated by Christ’s steadfast love dwelling in each of us to tell the truth. When Satan tricks us and encourages untruth, we must lean on Christ and seek to know Him who is Truth. When no one speaks the truth, we must live as active witnesses on our journey into God. Ephesians 4:15 also says, “Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ.”
The Reign of Christ
Our Lord Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. He is the Way and the Truth, and He says, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37). Jesus is not merely a historical figure who suffered under Pontius Pilate but the inevitable outcome of the confrontation of God’s reign with the political kingdom of this world. And, “[His] kingdom is not of this world” (18:36). If His kingdom were earthly, it would be frail and unstable because “the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31).
In short, His kingdom is where Christ our Lord is present, where there is the healing and restoration of our human relationship to God through Jesus, and where our salvation is secured by Christ’s blood. It is time to ask ourselves: Are we ready to proclaim the truth? Will the Church proclaim the truth? Could we live out what we believe in with no fear at all? As we are meditating on the Reign of Christ, we are left with many questions, but one thing that is clear to us is that today’s passage is not about Jesus’ trial but about Pilate’s trial, that is, our own trial standing before God about truth and untruth. I have nothing more to say in my closing but this simple statement by Jesus: “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).