Recently, one of the cable television networks broadcast a movie about the legend of King Arthur. I was captivated by the movie because of its exceedingly poor quality. It was a truly terrible movie, composed of a senseless jumble of bits and pieces gleaned from about a thousand years of unrelated historical events.
The movie was set at the time that the Roman Empire was withdrawing from ancient Britain, but many of the plot elements were transplanted from much later historic periods. One of the sub-plots revolved around the invasion of the Saxons, an event that occurred almost forty years after the departure of the Romans from Britain. Another sub-plot involved an emissary of the Pope and the Roman Emperor; the title “Pope” wasn’t invented until the Middle Ages and, in the fifth century, the Roman Emperor resided in Constantinople. When the happy peasants weren’t singing music from the Renaissance, they were using weapons not introduced to Europe for two hundred more years. It was a truly terrible movie, but I was transfixed by the concatenation of anachronisms.
The Solemnity we celebrate this Sunday might seem like an anachronism of the sort that formed the substance of that disjointed movie. This Sunday is called The Solemnity of Christ the King; it sounds like it might belong in a poorly scripted medieval adventure story. It is helpful to keep in mind, however, that Jesus is not a king in the conventional sense; nor is his kingdom like any other kingdom.
The Scriptures use the language of kings and kingdoms because it was familiar to the first audiences of the Scriptural texts. At the time the Christian Scriptures were written, the Roman Empire was governed by a network of vassal kings. Herod and his sons, for example, were vassals of the Roman Empire. Faithful Jews waited for God’s Messiah; as the Latin language had no word for Messiah, Pilate placed an inscription on Jesus’ Cross identifying him as the “king of the Jews.”
Obviously, today, kings and kingdoms exist only in fairy tales and as anachronistic holdovers from a previous age. It is not necessary, however, for us to try to translate the ancient ideas of kings and kingdoms into contemporary language. It is fully and easily possible for us to understand these terms if we accept them for what they were in the past.
The biblical authors used language and concepts that could be understood by their intended audiences. Their use of the secular notions of kings and kingdoms was effective because the experience of God comes to people through mundane daily events. The ordinariness of kings and kingdoms served to help our ancestors in the faith to recognize and respond to God’s presence in their lives. The ordinariness of our daily experiences serves the same purpose.
No mental gymnastics are required in order to celebrate this feast of Jesus’ triumph over humanity’s enemies: sin and death. Jesus is, and will always remain, the faithful one who effected our salvation by being the incarnate presence of God’s mercy. Furthermore, it’s quite easy to experience God’s incarnate mercy in our lives.
In a few days, we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving Day. Think about the people who will surround you on that day. God will be present there, beckoning you to hear the truth of Jesus’ words. Listen to God speak about the need to reverence life and grant unconditional mercy to all people. If you are attentive to the people around you, you will experience God’s presence. If you are inattentive, or worse, if you are uncharitable, it is possible to encounter God by deciding to be more charitable next time.
Humility, patience, and attentiveness are qualities that Jesus had in abundance; consequently, he was perfectly present to God’s will in his life. Pontius Pilate, who figures prominently in today’s Gospel reading, presents a sharp contrast to Jesus. He lacked those virtues of humility, patience, and attentiveness; consequently, he failed to see God’s power present in Jesus.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus said that he came to proclaim the truth. (Jn. 18:37) The truth he proclaimed is that the entrance to the kingdom of heaven is everywhere – for those who attend to God’s presence.