Today is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the Solemnity of Christ the Universal King. This feast makes a resounding end to our journey from last Advent to now.
It affirms our faith, strongly. It’s a profession of faith which breaks into praise, and gratitude too. There’s that powerful moment after a Pope is elected. He goes out on to the balcony of St Peter’s, and a Cardinal announces: Habemus Papam, “we have a Pope.” Today, we say: “we have a King”, our Lord. Even if kings and queens are nowadays few on the ground, today’s feast still resonates.
The Entrance Antiphon set the tone: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and divinity and wisdom and strength and honour. To him belong glory and power for ever and ever.” In the 1st reading we saw “one like the Son of man” being given universal sovereignty. The response to the Psalm was, “The Lord is King with majesty enrobed”. The 2nd reading called our Lord “the Ruler of the kings of the earth”. In the Gospel, Jesus stands before a representative of earthly power, Pilate, the Roman Governor, and declares that he is a king – though not in the way the world understands that.
Today we are echoing what the first Christians loved to proclaim: “Jesus is Lord”. In other words, the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, who had been put to death under Pontius Pilate has been raised from the dead by God the Father and enthroned as the true Lord of history and nature. He is the real Ruler. In those days people believed that the stars, the heavenly bodies and spirits, ruled the world and human life. And at the same time the Caesars were increasingly giving themselves divine titles, like Saviour and Lord. No, said the early Christians, Jesus is Lord. Everything is in his hands, including us, life’s little people. We have a King, and one who cares for the poor and the overlooked. We have a King who doesn’t rule us by subjecting us, but by setting us free and giving us a share in his own royalty.
To him, we believe, belongs the true, ultimate power – that of truth, of goodness, of justice – belongs to him. Therefore, not to the politicians, the financiers, the media people, the G7, not Microsoft, Google or Facebook, not to the Chinese Communist Party or whoever. Not even to Climate Change. Not to money. Not to ourselves, as if we were the only makers of history. Not to any of the forces we are inclined to bend the knee to. There are other hands that hold us.
And so it’s natural for such a faith to break into song, to hail such a King. I remember how, when St John Paul II came to Scotland in 1982, we often sang, “Our God reigns”. At the beginning of Mass today, the choir sang the “Royal Praises”, the Laudes Regiae, stirring stuff, with its refrain: Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat. Christ is Conqueror, Ruler, Emperor. It goes back a long, long way. One could make a list of hymns like this:
“Abroad the royal banners fly”, Vexilla Regis prodeunt, a processional hymn from the 6th c., which we use during Holy Week.
From an 18th c. Methodist, “All hail the power of Jesus’ name”, with its “Crown him, crown him, crown him”. It’ll be today’s Recessional
The worship song from California and the 1980s: “Majesty, worship his majesty”.
“Our Servant King”, which we will have at the Offertory.
And many more…
Having Christ as Lord and Master makes us free and freedom makes sing. And the songs keep coming: new and old, crossing the denominations, bringing unity.
To return to the readings. “I gazed into the visions of the night”, says Daniel in the first. And as he did, he saw prophetically the risen Christ coming to rule the world. In the daytime of what we take as reality, this is not what we see. We see the other stuff, the forces that govern our lives, some benign, some definitely not. We see the human side. But at night we have other eyes. For many Saints, “night” means faith, and the “visions of the night” are what we see by faith: the other side, the divine side. It’s the alternative vision of reality that opens to us when we’re at Mass, or praying, or reading Scripture. In the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews, it says – very honestly – “we do not yet see everything in subjection to him, but we [do] see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honour” (Heb 2:8-9). With our daytime vision, we see the usual things, some of them are desperate. We feel their pressure. But, at the same time, with our nighttime vision, with the eyes of faith, we see the Lord and we know that he is coming and that he will judge, put all right.
So, a day for faith, for praise and singing. And also for hope: “thy kingdom come.”
Last, but not least, there’s today’s Gospel. Here is Jesus on trial before Power, Jesus mockingly crowned with thorns and wrapped in a purple robe, a joke of a king, a failure, a farce. “Are you a king?”, asks Pilate. Not in your sense, he replies. Where’s my army? “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world – to bear witness to the truth.” Our Lord, said St Paul, “in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession” (1 Tim 6:13). He spoke the truth. That’s a guide for us as to how to follow Christ the King, how to share his royalty. Not to lie, not to add to the lies that rule the world. To speak the truth about our faith when occasion calls, to acknowledge Christ, to admit we are Christian and Catholic. When we are confirmed, the bishop anoints us on the forehead in the form of a cross, and we are empowered to bear witness to our crucified King: to speak the truth in love.
So today, as we celebrate the Eucharist, let’s acclaim our king, profess our faith in him, sing to him and seek to take his side.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 21 November 2021)