The feast of the Reign of Christ is not an ancient feast. It had its origins in the rise of Franco, Mussolini and Hitler in the 1930s. Pope Pius XI created the feast, first called “Christ the King” as a reminder to people that God is sovereign. The three readings for the day (Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14: Revelation 1:4b-8, and: John 18:33-37) feature God or Christ as the ruler.
Before the assigned reading from Daniel, the opening verses of chapter 7 set the context with an apocalyptic dream. In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream … I, Daniel, saw …the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, …. Another beast appeared … that looked like a bear. … After this…another appeared, like a leopard with four wings on its back and four heads; …, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong.
The menace of the storm and the beasts establish the anarchic backdrop for the appearance of God, which occurs in the actual reading for Sunday.
As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire.
The Ancient One, or the Ancient of Days, refers to God. By taking his throne in the midst of the chaos he established himself as the one with authority over all that was happening. One sign of his power was that his throne was of fiery flames. While such flames would burn a mere mortal, he sat on a burning throne without fear or concern because he was in control.
(Daniel’s depiction of God as an old man with flowing hair has been the source of much art as well as many people’s image of God.)
The next phrase establishes God’s grandeur and authority, A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment and the books were opened.
While the passage makes no direct mention of calm having come, this setting reflects an orderly situation without storms and fearsome beasts. This is one of the gifts that God brings incidentally.
The concluding verse of the reading introduces a new person. As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being (or as the Son of Man) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.
In the presence of hundreds of thousands of servants and attendants, one person, a human or Son of Man, was singled out and presented especially to God. While he is not referred to as royalty, this unique privilege marked him as special.
In the four gospels Jesus referred to himself unambiguously as the Son of Man 87 times in a clear reference to this passage. (For example Matt 9:6, 16:27: Mark 8:38, 9:9: Luke 5:24: John 3:13) He intended to use the image from Daniel as a claim to divine relationship.
This divine and royal relationship is further described by John in this morning’s gospel in the ironic setting of the trial before Pilate.
Pilate … summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” King is a loaded word for Pilate; it suggests insurrection and a claim to independent authority.
Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Jesus’ question is a challenge. He wants to know the source of Pilate’s question. It also suggests that Pilate doesn’t understand what he is dealing with and that he can’t figure out his own position.
Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” This statement that ‘I am not a Jew’ is a fact but one also senses an undertone of frustration or maybe anxiety in the question. It also shows that Pilate isn’t clear about what the charges are against Jesus.
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Not from this world suggests a parallel world, that co-exists with the visible world. This statement of his kingdom’s “place” is unique to John’s gospel.
Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?”
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Jesus “talks by” Pilate, who is trying to assess the threat to Roman political power. Jesus is describing his fundamental mission, to bear witness to THE TRUTH. He expands the usual notions of truth beyond dependability, verifiability or agreement on the way things are. For Jesus it includes an unwavering commitment to God’s will.
Jesus’ claims to royalty defied all conventional thinking. He was a humble servant-teacher-healer-self-sacrificing king. His kingship still defies orthodoxy.
- What is your image of God? Many artists and consequently many people took their visual cues from this passage of Daniel… an Ancient One and hair … like pure wool and picture him as an old man with white hair.
- Have you ever been in a charged situation where you did not know the social, economic and personality dynamics but were asked for your opinion? Did it make you squirm? Can you appreciate Pilate’s unease at being asked to condemn Jesus to death for violating Jewish laws?
- Jesus statement of purpose… I came into the world, to testify to the truth… is enigmatic. Pilate followed up with his own question, what is truth. What would you say Jesus’ TRUTH is?