Feast of Christ the King
November 23, 2003
First Reading: Daniel 7:13-14
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 93:1-2, 5
Second Reading: Revelation 1:5-8
Gospel: John 18:33-37
Most of us do not live in or come from a country that still has a king or queen. They do exist, but even where they do, they are mostly ceremonial—a nostalgic holdover from days gone by. Still, we do know something about monarchies, if nothing else from our studies in school. So I want to pose a question: What distinguishes Jesus as a King from earthly kings and queens? Some answers might include the following: Earthly kings rule over a specific territory, while Jesus’ kingdom has no boundaries; in an earthly kingdom the people serve the king, whereas Jesus is the servant in his kingdom; people are often willing to die for their king, but Jesus is the one who dies for his subjects.
Let me suggest one more answer. From my perspective it is the single most significant distinction between Jesus and earthly kings. It also indicates the single greatest failure of Christianity over these past two millennia. Simply put: earthly monarchs are kings of war while Jesus is a King of Peace. That earthly kings are men of war is obvious from history. They command armies, and even in times of peace it is not uncommon to see them dressed in military garb decked out with medals and ribbons—not all of them earned on the battlefield. Such attire is a clear statement that the military is to obey the king’s command. But Jesus had no uniform and no army.
This distinction between a king of war and the King of Peace is rooted in the Gospel itself. Today’s passage is very familiar to us, because we hear it in its entirety every year on Good Friday when John’s version of the Passion is proclaimed. However, in today’s reading an important line is omitted. After evading the question of kingship, Jesus tells Pilate that he has come into the world to testify to the truth. Pilate then utters the famous question: “What is truth?” Over the centuries many authors have tried to answer that question. I suggest that although Jesus never answered Pilate’s query directly, he hinted at the answer in his conversation. The answer is that truth is peace. When Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world, he is speaking of the values that characterize his kingdom. Earthly kingdoms are defended by violence. Jesus’ kingdom is not. This is why Jesus’ followers were not fighting to save him.
As I have already suggested, the answer to Pilate’s question is not just the single most significant distinction between Jesus and earthly monarchs. The truth to which Jesus testifies also unmasks the greatest failure of Christianity over the last two thousand years, and it is a repetitive failure. Think how many times in our history that Christians have gone to war. How many times have entire armies have marched to battle beneath the banner of the Cross? The classic example of Christian warfare arises from the Middle Ages with the armies of the Crusades. Marching across southern Europe, they entered the holy city of Jerusalem killing their enemies in the name of Christ. But the Cross of Christ is not a symbol of violence. It is a symbol of reconciliation and peace.
If the truth of which Jesus speaks is peace, then it stands to reason that the opposite of truth, namely lie is violence. Ironically, that is the deeper reality defining the kingdoms of the world. They are based on a lie. In previous homilies I have pointed out that in all of recorded history, there is no example of a war that ended in or brought about peace. Every conflict has ended in a fragile and tentative cessation of violence, or in the threat of new violence. Every conflict has sown the seeds of future violence. Again, a classic example is the First World War. While fought as the “war to end all wars,” it proved to be a direct cause of the Second World War. How could it be otherwise? Victorious forces usually demand an unconditional surrender on the part of the enemy. Aside from the fact that the concept of an unconditional surrender is alien to the Good News, it has the effect of demoralizing those who are defeated. At some point there must be a resurgence of national pride that finds vindication in another conflict with, hopefully, a different outcome. Then what of Jesus’ “truth”? If it is not of this world, can it succeed in this world?
Difficult though it may be to perceive, not all the history of the Crusades is bad. Although the armies of Christendom wreaked havoc on their march to Jerusalem, there was another band of men who marched into Jerusalem with them. This band carried no weapons. They were armed only with the truth of Jesus. Led by St. Francis of Assisi, they are called Friars (Franciscans). They came in peace. And whereas the armies were only able to hold Jerusalem for a mere 90 years, the Friars are there still, caring for the holy places and enabling rich spiritual experiences for those on pilgrimage. When the Christians armies were driven back into Europe, the Franciscans were allowed to live in the Holy Land in peace. A more modern example is to be found in the life of Mohandas Gandhi. Without the use of violence he was able to wrest an entire nation from the world’s most powerful empire. Though not a Christian, Gandhi knew of the truth of Jesus. It was peace, not violence that enabled India to secure its freedom from Great Britain.
These are but two examples of what underlies Jesus’ “truth”. The challenge placed before us is not just to accept the truth, it is to recognize the lie. Last Spring, I spent a good deal of time arguing against President Bush’s ill-conceived war against Iraq. I sided with Pope John Paul II in opposing the war on moral grounds and on Catholic principles. But I neglected what may have been the most powerful argument—that war is a lie. I am not talking about the phantom weapons of mass destruction. It is possible, though doubtful, that the president really believed they existed. I am talking about the fact that every act of violence is a lie. Whether it is in our homes, on our streets or in international relations, the choice of violence itself is a lie. It can never deliver on its promises. It can never deliver peace. Consequently, every time that a president or a prime minister, or a king calls us to war, they are lying. So why do we so willingly believe the lie? Why do we so readily march off to do battle? What is it in the words of our political leaders that deafens us to the words of Jesus? Put more precisely, what is it in the lies of our political leaders that deafens us to the truth of Jesus? Every time we choose violence we say of Jesus: “We will not have this man be our King.” Every time we go to war we say of Jesus: “We will not have this man be our King.”
Unlike Pilate we need not ask the question: “What is truth?” for we already know the answer. The question before us is: “Are we willing to choose the truth? Are we willing to accept Jesus as our King”? Jesus came to establish the Reign of God. While the values of his kingdom may not be of the world, they can be in the world. They are accessible to those who choose them. The next time any political leader calls you to support war, recognize and expose the lie. Instead of the lie choose the truth. Choose Jesus. Choose peace.