The Preacher’s Study
The Reign of Christ or
Advent III (extended season)
Rex gentium Sunday: “O come, Desire of nations”
William H. Petersen
Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14
Established in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, the Feast of Christ the King was set on the last Sunday in October and intended to stand over against the totalitarian claims of both communism and fascism. It had also an anti-protestant effect in its location on Reformation Sunday. This was corrected by the ecumenical gesture of Pope Paul VI in 1970 when the feast was transferred to its present day. The revisers of The Book of Common Prayer (1979) incorporated a collect for the feast and its accompanying lections but retained simply the “Proper 29” designation. Less timid Lutherans in the LBW (1978) named the feast, while Canadian Anglicans in The Book of Alternative Services (1985) referred to the last Sunday after Pentecost as “The Reign of Christ.” All of this is relevant if only to show that politics and religion, in fact, remain intermingled regardless of ecclesial establishment or not. Happily, in an expanded Advent the Feast of Christ the King now finds its place not as the end of the Church year, but congruently with Rex gentium (King of nations) Sunday.
The Daniel reading precisely addresses the Divine objection to the claims of any imperial system over the cultures of the human community or the souls of individuals. Though Daniel is rooted in the aftermath of Alexander’s empire 150 years before Jesus, Christians will, of course, see in this coronation scene the establishment of the Kingdom of Christ as set over against such tyrannies. The appointed Psalm 93 (one of the regnal psalms) underscores this emphasis by proclaiming God’s reign as eternal in contrast to the empires of old, or more recently, to put a finer point on it, a “thousand year Reich,” a Soviet “Revolution,” a British “Empire,” an American “imperium,” or an ISIS “hegemony.”
The lection from Revelation serves to make these points explicit. In art we get from this reading the great icons of Christ Pantokrator (All-Ruler) and the magnificent Advent hymn of Charles Wesley, “Lo he comes with clouds descending.”* But with either of these artistic interpretations and in regard to the text itself, it is precisely here that the preacher and the hearers of the sermon must take caution. With the Advent theme of Christ as “Alpha and Omega” we must be wary of falling into triumphalism. To do so will lead inexorably, on the one hand, into theological fantasies of a violent nature (apocalyptic visions of “the end”) or, on the other hand, to complicity with the powers that be (what the Johannine evangelist calls “this world,” meaning those things whose ultimate sanction is death). Some folks, of course, manage both possibilities!
A salutary (pun intended) antidote to these alternatives is provided by the Gospel of the feast. For the scene is Jesus’ trial before Pilate and, as such, it reflects the cost of the justice and peace possible within true kingship over against absolutist tyranny sanctioned by destruction and death. A sic et non may be accorded the translators of this portion of Scripture. The non has to do with their persistent undermining of powerful rhetorical questions by reconstructing them with weak endings: thus Pilate’s “I am not a Jew, am I?” response to Jesus is effectively defused in place of the confrontational rhetoric of “Am I a Jew?” The sic is provided by the better English in Jesus’ insistence that “my kingdom is not from here” rather than that of earlier translations “my kingdom is not of this world.” This former reading is too easily “spiritualized” into something unearthly or only future in its reference. The better translation underscores the claim here made by the Johannine Jesus that “I came into the world to testify to the truth.” It is, however, sadly ironic that the compilers of the lectionary omitted the telling last phrase of the final verse: “Pilate answered him, ‘What is truth?’” The preacher, nevertheless, can make the point that cynical Pilate looked Truth in the face and recognized neither the danger to himself nor his “kingdom” in the death he was about to order.
William H. Petersen is Emeritus Dean & Professor of Bexley Hall Seminary, Founder & Convener of the Advent Project Seminar, and an Honorary Member of APLM Council.
Art: Jacek Malczewski, Christ before Pilate (1910); Aloys Wach, Christ before Pilate
* Though this hymn is a splendid and favorite one for Advent, its singers need to be cautious of placing an Anti-Judaism reading on the second verse where “those who set at nought and sold him, pierced, and nailed him to the tree, deeply wailing, deeply wailing, shall the true Messiah see.” It will be well to hold in mind at the same time the Good Friday hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus” where, as a matter of confession on our part rather than blame on others, we ourselves in the solidarity of human sinfulness discover ourselves to be the betrayers of Christ.