In the days since the terrorist attacks in Paris just over a week ago, the principles on which the French Republics were built have been spoken about a lot – Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Values which imply a rejection of monarchy and royalty. Principles which the revolutionaries believed were the opposite of the values of kingly rule.
In a few months from now, Ireland will mark the centenary of the Easter Rising of 1916. There will be many solemn ceremonies, parades, exhibitions and commemorating. Members of the Defence Forces are currently visiting every school in the country, presenting copies of the 1916 Proclamation and of our national flag – the tricolour of green, white and orange – itself modelled on the French tricolour. The Easter Rising and the raising of the tricolour over the GPO in Dublin marked the proclamation of the Irish Republic. The language of the proclamation was lofty:
We hereby proclaim the Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State. … The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irish woman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities of all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally.
And yet, while public discourse this week is echoing the French revolutionary values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, and as the Irish nation is preparing to mark the centenary of the proclamation of our Republic, here we are, celebrating a feast that honours Jesus as a King. And not just any old king either. The full title of the feast is ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe’. The Church certainly wasn’t understating the case when it thought up that title. I can’t help finding it a bit ironic….
But the irony doesn’t end there. The First Reading, an account of part of a dream which the Prophet Daniel had, presents a stirring image of royal splendour and might – One like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven… all peoples, nations and languages should serve him. The Second Reading, also from a dream, this time of the Apostle John, appropriates that image and applies it very clearly to Jesus. To him be glory and dominion forever and ever. … Look! He is coming with the clouds.
As the great Methodist hymn often sung at this time of year describes it:
Lo! he comes, with clouds descending,
Once for favoured sinners slain;
Thousand, thousand saints attending
Swell the triumph of His train:
Hallelujah! Christ appears on earth to reign.
Yea, amen; let all adore thee,
High on Thine eternal throne;
Saviour, take the power and glory;
Claim the kingdoms for Thine own:
Hallelujah! Thou shalt reign, and Thou alone.
But let’s not get too carried away in a frenzy of kingly pomp and regal splendour and magnificence. Because after those royal visions of the Prophet Daniel and the Apostle John, today’s Gospel presents us with a very different image of Christ as King: Betrayed by a disciple; arrested by the Temple police; interrogated by the High Priest’s father-in-law; slapped in the face by one of his heavies; bound and sent to the High Priest himself for more interrogation; and finally brought to the headquarters of the Roman Governor – the hated and pagan boss of the forces of occupation – who had power to release him and power to crucify him – for still further interrogation. A long way from Lo! he comes, with clouds descending and Thousand, thousand saints attending…
Not a king coming in stately splendour with the clouds, but as one scourged and crowned with thorns. He sits not on a golden throne, but on the wood of the Cross. Meekness and majesty… Now that’s ironic!
But this kind of irony can be one of God’s ways of getting our attention. The apparent contradiction invites us to pause awhile and consider who is this Jesus, and what kind of king he is.
His retort to Pilate in today’s Gospel gives us a pointer: My kingdom is not from this world. It’s not that Jesus isn’t King of this world. The Church proclaims that he is just that. Today we honour him as ‘King of the Universe’, after all. What he says is that his kingdom is not from this world. It doesn’t derive its values or take its cues from this world. He is King of the earth, but he is no ‘earthly’ king. There is no inconsistency in honouring Christ as King and espousing the 1916 rebels’ will to cherish all the children of the Republic equally. There is no contradiction between the values of his Kingdom and the revolutionary values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Later on, in the Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer we will hear what the values of Christ’s Kingdom are. And there are not just three but seven of them…..A kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace.
Wretched as he was as he stood there before Pilate, even then he was King. For on the Cross, freely offering his life to the Father in order to reconcile the universe to him, he opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all. What greater demonstration of real royal authority could there be? His kingly power lay not in overcoming the Roman occupiers, but in overcoming death itself. And this really is the most ironic bit of all. Jesus manifested his kingly rule most perfectly as he hung upon the Cross. Regnavit a ligno Deus says one of the hymns we sing in Holy Week. Amidst the nations, God, saith he, Hath reigned and triumphed from the Tree.
But still you might say, “If Jesus is King of the universe, how come there is so much evil in the world”. If you’re not asking that question, maybe you should… It may be foolhardy of me to bring it up now, for many big books have been written on this question, and we have only a few minutes. Yet, there are few questions which are more challenging for believers: If Jesus is King of the universe, how come there is so much evil in the world? And so I’ll share one thought on the question with you.
Jesus has opened the Kingdom of heaven to all people. But not everyone is willing to accept the invitation. Until he comes at the end of time, and the visions of Daniel and John are fully realised in the peaceable Kingdom, human beings have complete freedom. And that means we have the freedom to choose evil. The news bulletins of the past week – and most other weeks too – show us the consequences of that.
Some people nowadays prefer to speak of the ‘Reign’ of God, rather than the ‘Kingdom’ of God, because the word ‘Reign’ sounds less sexist. But there’s another reason for using that word. The word ‘Reign’ reminds us that we are not speaking of a physical place. You can’t travel to God’s Kingdom by car or plane. But you can help make the Reign of God present in our world!
As a baptised person, you share in Christ’s own life. You share his royal nature. And so you too – all of us – have a role in making his Reign present in our sometimes dark world. Whenever you live by those seven values you are making his Reign real in our time and place. Pope Francis reminds us: Through his victory, Jesus has opened to us his kingdom. But it is for us to enter into it, beginning with our life now, by being close in concrete ways to our brothers and sisters who ask for bread, clothing, acceptance, solidarity.
I said that we have free will and that this means we have the freedom to choose evil. We do. But of course, we have the freedom to choose the good as well. Wouldn’t it be great if in our lives, each one of us could show forth those seven values of Christ’s Kingdom? If we did, heaven would appear on earth. So choose, and choose well….. Choose truth and life! Choose holiness and grace! Choose justice, love, and peace!
Make those choices, and you will bring forth the Kingdom.
Make those choices, and you will – literally! – walk in the Reign.