Homily for the Feast of Christ the King, 21 November 2021, John 18:33b-37
Today’s Feast is addressed to the Pontius Pilates of this world. I am referring to arrogant leaders who are so sure of themselves, but who suddenly become very insecure and defensive before a harmless teacher like Jesus of Nazareth, who never claimed to be a king; he proclaimed only God as King. They are unsettled by the fact that people see in Jesus one who truly represents God’s kingship. Face to face with Jesus, Pilate suddenly feels the nakedness and emptiness of his supposed kingship.
John is very clever in the way he portrays the scene of the encounter between Pilate and Jesus. The contrast is very striking: Jesus is consistently calm and serene; Pilate is both nervous and aggressive. I imagine him shouting at Jesus and saying, “Do you admit the criminal charges of sedition that have been filed against you? That you are claiming to be the King of the Jews and are questioning the legitimacy of the kingship of the Roman emperor, whom I represent in your country?”
Jesus answers the question with a question, “Are you saying this on your own, or have others told you about me?” And the question gets Pilate very upset. He gets even more unsettled when Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus is driving him crazy. He does not say he is a king and yet he is talking about “his kingdom”. And now, what Pilate really wants to know is, “Where is this kingdom of yours?”
One of the spiritual masterpieces written by the great woman doctor of the Church, Saint Teresa of Avila, has an interesting term for the kingdom that Jesus spoke about to Pilate. She called it an INTERIOR CASTLE. Many people have tried to destroy it but they have not succeeded.
In his preachings, Jesus had always spoken about the Kingdom of God. He even told people where to find it. He said, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” He was definitely not talking about a castle made of stone that Pilate thought he could easily destroy or demolish. And so Jesus said to him, “My Kingdom is not of this world.”
You see, the problem with the kingdoms of this world is, they are showy but they don’t last very long. They come and go, they sprout and disappear like the grass of the field. Name an empire that arose in any part of the world in all its splendor that has not eventually disintegrated. The Babylonian empire, the Persian empire, the Hellenistic empire, the Roman empire, the Byzantine empire, the Ottoman empire. They’re all gone. They were not as formidable and as invincible as people thought they were.
Our first reading today from the Book of Daniel gives us an idea what the worldly kingdoms are like. They are all about the vanity of powerplay, all about the desperate effort to control or to lord it over other people. You should read the whole chapter seven of the book of Daniel to be able to understand his vision.
The prophet is describing four kingdoms that he sees in his dream. They are all trying desperately to compete for power. Their common denominator is their behavior: they manifest what is most beastly, what is monstrous, what is most cruel and inhuman about us human beings. The first is behaving like a lion with the wings of an eagle. The second like a bear with three tusks in its mouth, and the third like a leopard with four heads. The fourth is supposed to have been the most ferocious; it had ten horns and one of the horns is described in a familiar way. The prophet says it loved to talk dirty. It spoke arrogant words, blasphemous language.
Then the prophet ends with a vision of the one who receives the Kingdom of God. He is no longer represented by a monster or an intimidating beast, but by a plain human being. He is not trying to play god. He is not competing for power. Jesus actually spoke very often about this vision of Daniel in the Gospels. He calls him “Bar Nasha” in the Aramaic language, literally “Son of Man”, but I prefer to translate it as THE CHILD OF HUMANITY. Sa Tagalog, ANG ANAK NG TAO, or better yet—Ang ANAK NG SANGKATAUHAN.
Jesus spoke about this figure to James and John when they were competing for positions of power and the other apostles got angry with them because they also wanted power for themselves. He told them to be like the Anak ng Tao “who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life for the redemption of many.”
This was the “king” whom Pilate ridiculed. He kept threatening Jesus that this claim to kingship was a dangerous thing, that it was an act of SEDITION, that it could get him convicted as a terrorist on the basis of his anti-terror law; it could get him executed as a subversive on the cross.
You know, three years ago, when I was criminally charged myself of such atrocious things as sedition, inciting to sedition, cyber libel, obstruction of justice and even estafa, along with thirty-five other people(among them fellow bishops and priests), I found myself asking my brother Atty Dante who lawyered for me what it was in what I had said or done that had so threatened the powers that be. Did they really believe that we were out to build our own government or worldly empire? Thank God the DOJ did not believe them and eventually dismissed the case.
I think what upsets the worldly kings about the kingdom of Christ is—they could not locate it. How can they demolish it if they do not even know where it is, or where to find it? And yet, Jesus never kept it secret from them. He always told people where to find the kingdom of God. He said, “THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS WITHIN YOU!”
It is what Teresa of Avila calls an INTERIOR CASTLE with many chambers or mansions, and with God dwelling in its inner most chamber of the human person. It is not built by human hands. We should never pretend to build the kingdom of God. How can you build a kingdom for God? (It was as ridiculous as David wanting to build a house for God.) If it is God’s kingdom then I suppose it is also God who will build it himself.
That must be the reason why Jesus taught his disciples to pray to God like infants talking to their daddy—who is a king! What makes us say his daddy is a king? He says, “THY KINGDOM COME.” He does not say “May we go to your kingdom…” or “May we build your kingdom…” It is too arrogant of us to even think we can build it.
So how does God’s kingdom come among us? The next line answers that: THY WILL BE DONE! It is when we open our hearts and minds to God’s will and embrace it as our own, it is then that God begins to build it within us. Remember what Jesus said in his farewell address? “If anyone loves me, he will keep my words and my Father will love him and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
The kingdom of God is not only within us, it is among us. Didn’t he say, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.”?
The kingdom of God begins within us, but it grows among us, and brings about what we call COMMUNION, a union of hearts and souls that alone can bring about COMMUNITIES of disciples. It makes us live no longer for ourselves. It makes us live in Christ, as parts of his larger body which we call the Church. In him we live and move and have our being. As Pope Francis says it in his call for synodality—we grow from COMMUNION to PARTICIPATION, to MISSION. That is how God builds his kingdom within us, among us, beyond us.
The kingdom of Christ is at work when we learn to love each other as Christ has loved us, when we learn to walk with one another, to feel each other’s pains, to share each other’s joys, to own each other’s stories until they become his story of salvation, his story of redemption.
This kingdom drives people crazy because, while Jesus says it is not “of this world”, they know it operates “in this world.” It works very quietly but steadily (“hinay-hinay basta kanunay,” as they say it in Cebuano). It is unbeatable because it proclaims, not hatred but love, and believes it is more radical to love. Mas radikal ang magmahal.
It is not afraid to face the threats of violence, coercion, cruelty and murder. The song BE NOT AFRAID says it beautifully: “If you stand before the power of hell and death is at your side, know that I am with you through it all.” Or better yet, “Know that I am WITHIN you through it all.”
This is the kingship that we proclaim today; the kind which alone will inherit all “the power, dominion and glory, and will unite all peoples, all nations and languages,” according to Daniel. He is the king of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the one who sits at the right hand of the Father. Where? In the Interior Castle that can never be demolished.