The chapel was darker than I had expected. The monstrance stood on the altar, flanked by candles and spotlighted by two overhead lights. The rest of the room was a canvas depicting the shading of these feeble lights into the night-black streaming from the stained glass. A man in sweats and two women sat—heads down, eyes open—reading and praying. I rubbed my eyes, looked carefully to distinguish Christ from shadow in the monstrance, and knelt down.
4-5 AM: Hour 11 of my parish’s 40 Hours Devotion. Our new pastor revived this practice in preparation for today’s feast—the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe—which is our parish’s patronal feast. Bragging to my wife as I signed up, I zealously took this overnight slot, but the night’s cold and the lag between coffee consumed and clear-headed thought proved my flesh’s weakness. My fellow parishioners watched an hour with the Lord; I succumbed to and awoke from unbidden slumber like Matthew, James, and John must have during one fateful night in Judea.
In the midst of these undulations between sleep and prayer, the morning following that long-ago night—the morning of Good Friday—filled my mind’s eye. In the scene serving as today’s Gospel (John 18:33b-37), Jesus and Pilate verbalize the distance between them, a gap consisting in the identity and meaning of the king of the Jews.
Pilate asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
Who is the king of Israel? Israel’s history answers kaleidoscopically. In the first instance, it is the LORD (cf. 1 Sam. 8; 12:12). But the people ask for a human king, and the LORD obliges, giving them first Saul and then David: exemplars of disobedience and obedience, respectively (cf. 1 Samuel 13, 15; 1 Kings 15:5). The Son of David is meant to reign forever (2 Samuel 7:14-16), but David’s line seems to end in exile and silence.
In this night of the son of David, who is the king of Israel? When Israel returns, the LORD is again enthroned as king (Isaiah 44:6). But a foreigner rules over Israel: Cyrus of Persia serves as God’s instrument (Isaiah 45:1-4). This foreign rule devolves into nightmare, culminating in Antiochus Epiphanes IV torturing and killing the LORD’s faithful (cf. 2 Maccabees 6-7). The book of Daniel recounts visions in this night, seeing the mysterious “one like a Son of man” (a human being) emerge. This one breaks the power of the foreign ruling beasts forever. He ushers in the morning of the everlasting day of the LORD, as today’s first reading confidently proclaims. This is the king of Israel.
Against this background, the Roman procurator Pilate–standing in the morning light of Good Friday–asks Jesus from the darkness of that world: “Are you the king of the Jews?”
“You say I am a king,” says Jesus, but “for this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth,” and “my kingdom does not belong to this world.”
Here stands the Son of man: ecce homo. The power of this king is not what we expect, for it is truly human, and he reveals the truth that we do not live in a human world. This world sees the eternal return of the same beasts: the tired cycle of violence begetting violence; the political ruler ruthlessly guarding and losing power. To take only one of the most striking recent examples: our world sees terrorists murdering people in cold blood–Paris, Beirut, Mali–and our world responds by shutting out those most immediately affected by the violence of these terrorists. We do live in the dark night of the human become bestial.
But here stands the Son of man. Here stands one unbeholden to the logic of this violent world, one who simply is obedient response to the primordial king of Israel: the LORD. He confronts us with the truth of our bestial world and shows us the world in which human beings are meant to live: the kingdom of God. His power is seeming weakness: the endless gift of himself and the love he shares with the Father. His ministry shows this gift: healing, liberating, setting free, raising from the dead. When he has nothing left to give, he gives his life, his body, his blood. They are gifts first from the cross—the king’s throne in John’s Gospel—and now from the shadowed Host before me. He gives himself into the hands of his weak sisters and brothers: adoring him here, streaming forth from Mass on Sunday. He asks them to give themselves fully to the Father in the Spirit, as he does. He asks them to love, heal, liberate, set free, raise from the dead as he has.
I wake in the chapel’s night to find it is indeed darker than we expected. But light shines around the King who has given himself so fully that he might be mistaken at 5 AM as a shadow framed by a gold cross. Gathering myself and genuflecting, I walk to my car. Though the horizon sits stolidly in blackness, I know that the dawn is not far gone. Turning back, I see the light from the candles brightly illuminating the stained glass which had seemed so shrouded in darkness inside the chapel.
Today we celebrate that our King is ruling now, and we celebrate that he will rule over all in glory. It may still be night, but already the light is flashing outward, “like shining from shook foil.” Let us meet him. Let us imitate him. Let us carry the light of his day to this world and so let it become his kingdom: a home for God and human beings. Come, let us worship Jesus Christ, the king of kings.