Cristo Rey (Christ the King), 1953, Cali, Colombia
(About this Image)
So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?”
Jesus answered, “You say I am a king.
For this I was born and for this I came into the world,
to testify to the truth.
Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
Solemnity of Christ the King
November 21, 2021
Like last week, we will be using a commentary written several years ago. The historical background still represents contemporary scholarship and has remained unchanged, but I have developed the conclusions somewhat differently.
When I was a young priest, there were still older ones who spoke about “Representative Men”. It was an Edwardian expression for a someone with superior skills who we would want to represent us. This is where we begin with the title: “Son of Man”. Although it is somewhat vague on purpose and will be developed by Jesus in a rather surprising way, we must remember that it has a specific place in the Book of Daniel.
Our first reading last week was also from the book of Daniel and we saw that it was written about 165 BC in Jerusalem. The author wished to show that although pagan kingdoms were dominant for the short run, their power was subject to God indeed the God of Israel. That reading was at the end of this discussion, today’s brings us back to the beginning.
Daniel is a young Hebrew aristocrat working in King Belshazzar’s civil service during the exile. He has dreams and the ability to interpret them. Chapter 7 opens with a vision of four immense beasts. They represented the four great kingdoms that had oppressed the Jews: the Babylonians, Persians, that of Alexander the Great and his successors, and the kingdom of Antiochus. As we saw last week, Antiochus was a totally despicable man who desecrated the temple in Jerusalem and eventually banned Judaism entirely. Look how Daniel introduces him:
After this, in the visions of the night I saw the fourth beast,
different from all the others, terrifying, horrible, and of extraordinary strength;
it had great iron teeth with which it devoured and crushed,
and what was left it trampled with its feet.
He virtually perfected evil. The next passage reveals how he killed off opposition in his own family and how he treated the world.
I was considering the ten horns it had,
when suddenly another, a little horn, sprang out of their midst,
and three of the previous horns were torn away to make room for it.
This horn had eyes like a man, and a mouth that spoke arrogantly.
After he is introduced the vision changes:
As I watched,
Thrones were set up
and the Ancient One took his throne.
This is God and very much the model for the Old testament deity:
His clothing was snow bright,
and the hair on his head as white as wool;
His throne was flames of fire,
with wheels of burning fire.
The image is of a King with his court:
Thousands upon thousands were ministering to him,
and myriads upon myriads attended him.
The court was convened, and the books were opened.
The first act of business was to deal with Antiochus:
I watched, then,
from the first of the arrogant words
which the horn spoke, until the beast was slain,
and its body thrown into the fire to be burnt up.
The second was to reveal his successor. This is where we begin today:
As the visions during the night continued, I saw
One like a son of man coming,
on the clouds of heaven;
When he reached the Ancient One
and was presented before him
We need to remember that we are speaking of a society radically unlike our own: they did not believe in the separation of Church and State. A God was always going to be involved with the institution and the execution of government. There are many interpretations of the figure of the Son of Man and none of them fit into our categories. Indeed, the title may have always been intentionally ambiguous. Although some commenters believe the Son of Man is an angel, it is more likely that he is a representative man, a person of great nobility who knowing that his power and authority come from the Ancient of Days will rule wisely.
He received dominion, glory, and kingship;
nations and peoples of every language serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not be taken away,
his kingship shall not be destroyed.
He may have been in some ways a sign of hope that a Jewish kingdom would follow Antiochus and that it would reflect a firm connection with God. This partially occurred with the Hasmonean Kingdom (142-63 BC) which followed the Maccabean rebellion. Yet only partially and, as we have seen Daniel, was very aware of the foibles of leaders and understood that the justice of God will be fully seen only in the resurrection of the dead. There is a tension in Daniel between worldly and other worldly leadership that is both creative and perceptive. Not only were the Hasmoneans ineffective and unjust rulers, but they were removed by the Romans who eventually installed the family of King Herod.
Perhaps because of this failure and uses the title the Son of Man very effectively. It is not as fixed as Messiah and, as we will see many times, including next week’s Gospel, He will adapt it for his own needs. (Luke 21:25-28)
There is a most creative tension here.
As we have seen in our most recent election cycles, religious language can be used by many politicians without a real connection to God. Words are not enough nor are necessary political skills. We have the right indeed the obligation to ask for more. Democracy and the separation of Church and State are gifts to be cherished, but a lively connection with the living God is an even greater if rarer one. We need to search out, encourage, and reward with public office those who will find in our own community and those of other faith groups who can bring this dimension.
The Brownstone Brooklyn and Beyond Book Club has been reading C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. This is one of his least read books but was his own personal favorite. It is perhaps not that well known or read because it examines difficult subjects in a serious way. Among his observations is that all civilizations have accepted some basic ideas of moral behavior. We in the West usually call it “Natural Law” but it is more than Western, and Lewis uses the Eastern version of “The Tao” or Way. Despite being a great Christian apologist, Lewis would challenge me on the previous paragraph and suggest that a person who accepted the “Way”, whether a theist or not but would be a person worthy of support.
The Representative Men and Women we find today may not always proclaim the name of the Son of Man, but they will always follow his “Way”.