Responding to the Reign of Christ – Drew Tucker reflects on our language around God’s influence in our lives and presence in our environment.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Reign of Christ (Christ the King) Sunday, Year B (2021, 2024)
Daniel 7:9-10, 12-14
“I’m King of the World!” So says Jack, portrayed by a young Leonardo DiCaprio, in 1997’s hit film Titanic. Standing at the bow of the supposedly unsinkable ship, leaning over the edge of ocean deep, with wind plastering his face at untold knots, he claims a short-lived lordship with authority over, well, we’re not quite sure what. Of course, this is a metaphor for Jack’s feelings as he’s attempting to emigrate to the United States, finding a way out of poverty and into love with Kate Winslet’s Rose. No one truly feels threatened by Jack’s monarchy, for his intent is to rule over his own life, his own world.
Contrast that with John’s depiction of Jesus. It’s Pilate, not Jesus, that names this divine monarchy. Rather than claim the title for himself, shouting it from the front of an economic marvel, Jesus’s reign is noted by others. It’s an accusation, one based on a Roman fear of a revolt. An uprising, or rather, another uprising, was not something Rome wanted to manage.
The kind of power God brings doesn’t need to assert itself from a place of technological advancements or economic prowess. Instead, it comes from external recognition, a realization that the power God brings challenges the ways we claim power for ourselves, whether personally, politically, economically, or religiously. The Reign of God is announced, but it is not forced upon us, nor is it claimed without validity. God’s Reign in Christ emerges from the unexpected places. It evolves from humble origins. It manifests as a spring after winters of discontent.
Environmental imagery is present throughout the assigned readings, though on the surface, the connection to the festival is more poetic than practical. In John, Jesus distinguishes “this world” from another, unnamed locale that is the source of his reign. Such imagery doesn’t intend to diminish the value of creation, but instead to name the political and religious powers that exert control, albeit with futility, in this earthly realm. We know that the other place Jesus names, the origin of his power, is heaven, or eternity, or a host of other names denoting divine communion, but that’s not the case for Christ’s listeners. Though he didn’t claim kingship initially, an admission of his authority and its origin in a foreign place only furthers the threat in Rome’s view. The same is true of religious leadership.
The Book of Revelation points out this struggle in language of regret. Christ’s arrival on the clouds, indicative of the heavenly origin of his rule, the nations wail, for all eyes see him, not just those who supported him but also those who opposed him. Given that context, the wailing makes a lot of sense. It’s also a visceral, natural evidence of that fear so many of us have when our lack of power is exposed or our sense of control is challenged. Though we can—and should—critique the ways human fear led to Christ’s crucifixion, fear itself is not an evil. It is a natural response from our earliest evolution. The Reign of Christ is not about the end of fear, but the end of fear’s destructive consequences when we admit our limitation and embrace God’s rule among us.
Nature, in its course, sees the deep good of the divine monarchy. Floods and crashing waves appear in the Psalm as the town criers for our global community that years for deliverance from the powers of this world that have so often abused this seas, lands, and air of our global home. Notice that, while religious and political authorities notice God’s power in Christ and lashes out with fear, creation recognizes God’s power and rejoices with force. Forces that we know have destructive power, for floods and tsunamis are no joke. There is a power in them, one we try to control or at least predict, but one ultimately beyond our keep. That power, from atoms to the universe’s edges, celebrates the coronation of Christ. Psalm 93 indicates this is because the waters recognize God’s role in our cosmic origins. They know this one who hovered over the deep before the world’s creation and celebrate the presence that brought the world to life.
Daniel incorporates perhaps the most natural imagery of all the readings, almost exclusively as simile or metaphor. Clothing that is “white as snow,” hair that is “like pure wool,” a throne of “fiery flames” and wheels of “burning fire.” There’s something distinctly supernatural about the ultimate verse of this pericope, namely that the dominion God establishes here is endless. It is unlike every biological thing that we know, which has a life cycle. The endless reign points to an endless life, which is decidedly different from creation’s normal operation.
And yet, it’s no accident that Daniel employs natural imagery for this supernatural ruler, who appears “like a human being.” In the reign of Christ, heaven and earth collapse. The distance between our time and eternity disappears. A powerful introduction to this thought within the Lutheran tradition comes from Wolfart Pannenberg’s Theology and the Kingdom of God (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1977). The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ signals not just a new mode of presence of God with humanity, but the invasion of earthly realms by heavenly realities. Pannenberg calls this “futurity,” a concept that carries participatory intent. The establishment of God’s reign among us, which begins with the Incarnation, evokes creation to participate now in eternity. The literary devices of snow and wool and fire in Daniel’s imagery point to something of our actual participation in God’s reign right now.
Reign of Christ Sunday is not, ultimately, about a day that is to come. It’s about how the eternal rule of God shapes our living today. That the festival originated in 1925 is no accident. At the same time, the rise to nationalism and fascism in Italy and throughout the globe threatened not just the integrity of the church, but the survival of all creation. The Reign of Christ was announced again, in a new way, to remind people of faith in all countries that our temporal allegiances are penultimate but not ultimate; that is, important but not the most important. If our societies expect us to destroy the environment to increase profit, the Reign of Christ has something to say about that. If our families expect us to ignore the impacts of racism or queerphobia, the Reign of Christ has something to say about that. If our countries expect us to ignore the plights of immigrants under the guise of national our people first, the Reign of Christ has something to say about that.
But Jesus doesn’t need to stand at the front of the boat and scream his title into the wind. God doesn’t need to shout dictates from a mountaintop. The reign of Christ appears in the most subversive of ways: a manger in Bethlehem, a weeping friend at a funeral, a cross alongside thieves. And when God shows up in those moments, the world takes notice and trembles in fear for we do not understand how God can reign from below what we deem to be worthy.
So here at the end of the liturgical year, ask aloud with your people: What will we do when we notice the revolutionary Reign of Christ? How will we respond? What does the Reign of Christ say to the ways that worldly rulers, from church to politics, from family to corporation, seek our allegiance? Who is king, queen, monarch of our world and our lives?
Natural images include:
Clouds, eyes, wailing, and tribes in Revelation
Floods, waves, and crashing sounds, as well as the allusion to God as creator, in Psalm 93
Snow, wool, flames, clouds, humanity, and language in Daniel
Originally written by Drew Tucker in 2021.
Read more by Drew Tucker at www.friartucker.com