By taking to Himself a human nature, God made His divine attributes visible in human form.
The video below shows different images of Christ as well some of the many names/titles by which He is known.
I have spent quite a bit of time at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington, due to ordinations and other special occasions. As I walk up the main aisle I never fail to be moved by the scene above the apse of Christ in majesty. (See one of my photos to the right.)
I have discovered that very few people are neutral on this image of Christ seated in Judgment. People either love it or hate it. I recall a discussion here on the blog over four years ago that elicited lots of different opinions.
Those who hate it say that He looks angry, and many also don’t care for the Roman toga, and bare shoulder and right chest. To others, who prefer more “inclusive” depictions of Christ, His blond hair, blue eyes, and exceptionally white skin make him seem too European.
Those who love the image say they like the fact that Christ is presented as strong and formidable. For them, this image is a relief from many other modern portraits of Christ, which present Him as a thin, willow-wisp of a man with an often weak look upon His face. But the Christ in majesty of the Basilica is someone who is to be taken seriously and to whom we must render an account.
My own thoughts have shifted over the years. As a younger man, I disliked this work. But over the years and after thoroughly studying the Scriptures, I have come to greatly admire this image of Christ. I often go to the Basilica, and when I do I always stand in the nave and look to Him for strength. I am often filled with joy and holy reverence as I gaze upon His towering strength and sublime majesty. He is a strong and manly Christ who speaks to me. He does not look angry to me. Rather, He seems to be saying, “Have confidence. I have overcome the world.” The inscription above the image also inspires me:
Christ reigns, Christ Rules. Eternal Victor, Eternal King
His kingdom is an everlasting Kingdom that shall not be taken away
You surely have your own thoughts about this image and I encourage you to share them in the comments section. But first, I would like to examine some of the details of this image. Some of them may be obvious, but others you may not have noticed.
1. Flames of fire in the halo – The New Testament Scriptures indicate that Christ will judge the world by fire (cf 1 Cor 3:13; Heb 10:27; 2 Peter 3:7-12). Christ is clearly seated in judgment and he will judge the world by fire and also purify those who are to be saved through fire (cf 1 Cor 3:13-15; Malachi 3:3). Further, Both Daniel and the Book of Revelation speak of fire and flashes of lightning around the Throne of God. So it is that these flames indicate the Holiness of Christ and the fact that he will both judge and purify through fire. This fire need not be understood as a physical fire but at least as a spiritual fire.
2. His angry (?) look – Many who observe the image say that Christ looks angry. On one level this seem likely, since on the Day of Judgment there is not going to be any fooling around. The Scriptures speak of this day as a Day of Wrath (Mat 3:7; John 3:36; Rom 1:18; Rom 2:8; Rom 5:9; Col 3:6; 1 Thess 1:10; Rev 6:16; Rev 11:18, inter al), at least it will be so for those who have rejected God’s offer and have not been saved from the wrath.
But let’s look a little closer at Christ’s face (at left). Look closely at his eyes. Notice that the one on the right (His left eye) is more rounded and serene than the one on the left (His right eye), which is narrower and more piercing. Notice also that the eyebrow on the right is more arched and peaceful, while the one on the left is angled downward in a severe look. Take your hand and cover the side on the left and see that He appears more serene. Then cover the side on the right and notice that He appears more severe. This is very common in Eastern iconography, which likes to present both the justice and mercy of God on the face of Christ. It is subtle, but it is meant to be. Otherwise, we’d have a weird looking face! On the Day of Judgment there will be mercy for those who have shown mercy and severe justice for those who have been severe (Mat 5:7; Mat 7:2; James 2:13), for justice and mercy are alike with Him (cf Sirach 5:7). Looking into His eyes, I am reminded of the stunning text from Hebrews that says of Christ, No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account (Heb 4:13).
3. What of his other facial features? – The artist seems to have captured the fact that the Book of Revelation described the glorified Christ as having hair like wool. But notice what it says of the color: His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow (Rev 1:14). Perhaps the artist thought that snow-white hair would be too shocking, but we definitely have blond hair here.
The eyes look to be blue, or possibly green. Here, too, the artist has not conformed as well to the description in the Book of Revelation, which says, his eyes were like blazing fire (Rev 1:14). This would be hard to depict artistically; it might look as if Jesus had red eye!
Add the blond hair and blues eyes to His white complexion and we clearly have a European Christ. There is only a vague account of the complexion of Christ in Scripture: His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance … His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace (Rev 1:15-16). These texts speak more of brightness than color. I know that this notion of inclusivity drives some people crazy, who prefer a color blind society, and it would be a joy to get there. But we cannot simply ignore these as reasons why some do not like this image of Christ. The Bible’s silence on the skin color of Christ demonstrates that our issues today with skin color were not pertinent to Scriptural times.
4. What of his red garment? – In Revelation 19, Christ appears riding a strong white horse and John speaks of the robe He wore: He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God (Rev 19:13).
5. What of his right arm being bared? Here, too, I am mindful of a passage from Isaiah that says, The LORD will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the saving power of our God (Is 52:10). It is a symbol of His strength and His power to save and put down His enemies.
6. What of the fact that He is seated? As we have noted, this is a depiction of the Last Judgment. And of that judgment, Scripture says, When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left (Matt 25:41-43). I am mindful of the old Latin hymn Dies Irae, which poetically says, “When the Judge his seat attaineth, and each hidden deed arraigneth, nothing unavenged remaineth.”
7. What of the angels at his feet? In the Book of Ezekiel (1:4-21 and 10:1-22), there is a vision of the four living creatures or Cherubim around a throne, each having four faces, four wings, four sides, the stature and hands of a man, and the soles of a calf. Further, we have already seen that when the Lord returns He will be accompanied by His angels. Finally, Psalm 99 says, The LORD reigns, let the nations tremble; he sits enthroned between the cherubim, let the earth shake. Great is the LORD in Zion; he is exalted over all the nations (Ps 99:1-2). Somebody say, “Amen!”
I expect some of you will have things to add, possibly corrections or different interpretations. Remember it’s art, not science. One interpretation doesn’t necessarily preclude another. Especially valued are additions to the list that would include insights from Scripture, Tradition, and/or techniques of iconography. When we’re done, I’ll update the post to include things you might be able to add or clarify.
By the way, I am grateful to Jem Sullivan, currently the archdiocese’s Secretary for Education, who a few years back authored a book called The Beauty of Faith. Using Christian Art to Spread the Good News. In it, she encourages what I have tried to do here. Namely, that we should carefully study and pray Christian Art as a kind of lectio divina before the painted or sculpted word.
Here is a video of some unique pictures I took at the Basilica five years ago. They are taken from the Clerestory, a place few visitors go.
At Sunday’s Mass (Feast of Christ the King) we read an important passage from Daniel 7. It is important not only for its prophecy but also because Jesus implicitly sets it as an interpretive key for His own ministry and mission and an explanation of why He calls Himself the “Son of Man” so frequently.
Many modern readers think that “Son of God” is both a higher and clearer title than “Son of Man.” However, as we will see below, the title “Son of God” could be ambiguous.
Let’s consider the passage from three different perspectives: its historical meaning, its Christological meaning, and its current meaning. Here is the text:
In the vision I [Daniel] saw during the night, the four winds of heaven stirred up the great sea, from which emerged four immense beasts, each different from the others. The first was like a lion, but with eagle’s wings. … The second was like a bear …. It was given the order, “Up, devour much flesh.” After this I looked and saw another beast, like a leopard; on its back were four wings like those of a bird, and it had four heads. To this beast dominion was given. 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.
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.
As I watched, thrones were set up and the Ancient One took his throne. 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. A surging stream of fire flowed out from where he sat; Thousands upon thousands were ministering to him, and myriads upon myriads attended him.
The court was convened, and the books were opened. 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 other beasts, which also lost their dominion, were granted a prolongation of life for a time and a season.
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, 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 (Daniel 7:2-14).
Historical meaning – Daniel prophesied that four kingdoms would persecute God’s people. Each was represented by a beast similar in appearance to a known animal but with symbolic differences.
Most scholars interpret the kingdoms as Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. Indeed, each of these did persecute the ancient Jews (the Romans persecuted Christians as well). The last kingdom in the prophecy was particularly fierce and received special attention. A single horn (symbolizing power) is said to far eclipse the power of the other horns. This horn had eyes like a man and spoke arrogantly. God sat in judgment, finally casting this fourth kingdom into the abyss, the lake of fire. Sic semper tyrannis (thus always to tyrants). God the Father then ushered in “one like a Son of Man” who would rule all nations and have a kingdom that would never be destroyed or taken away.
Daniel prophesied what we have come to know as the Kingdom of God our Lord Jesus Christ, which is also the Church, the Body of Christ.
Christological meaning – It is primarily this passage that inspires Jesus’ use of the phrase “Son of Man” to refer to Himself. In effect, Jesus says, “I am the one of whom Daniel speaks. I am He who receives from the Father dominion, glory, and kingship. I am He of whom Daniel said, nations and peoples of every language serve him. I am He whose Kingdom is an everlasting kingdom that shall not be taken away, and my kingship shall not be destroyed.
To many modern ears, the title “Son of God” seems higher than “Son of Man.” Among the ancient Jews, though, “Son of God” could refer to an angel or a human. Further, ancient Jews did not conceive of God as having a son, so it might not seem unusual or significant that Jesus or anyone referred to himself as a son of God. In other words, the title “Son of God” could be ambiguous to ancient hearers. Jesus does call Himself “God’s son” (e.g., Jn 11:4; Jn 10:36), but the meaning is debated and the title was not always challenged by His listeners. However, the title “Son of Man” is unique in biblical literature and refers to the eternal ruler, the anointed one, the Christ, whose status and unassailable power is clearly set forth by Daniel.
In using the title Son of Man, Jesus asserts that He is the anointed and eternal ruler to whom Daniel pointed, that all things are His and all are subject to Him. This is a high Christology to say the least. Jesus is Eternal Christ and King.
Current meaning – The meaning for today is that Jesus will conquer any person, nation, or power that arrogantly asserts its dominance or oppresses His people. Psalm 2 says this of the Christ, the Messiah, who is our Lord Jesus:
Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, “Let us break these chains and throw off their shackles!”
The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.”
I will proclaim the Lord’s decree. He said to me, “You are my son; today I have become your father. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. And you will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.”
Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling. Lest he be angry and your way lead to destruction for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him! [Psalm 2]
So, all nations and things are subject to Christ and the Church, which as His Body shares in this indefectibility. Christ promised this:
And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it (Mat 16:18).
Gates are a symbol of power, and the power of Hell cannot destroy the Church. This does not mean that disciples will not suffer persecution, imprisonment, or even death, or that there will not be sin and foolishness in the Church. However, the Church is the indefectible Body of Christ, who was
[R]aised from the dead is seated at the Father’s right hand in the heavenly places, far above every principality, authority, power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And [the Father] put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the Church, which is his Body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Eph 1:20-23).
Why, then, is evil still so prevalent and why do the Lord’s enemies seem to prosper? Scripture says,
When God subjected all things to him, He left nothing outside of his control. Though at present, we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because He suffered death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting for God, for whom and through whom all things exist, to make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering (1 Cor 15:27-30).
Thus, the victory of the Lord over this world’s pride and arrogance, over nations and principalities that assert power unto evil, is often a paradoxical one. Pride is conquered by humility. In dying Jesus destroys death; in rising He restores life. Make no mistake, the victory has already been won and it is a total one. Although the battle plays out through history, the victory of all who suffer with the Lord for the truth is already secured.
Consider for a moment the darkest, most evil day ever: There was a darkening of the sun and an earthquake. The Son of Man hung lifeless from the cross. To any worldly observer he appeared to have lost; evil seemed to have been victorious. Just as Satan was running his victory lap around the cross, Jesus went down into the Devil’s trophy room, Sheol, and turned it out. While Satan was gloating, Jesus awakened the dead and summoned them to new life. The gates of Heaven swung open and slammed up against the gates of Hell. One of the prayers of exorcism rebukes Satan by reminding him that Jesus in horto superavit, spoliavit in cruce, et de sepulchro resurgens tua tropaea in regnum transtulit lucis (Jesus overcame you in the garden, despoiled you on the cross, and rising from the tomb, bore off your trophy into the Kingdom of Light).
Yes, the victory is total, but it is obtained paradoxically: through humble obedience and in the suffering of death. The victory is certain for all who are on the battlefield for the Lord.
As evidence, I propose the Church herself. During the lifetime of the Church, nations have risen and fallen, empires have come and gone, errors and heresies have flourished and then withered. Where is Caesar now? Where is Napoleon? Where is the USSR? They are all gone; we are still here preaching the Gospel and celebrating the sacraments. We have read the funeral rites over all who said they would bury us. Yes, we have endured their wrath, sat in their prisons, heard their threats, been hauled into their courts, and even been killed by them—but the Church is here, and they are gone. One by one all things are put under Christ’s feet. The Church has always had enemies within her as well, including clergy of every rank—but we are still here. It is clear that the Church is indefectible, but only by God’s grace!
Jesus Christ is the eternal King, and His kingdom shall never be destroyed. Daniel saw this in one “like a Son of Man” who received His kingdom from His Father. Jesus has proven that He is that Son of Man.
Christ reigns, Christ Rules. Eternal Victor, Eternal King. His kingdom is an everlasting Kingdom that shall not be taken away!
Get on the winning team! Understand that the victories and methods are sometimes paradoxical, but know by faith that the end is sure, the victory has already been won.
On the feast of Christ the King, we are called to acknowledge that Jesus is in fact our King. It is one thing to say that He is our King because the song in Church says so, or the preacher says so, or the Bible says so (yes, faith does come by hearing), but it is quite another for us to personally say that Jesus is our King.
There comes a time when we must personally affirm what the Church has always announced: “Jesus is Lord, and He is King. He is my King. He has authority in my life.” This must become more than just lip service; it must become a daily, increasing reality in our life.
Kings take care of us, but they also have the authority to command us. Do we allow Christ to command us or are we more like the typical modern person who doesn’t like to be told what to do? Perhaps we suffer from the milder form of this attitude in which we reduce Jesus to a “harmless hippie” who just says pleasant things but would never rebuke us or insist upon our repentance.
Again, consider this question: “Is Jesus Christ your King?”
That brings us to Sunday’s Gospel. The Gospels aren’t theater; we’re not in the audience watching an ancient story unfold. No, we are in the story. We are not supposed to just sit back and observe what Peter, or Pontius Pilate, or James, or Mary Magdalene does. They are we and we are they.
This means that when Jesus asks one of them a question, we cannot merely wait to see how he or she will answer. No, we have to answer the question.
In the Gospel the spotlight is on Pontius Pilate. The Lord asks the critical question of him. We cannot simply wait to see how he answers; we have to answer. Let’s consider this Gospel in three stages.
I. INDECISION – In a remarkable display of literary artistry, John and the Holy Spirit vividly depict the vacillation of Pontius Pilate. In this Gospel passage of the trial of Jesus, Pilate goes in and out of the praetorium (the governor’s palace) more than a bellhop through the revolving door of a hotel! Indeed, he goes in and out seven times. Here is the text, with the portions describing his motions highlighted in bold:
So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” . . . Pilate [re]entered the praetorium and called Jesus . . . he went out to the Jews again, and told them, “I find no crime in him” . . . Then Pilate took Jesus [back into the praetorium] and scourged him. . . . Pilate went out again, and said to them, “See, I am bringing him out to you, that you may know that I find no crime in him.” . . . When Pilate heard [the crowd], he was the more afraid; he re-entered the praetorium and [spoke] to Jesus . . . Upon this Pilate [went back out] and sought to release him, but the Jews cried out . . . When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and he sat down on the judgment seat (John 18-19 selected verses).
Did you count them? Seven times Pilate goes into or out of the praetorium! Such a picture of indecision and vacillation! He’s trying to please the crowds. He’s trying to please his wife (who had warned him to have nothing to do with that innocent man (Mat 27:19)). He’s trying to help Jesus. He can’t decide, so in and out he goes!
Pilate is just like us. We say that we love God, but we also love the world. We want to please others and we want to please God, but we cannot do both. We have to decide, but instead we vacillate; we are Pilate. We are often locked in indecision, trying to please the world and God.
Are we really so different from Pilate? Faced with a crucial decision, Pilate weighs the consequences that choosing Jesus will have on his career, his family, his loyalty to country and Caesar, and his access to power. While we may rightly criticize Pilate for his choice, don’t we make compromises with the world for the sake of similar things? How often does Jesus our King take a back seat to career, politics, convenience, and so forth? So easily do we stay rooted in vacillation, compromise, and indecision.
II. INQUIRY – In the midst of all this indecision, comes the question.
Pilate begins with his own question: “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33) Although it is Jesus who is on trial, He turns the tables on Pilate. Jesus effectively puts Pilate on trial by asking him a crucial question: Are you saying this on your own or have others been telling you about me?” (John 18:34).
It’s a remarkable question! Guess what … You have to answer it. Each of us has to answer it. Don’t wait for Pilate; he already gave his answer and faced judgment long ago. How do we answer it?
Notice what the Lord is getting at with his question. He is asking us if we call him a King merely because we’ve heard others say it or because we personally know him to be a King. Is he really our King, or this just a slogan we’ve heard in church before? Do we believe that He is King or do we merely parrot what we’ve heard others say?
There is an old gospel song that says, “Yes, I know Jesus for myself.” Is that really the case with us? Too many of us are satisfied with a kind of inferential faith. Inferential faith is based merely on what others have said: we think or suppose that Jesus is Lord because our parents said so, or our pastor said so. This is a good beginning, for after all, faith comes by hearing (Rom 10:17), but there comes a moment when we have to say so. It is not enough that our parents say so or our pastor says so. Thus, Jesus is asking us right now, Are you saying [I am King] on your own or merely because others have said so?
Answer Him! It’s a crucial question, isn’t it? The faith of the Church is essential, normative, and determinative, but at some point we have to step up and say that we personally affirm that the faith of the Church is true and is ours, and then declare, “Jesus is Lord and King.”
What does it mean that Jesus is King? A king has authority, doesn’t he? Does Jesus have authority in our life? Do we have the obedience of faith (Rom 1:5) and base our life upon His will?
A king also takes care of his people and protects them. Do we allow the Lord to feed us with the Holy Eucharist? Do we allow Him to protect us from the poison of sin by the Sacrament of Confession and the medicine of His Holy Word? Are we willing to live within the protection of the walled city of His Church?
Is the Lord really our King? How do we answer? Is it just a slogan or is His Kingship real? Let the Lord ask one more time, Are you saying [I am King] on your own or have others been telling you about me?
III. IMPLICATION – We must answer. To refuse to answer is to answer.
A fascinating and wondrous literary device is used by John and the Holy Spirit in this Gospel passage. We have already seen how Jesus, who was Himself on trial, has turned the tables and effectively put Pilate on trial. Pilate, who has the duty to question Jesus, is now being questioned by Him. It is Pilate who must now make a decision, not so much about Jesus, but about himself. He has been asked a question that he cannot ultimately avoid, and now it is time to answer. Here is where the ingenious literary device comes into play. Look carefully at this passage from John’s Gospel and see if you notice anything strange about it.
Upon [the shouting of “Crucify him!”] Pilate sought to release Jesus, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend; every one who makes himself a king sets himself against Caesar.” When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out, and he sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Pavement, and in Hebrew, Gabbatha (John 19:12-13).
What is strange here? Well, notice that when Pilate has Jesus brought out, it says that “he” sat down on the judgment seat. Who exactly is sitting on the judgment seat? One might think, Pilate, of course! Historically, that might be true, but the text is ambiguous as to exactly who “he” is. Most Scripture scholars argue that the line is supposed to be ambiguous.
From the standpoint of historical facts, it was likely Pilate who took that seat, but from the standpoint of divine justice, it is Jesus who takes it.
Jesus has turned the tables on Pilate. Pilate is now on trial and the verdict is about to be revealed. Pilate seals his own fate when he hands Jesus over to be crucified; his vacillation is over. Pilate has made his choice; he has answered the question.
In this context it is Jesus who sits silently upon the judgment seat. The verdict is in. In deciding to hand Jesus over, in deciding to favor himself and the crowds over Jesus, Pilate has brought judgment on himself.
Too many of us have cartoonish notions about our final judgment: a benign Jesus giving us a great big hug, or an angry one gleefully passing judgment on His “enemies.” Perhaps there is also some notion of a review of our deeds, both good and bad, and then the pronouncing of some sort of verdict while we cringe and wait. Jesus is not a King who imposes His Kingdom. He invites us to enter into His Kingdom. Ultimately, judgment is about our choice, not His.
Judgment is finally this: The Lord, who suffered for us, quietly and respectfully sits on the judgment seat and accepts our final choice, a choice that is the accumulation all the choices we made in life, a choice that is now and forever fixed. Isn’t that what really happens?
The Lord has asked the question of Pilate, as he does of us. The choice is for Pilate to make and the judgment is one he brings on himself. His choice is either to accept the Lord’s Kingship or to reject it and watch Jesus led away while he (Pilate himself) stands alone, the judgment having been rendered by virtue of his own choice.
Yes, there are implications to whether we accept the Lord as our King or not. Today, the Lord asks us all if we will let Him be our King. To those of us who say yes, the Lord has this further question: “Are you saying this on your own or have others been telling you about me?” Is He really our King? Think hard about it. There are implications.
The question that we must answer has now been answered by Pilate. What is your answer?
In the car commercial below every imaginable attack is waged on the driver by various nefarious figures, but the driver just keeps on driving. Similarly, we must just keep on preaching and teaching no matter what foolish or evil things assail us, no matter the obstacles. St. Paul reminds us,
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Timothy 4:1-5).
I’m not quite sure what to make of the woman at the end of the commercial. Let’s just call her Mother Church. Christ and His bride will win! The wicked will wage their war, but in the end, they will turn on one another. Evil cannot endure. Jesus and His bride win! Viva Cristo Rey!
Given that Sunday was the Feast of Christ the King and that we have begun to read the Book of Revelation in the Office of Readings, this is an opportune time to examine the glorious portrait of Jesus Christ presented in Revelation 1:8-20. It is a portrait of the risen Christ in all His glory. The vision is of a high Christology. The Christ that is encountered here is the Lord of glory, who has attained to His glorious kingdom and who is the Lord of history and King of the Universe.
Let’s look at the passage and then draw from it ten descriptions of Jesus the Christ.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” … Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash round his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades (Revelation 1:8, 12-18).
The Recapitulating Christ – “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” In this usage, recapitulating means subsuming many things under one heading. Saying that the Lord is the Alpha and the Omega means more than just the beginning and the end. It also means, “I am A and Z.” In other words, “I am the alphabet of God. I am in every word you speak or read. I am in every thought you articulate.”
He is the Word of God. He is the refulgence of all wisdom and knowledge. He knows all things. The Bible says this of Jesus:
That in the dispensation of the fullness of times [God the Father] might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him (Eph. 1:10).
For in Him all things were created, things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities. All things were created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together (Col 1:16-17).
The Reigning Christ – Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash round his chest. These are regal robes, the dress and splendor of a king, magistrate, or judge. Indeed, the portrait here is not of Jesus Christ as savior per se, but Jesus Christ as judge.
We must all face Jesus one day as judge: For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So each of us shall give account of himself to God (Romans 14:11-12).
The title “Son of Man” was one Jesus often used to describe Himself. It points to the vision of Daniel: I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed (Daniel 7:13-14).
Thus, we behold Christ here in all his glory.
The Righteous Christ – His head and his hair were white as white wool … This text speaks of His wisdom, righteousness, and purity. White (or gray) hair is a symbol of wisdom. The whitened wool also speaks to His purity and recalls this text from Isaiah: Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool (Is 1:18). Hence, Jesus’ wisdom is pure, lightsome, and holy. He alone can cleanse us and make us share in His righteousness.
The Revealing Christ – His eyes were like a flame of fire… His eyes illumine and see all things. He has a kind of penetrating vision, like x-rays. He sees right through you.
Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him to whom we must render an account (Heb 4:13).
He knows everything you’ve ever done; every thought, every word, every deed. His eyes not only see all things, they illumine all things, shining the light of truth on them.
The Relentless Christ – his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace. This means that His Kingdom and His judgement will be unstoppable. Brass, a hard, weighty metal, symbolizes that which is unyielding and unstoppable.
When Christ comes again, no one will be able to resist His word and judgment. Myriads will be summoned before Him in the valley of decision. Scripture reports an awesome and terrifying aspect of the judgment concerning the feet of Christ: So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city (Rev 14:18-20).
Here, then, is burning judgment and strong feet. He is the relentless Christ; you cannot stop Him. He is going forth to judge. He will judge. He must judge. “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” For the Father judges no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son: That all men should honor the Son (John 5:22-23).
The Resounding Christ – and his voice was like the sound of many waters. A likely background to this text is Psalm 29: 2-4 The voice of the LORD is upon the waters: the God of glory thunders: the LORD is upon many waters. The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty. He is our majestic Lord and God.
God has gone up with a shout, the LORD with the sound of a trumpet (Psalm 47:5).
The LORD shall roar from on high, and utter his voice from his holy habitation; he shall mightily roar upon his habitation; he shall give a shout, as they that tread the grapes, against all the inhabitants of the earth. A noise shall come even to the ends of the earth; for the LORD hath a controversy with the nations, he will plead with all flesh; he will give them that are wicked to the sword, saith the LORD (Jeremiah 25:30-31).
For the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation (John 5:28-29).
The Regulating Christ – in his right hand he held seven stars. Jesus doesn’t just have the whole world in His hand; He’s got the whole universe in His hand. He is the one who regulates it all. He runs and rules all of creation.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist (Col 1:15-17).
The Book of Revelation also defines the stars as the seven churches. Rev 1:20 states, The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches. Thus, we see here the governance over the Church that Christ has. And he is the head of the body, the Church: he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence (Col 1:17-18).
The Rebuking Christ – from his mouth issued a sharp two-edged sword. This is a word picture that is reminiscent of Hebrews 4:12. For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. The sword that is in His mouth is His Word.
Repent; or else I will come unto you quickly, and will fight … with the sword of my mouth (Rev 2:16).
And out of his mouth goes forth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them (Rev 19:15).
Thus, the Word of God must act like a surgeon’s scalpel and remove all that is putrefied in us. We must be healed by God’s word and the sacraments of grace, lest we perish on that day when His Word shall have its full effect.
The Refulgent Christ – and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. He is the brightness of the Father’s glory. He is the Light of the World.
In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world (John 1:4-9).
If we are faithful, this light shall transform us. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2).
The Reassuring Christ – When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand upon me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” On the one hand, our world needs today a new vision of the holiness of God. Look at John: He knew Christ and lay his head upon His chest at the last supper. Despite all the history that John has with Jesus, when he beholds the glorified Christ, he falls on his face as though dead.
“But you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). Too frequently, today, God has been trivialized. Look at John’s experience. Jesus will reassure him, but the glory is awesome.
Yet Jesus says, Fear not. He is the reassuring Christ. Notice what He tells John not to fear: death and the power of evil one. Thus, the awesome power and majesty of Jesus becomes the basis for fearing not. His resurrection is the source of His glory and also the reason we should not fear. Jesus lets His glory shine forth not to make John afraid, but to reassure him. Jesus has power to save.
Here then, is a picture of the risen and glorified Christ. He is King; He is Lord and His glory is eternal.
The readings for this Feast of Christ the King evoke three images of Christ as King. All of them are to some extent paradoxical because they emphasize things we don’t usually associate with kings. They also tell us that we have already met King Jesus even if we don’t realize it. Let’s look at these three images of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of all Creation:
I. Caring King – The first reading, from Ezekiel 34, speaks of the Lord as a shepherd who cares for His flock. Here are some of the lines that summarize His care: I myself will look after and tend my sheep … I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered when it was cloudy and dark … I myself will give them rest … The lost I will seek out … The strayed I will bring back … The injured I will bind up. The sick I will heal.
In the modern world we don’t typically think of kings and heads of state in such a caring role. Most world leaders are inaccessible to us, existing behind many layers of security and staff. Even bishops of larger dioceses are hard to reach personally.
Jesus, however, is a King who is more present to us than we are to ourselves. An old revival hymn says, “Jesus is on the Main Line … call him up and tell him what you want.” Another song says, “God is just one prayer away.”
In the ancient world it was much more comment to speak of a caring king. Most kings had more immediate contact with their subjects. Many had certain days on which their subjects could line up to talk to them. It is said that St. Athanasius ran up to the emperor on his horse one day, grabbed the reins, and proceeded to debate a theological point with him.
Until relatively recently, even U.S. Presidents had office hours. It is said that on Tuesdays Abraham Lincoln received visitors from among the citizenry who sought to speak to him of their concerns. They would line up at the door without formal appointments and he’d listen to them one by one. As our culture has become more violent and public figures have become more widely recognized and vulnerable, leaders have receded into sealed, bulletproof, and figuratively soundproof worlds, hearing little from “ordinary people.”
The idea of a king who cares for his people personally is somewhat paradoxical to us today, but Jesus does care for His people.
I want to testify that I do indeed have a caring King, Jesus. He’s been good to me. He has led me, rescued me, purified me, fed me, instructed me, and graced me; He died for me.
I also want to testify that He was being good to me even when I didn’t think He was being good to me. Scripture says, All things work together for good to them who love and trust the Lord (Rom 8:28). Notice that not just the “good things” work for my benefit but even the bad things. God sometimes permits some “stuff” to happen because it will bless us in the end. Even if you’re suffering, don’t give up on God. Some of His gifts sometimes come in strange packages. St Paul says, For this affliction is producing for us a weight of glory beyond compare (2 Cor 4:17).
Did you notice the last line in the passage from Ezekiel? But the sleek and the strong I will destroy, shepherding them rightly. Yes, even at those times when I needed to be humbled (to have my pride destroyed) the Lord was shepherding me rightly. There was a time in my life when I was sleeker and stronger, but the Lord let me experience some humiliation, destroying me as it were, and giving me humility. I even see this humiliation physically, for I was once slim and now I am overweight. It is humbling to be fat, especially when people scold me; they seem to think it is easy to lose weight. But God will humble them too, perhaps in other ways. God hates pride; He just can’t stand it. This is because He knows how deadly it is to us.
Yes, God is a caring King. Some of His ways are paradoxical. Do not reduce the noun “care” merely to meaning “that which comforts and consoles.” It can be that, but not always! Sometimes the “caring” thing to do is to rebuke, warn, or even punish. God never ceases to care for us. I’m a witness. He’s been good to me. Even when I didn’t think He was being good to me, He was being good to me.
II. Conquering King – Today’s second reading speaks Jesus’ victory over all things, saying that He has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep; that He has reversed what Adam did; that He is the first fruits, then each one in proper order will also rise. It says that He will hand the kingdom over to God his Father when he has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power and that he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet, the last enemy to be destroyed being death.
Here, too, there is a great paradox. As Hebrews says, In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death (Heb 2:8-10).
So while at times it seems that evil triumphs, God is working. One by one, He is putting all His enemies under His feet. One day, even death itself will be destroyed. The paradox of the cross shouts to us that God conquers, not by brutality and cruel strength, but by love, forgiveness, and mercy—things the world dismisses as weak.
Here, too, I want to say that God is a conquering King in my life. He has destroyed the power of many sins and diminished the strength of others on the way to their ultimate destruction. I have seen sins put down and under His feet as He cleanses the temple of my soul. He has conquered so much of my pride. I am seeing lust, greed, anger, sloth, envy, and fear on the ropes. One by one, He is diminishing their power and replacing them with greater love, compassion, kindness, purity, love for the truth, prayerfulness, courage, trust, and eagerness to do good and to win souls.
Thank you, Lord, for being a conquering King in my life.
Unlike worldly kings, this conquering King does not force us to be His subjects and live in His kingdom. Earthly kings conquer regions and force peoples under their rule by might. But Jesus is a King who respects our freedom to decide whether to have Him as our King and to accept the virtues of His kingdom—or not. Hence, Hell is not so much a place of punishment as it is a place for those who refuse, those who say no to Christ and His kingdom. This King, though all-powerful, does not force His kingship and laws. He offers them to all and allows each of us to decide.
III. Concealed King – The Gospel teaches us that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. In this second coming we will discover that we have known Him all along, though in a paradoxical way. As Christ comes and takes His seat and all are summoned to Him, we are going to have a strange sense that we’ve met Him before—and He will confirm that.
For indeed, we have met His Majesty and He is the strangest King of all. He is a King who is hungry, thirsty, sick, lonely, a foreigner, in prison, and a stranger. The list He gives should not be seen as exhaustive, for He is in the needy, whether rich or poor. He is in the discouraged loved one who cannot find a job; He is in our children, who need to be taught and encouraged; He is in the co-worker who just lost his wife; he is in the patient who was diagnosed with cancer; He is in the lost family member who needs instruction and to be drawn back to the Sacraments. He is even in you, in your struggles and needs.
Yes, we have met this King every day. And He is not merely saying that these people have some moral union with Him. He is saying, mystically, that He is each one of them. And when we cared for them, we were not simply doing something ethical; we were serving and caring for Him: “You did it for me.”
What a strange King! We usually picture kings in palaces, far removed from trouble, but this King is naked, poor, hungry, and thirsty. We walk past Him every day.
To those who have cared for Him in His poor, He says that He will never forget what they have done. The poor may not be able to repay us, but King Jesus will repay us a millionfold. On the day of our judgment we will look at Jesus and say, “I know you! I recognize you!” And He will say, “I know you, too.” Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
We should not view this judgment scene as containing the only standards by which we are to be judged, for numerous other passages lay out other standards such as having faith, being willing to carry our cross, living in purity, forgiving others, and loving our enemy. But this passage does remind us that we are not to neglect the corporal works of mercy.
Yes, Jesus our King is the strangest one you will ever meet: a caring and close King, a conquering King who never forces, a King who is hungry and thirsty, a King who reigns from the cross, a King who dies so that we don’t have to, a King who washes our feet, a King who comes to serve rather than to be served. He is a King, all right, one who rules with love, not force. He’s the strangest King you’ve ever met, and you meet Him every day: in the Eucharist, in the poor, in His Word, in your heart, in the events of your day, and in your very self.