Father Rutler is Pastor of the Church of Saint Michael in New York City. He is the author of twenty-five books and many essays, and has lectured widely at home and abroad.
A professor told me of two experiences he had when civilization was picking up its pieces after World War II. He was in the crowd when King George VI visited Cambridge University and was greeted with loud cheers. Then, as a U.S. soldier in occupied Japan, he watched as a vast throng became stone silent when the Emperor alighted from the imperial train, all heads bowed and eyes downcast. Hirohito no longer had divine pretensions, but the customary reverence was palpable. The one king embodied the familial aspect of a monarch as father, and the other was a reminder of a ruler transcending the ordinary commerce of life.
On the Feast of Christ the King, the Church proposes a sovereignty both human and divine: the Holy One who walked the roads of this world as a man among men was at the same time of Heaven, the Supreme Being.
This mystery stretches the limited intellect, as in the case of Pontius Pilate, who remains a fascinating psychological study, as he tried to figure out if Jesus was a king. Why he posed the question is not clear, and Jesus asked if the question was his own or a reaction to the cynicism of the mob. Pilate was a paramount cynic himself, not a skeptic who doubts whether something is true, but a man who doubts that truth exists at all. That is why Nietzsche, whose only god was selfish power, considered Pilate the only powerful character in the Gospel. But then, it was Nietzsche who said, “I am no man, I am dynamite.” Consistent with his claim, he ended up insane.
Because Pilate was too vindictive even for the Roman imperium, the governor of Syria, Lucius Vitellius, removed him from the prefecture of Judea. One theory is that Pilate committed suicide in what is now Vienne in modern France. As for his birth, there is more confusion: possibly Tarragona in Spain, or more implausibly in the Perthshire Highlands of Scotland, or Forchheim in Germany, or most likely in the Abruzzi of Italy. You might say that he was born wherever men refuse to recognize truth when they see it, and destroy themselves when they have walked away from it. The moral chaos is more widespread now than in the academic groves of the classical world, and we see its effect in the campus riots of today and the mental floss of such philosophers as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.
This much can be said for Pontius Pilate: He inscribed that sign “King of the Jews” and would not remove it. It may have been sheer irony, the cynicism of a cynic. Or perhaps when he began to roam the hills of exile, he sensed that the ultimate and only choice in life is holiness or madness: “And they will go away to eternal punishment, but the virtuous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:46).