If you are reading this you have successfully navigated Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and holiday travel. You’re doing great! And I know you will do great navigating Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday, and all that comes with the holiday season. Here in the betwixt and between we celebrate Christ the King Sunday. What should this solemnity mean in your life?
After all, the word “king” conjures up many things in the American mind. I suspect if I asked most people, “Who is the King?” the answer might well come back “Elvis.” There is just part of us that lives in a pop-culture world. But then the idea of king is rich in the heritage of our literature, movies and imagination: Richard the Lionhearted, Henry V giving the “band of brothers” soliloquy on the fields of Agincourt, Louis King of France, the original namesake of our parish, and all the modern royal family of England. Still, we fought a Revolutionary War to no longer bow before English monarchs. I always wonder if that is, in some part, what contributed to the origin of “Who died and made you king?” Yet we remain fascinated by kings and queens.
From the Bible we know the stories of King David, but how did Israel get a king? When we look back into the pages of salvation history the great names are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the 12 sons of Jacob, Moses, Joshua – and none of them is a king. After 200 years in the promised land, it seems the people grew envious of their neighbors and wanted to be like them. In effect they said they no longer wanted to bow before God as their leader, protector, the one upon whom they would depend – they wanted a king. They wanted to be like another people, rather than be the children of God. Even when warned about the rights and privileges of a king – to take for himself the best of their lands, their crops, and their children as servants – the people still wanted a king. And they got to bow down before their chosen king.
It started out well enough with King David, but too quickly the core humanity of the king came through – absolute power corrupted absolutely. There were too many like King Manasseh, a cruel and idolatrous king, who led the people farther from God. Even the good kings like Josiah were unable to restore the glory of a united nation seen during the reign of King David. In the end, the kings led the people to ruin and the captivity in Babylon as refugees. They got to bow down as captives.
That is not a bad description of the Church in 1925 – powerless before the world. In 1925 the monarchs of Europe were themselves passing away, holding ceremonial and symbolic power among their subjects while secular republics ruled the affairs of state. But 1925 was also the era when Communism and Fascism were on the rise. For the Church, thoughts of the Holy Roman Empire were distant and remembered no more. 1925 was when the remaining secular power of the Vatican and the Bishop of Rome was waning as the Italian states had effectively reduced the holdings and property of the Bishop of Rome to just the walled Vatican City. The secular power of the Vatican was powerless on the world stage, the Italian stage, and even in the city of Rome.
In 1925 Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King in his encyclical letter Quas primas. He rightly reminded the world and us that despite all the machinations and plans of men, despite the lure of power, there was truly but one King – the one whom the Book of Revelation describes in 19:16 as the “King of kings and Lord of lords.” There is only one king before whom we are to bow; the One standing before Pilate in today’s Gospel.
There is no pomp, no circumstance, no projection of geo-political power. There is just our King, this Jesus – as the psalm proclaims: “The LORD is king; he is robed in majesty.” The majesty of a crown of bramble and thorn, and whose robe is saturated with blood. The King who will ascend to the throne with arms outstretched as he is mocked and scorned. His heads of state are naked thieves, even as all his subjects, the apostles, run away. It is a vision that goes against every image, every idea, that we hold about kingship. Our history is filled with the rise and fall of kings and kingdoms. The Solemnity of Christ the King calls us to stop and consider which king we will serve; which kingdom we will spend our energies building. It is good thing to be reminded of as we enter the heart of this holiday season.