Julian Browning on the Feast of Christ the King as a statement of truth and unity
I have changed my mind about the Feast of Christ the King. I have always seen it as the end of term treat. The liturgical year is literally crowned. That makes sense, it is uplifting, but it is such a bold claim: Jesus Christ, Universal King, King of the Universe. Over the past year, we have talked about the Kingdom, read about the Kingdom, sung about the Kingdom. But have any of us lived in the Kingdom? What are we so triumphant about?
Yet Christ the Universal King is in the DNA of this church. The Oxford Movement of the nineteenth century, of which this church is a visible expression, had much to say about authority and the kingship of Christ. John Keble’s famous Assize Sermon on National Apostasy, which started the movement off in 1833, was about Christ as King, and the question he raised then is right on target today. How may a man, said Keble, reconcile his allegiance to God and his Church with his duty to his country, that country which now is fast becoming hostile to the Church? What do you do?
The Good Shepherd
Here’s what they did. Keble, Newman, Pusey, and those who followed them, ask us to see the Church transformed, in a different light, divine and beautiful. In their writings, tracts and sermons, they take us back to earlier times, not to the Roman Catholic Church, that’s an assumption too often made, but to the undivided Church of East and West of the first four centuries after Christ. The papalists came later. The Tractarians, for so they were called after the tracts they published, were not in the least ecumenical. The Church of England was – and is – the embodiment in England of that youthful and undivided church, guaranteed for us by Apostolic Succession. Here is a Church which has no need to be competitive.
What interests us today is what they found in that early Church. They found a king very different from the sort of imperial royalty we are used to. Jesus never said he was a king. He said he was the good shepherd, and this is Jesus as king in the early Church, a shepherd king who leads us to a new life. The earliest carved image we have of Jesus is of a young shepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders. This appears on early Christian tombs during times of persecution, because it was also a pagan image, so they wouldn’t get into trouble for using it. I’m glad they left us that. Let us imagine a time before we made religion dull, difficult and divided. There is the vitality of our Trinitarian God. The shepherd leads his sheep, those for whom he cares, out to a new life, and he goes before them. One fold, one shepherd.
An undivided Church
You might think all this is irrelevant because we set the agenda now. The Oxford Movement always was a minority interest in the Church anyway. But I still trust that vision of an undivided Church, because God makes us one in Christ; he has set his seal upon us (2 Cor. 1.22). I trust that vision, because it brings before me a living God who shows us the indivisible truth about ourselves and the world, which even we cannot distort or mess up, because it is not our kingdom, it is Christ’s kingdom. It is his Word, not ours. Christ’s kingdom is neither territorial, nor temporal, it is the kingdom of truth; and it is towards the truth that he leads us; through all the questions, the doubts, and even despair, the shepherd king will lead us.
So what do we do? John Keble in his 1833 sermon says we should step aside from ‘the emergencies of the moment’. I love that phrase. It can mean whatever you like: no milk in the fridge, or a full-blown spiritual crisis. It means all that obsesses us, divides us, takes us over, threatens to bring us down, whatever it might be. With that put aside, then we are ready for today’s Gospel, the new life to which Christ leads us, the simple personal acts of charity, piety, and devotion, and awareness of Christ’s presence, which fall to our lot each day. We find ourselves, identify ourselves with the poor, the sick and the imprisoned. It really is that simple. The King will answer them, Truly I say to you, as you did it to the least of my brothers, you did it to me. That is life in the kingdom, Christ in every human face we see. The kingdom is within everyone’s reach. And St Matthew places all this in the context of a Last Judgment. This is what is going to matter in the end. In Christianity, ‘Reality is more important than ideas’ (Pope Francis).
A new experience
This is not the kingship of the world, authority as power and influence, but the authority of truth. Thy kingdom come. Jesus, live in us. Share your kingship, your relationship with God, your vision of truth, with us.
Christ is King of the Universe, not in a space travel way, but because in his kingdom – and at our best and our worst, he is there somewhere – we are connected not just with the divine, but with all being and all beings. Here is a new experience, a unity in Christ, which often comes upon us unawares. This is Christ’s kingdom settling upon us. This is how the world is changed. This is how the Church unites and heals herself.
The Feast of Christ the King is, of course, a triumphant end of year party, but it is also a statement of truth and unity. It sets a course for the year ahead. The Christian, said Newman, is one who waits for Christ: thy Kingdom come, the simple reality of a sacramental life one day at a time, bringing all of us to the Infinite, who lives – and loves – and saves.