Barbara Ross considers the feast which crowns the year
The Feast of Christ the King was introduced by Pius XI in 1925 and celebrated in October. It is also known as the Solemnity of Jesus Christ, Lord of all the universe. The Pope established the feast as the Church’s response to rising secularism and atheism, and to challenge worldly rulers. He wrote in his encyclical: ‘Oh, what happiness would be ours if all peoples, individuals, families and nations would let themselves be governed by Christ!’
Paul VI moved the feast to the last Sunday of the Liturgical Year, so we fittingly end it by proclaiming Christ as Lord of all. The feast is the culmination of all that we have celebrated, all that we have reflected on, in the preceding months. The joyful anticipation of Advent, the wonder of the Incarnation, the promise of redemption and of eternal life are all caught up in the title Christ the King, and, indeed, spring from and depend on his sovereignty.
Yet, some time ago, a contributor to the Church Times suggested that the role of Christ as King should be played down, a view which has been echoed in letters to The Tablet. It was argued that today the idea of kingship, dominion over us, is unpopular. Those who rule over us are frequently corrupt; earthly power is self-seeking, often oppressive and favouring the privileged. But it is because worldly power is so flawed that the very different kingship of Christ must be proclaimed and celebrated.
Christ the King perfectly embodies and demonstrates the high view of kingship which was held by Israel. Biblical kings ideally would be just and responsible leaders, guiding and caring for their people with compassion and with wisdom. Solomon’s wisdom was renowned (1 Kings 4.29 ff). It was desirable that they be imposing figures, dignified, tall and good-looking, as was Saul (1 Samuel 9.2). A king can bring renewal and direct the people away from false gods; King Josiah overthrew pagan worship (2 Kings 23).
But all too often the ideal was far from being realized. It is the Davidic Messiah who will truly care for and guide his people. A frequent metaphor for tender care is that of a shepherd, heard in some of the readings for Christ the King. Ezekiel writes of the Lord himself being a shepherd for his sheep (34.11-16, 20-24, Year A). We associate such imagery with Christ.
A just ruler must execute judgment to combat evil. The parable of the sheep and the goats impressively illustrates the coming of the Son of Man, the Lord, who, on his throne of glory, dispenses justice in power and with wisdom. (Matthew 25.31 ff. Year A). Or, in Year C we hear: ‘he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and execute justice and righteousness.’ (Jeremiah 23: 5b).
Christ fulfils the prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures of the coming of a just and compassionate ruler, but in his kingship there is marked discontinuity with earthly monarchs. Jesus enters Jerusalem on a triumphal note; he is acclaimed as the Son of David, but he rides a donkey, which is not the mount of a king. Jesus reigns in the strength of humility and in drawing the lowly to himself. He is mockingly crowned at his Passion, but with a crown of thorns. He suffers rejection, humiliation and pain, associating himself in compassion with all who suffer or are despised.
In Year B, the Gospel is John’s account of Jesus before Pilate. Pilate asks Jesus: ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ An unlikely figure for the role, he thinks, hardly the warrior king expected by many Jews. But Jesus is dignified and in command of the exchange. He informs Pilate: ‘My kingdom is not from this world.’ (John 18.36). His kingdom is from above; it is entirely disassociated from the manipulations, violence and coercions of earthly realms. It is the Kingdom of God, a kingdom of redemption and freedom, of the absence of evil and death. The reign of Christ the King is one bringing healing, renewal, harmony and fellowship: all offered to us out of his immeasurable love.
We have a wooden Christ the King crucifix in our Lady Chapel at church. Christ is a hieratic figure, robed, crowned, upright and serene. The stylized carving suggests timelessness; the formal stance proclaims dominion. The arms of Christ stretch out in power to embrace the world, made through and by and for him. From his feet and head golden rays fan out to illuminate his creation. The crucifix is an impressive depiction of the love of Christ for us in his death on the Cross, but also a powerful proclamation of his divine sovereignty.
The kingship of Christ is fundamental for Christian faith. For if Christ is not King, how can his promises of the transformation of all creation be fulfilled? In our church, in accordance with earlier practice, the liturgical colour is red, for glory. On the feast day of Christ, the King, the words of the psalmists resonate: ‘You, O Lord, are most high over all the earth’ (Psalm 97.9a). ‘Say among the nations! “The Lord is king!’ (Psalm 96.10). ‘Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth … make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord’ (Psalm 98.4a, 6b).
And it is appropriate on this day to recall the desire of Pius XI, who inaugurated the feast, and to pledge ourselves to be more ready to let ourselves be governed by Christ.