Feast of Christ the King - 24 November 2019
“This is the King of the Jews”
The Feast of Christ the King was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925. It was a Roman Catholic response to the rise of both secularism and nationalism. Mussolini had just seized power in Italy. The era of European colonialism over African and Middle Eastern countries was coming to an end. In Russia Stalin replaced Lenin in the Soviet Union. This was a time when the execution of Christians (and many others) in the name of independence from God was common. Stated simply, with the institution of the Feast of Christ the King, Pope Pius XI wanted to remind the Church and the world that the true leader of nations was Jesus Christ. It was a religious statement with strong political implications for the whole world.
Now, does this Feast still have any relevance to our current historical and socio-political world? I could be wrong, but looking at what’s going on in the world right now, it seems to me that there are too many signs of a movement towards extremes. Populist, charismatic and authoritarian leaders seem to be guiding us to extremist and violent positions. I know that this is going to sound absurd, but it has even been said on TV; the other day I heard a “gone gaga” Berlusconi saying that we should control, and if necessary stop, immigration with a league of super-powers like Russia and the US using Nuclear Weapons as a deterrent! Now, I know you will say that it’s just Berlusconi, and nobody believes him anymore, but the fact that he could have produced such an abomination on TV with no one stopping him and telling him that he was completely mad, is a bit frightening!
We are getting used to powerful leaders who make similar statements and get away with it. Think of Bolsonaro, the current president of Brazil, whose misogynist, homophobic and violent attitudes are not a secret. On the contrary, he feels entitled to say them on TV, and to receive the support of the public. It seems to me that there is a process of rationalization of the obscene into the palatable.
As the scholar and theologian Thomas Merton said:
“The population of the affluent world is nourished on a steady diet of brutal mythology and hallucination, kept at a constant pitch of high tension by a life that is intrinsically violent in that it forces a large part of the population to submit to an existence which is humanly intolerable...We are born into those violent structures and one of the key elements of our spiritual development is to understand how we are to respond to these violent structures in a contemplative fashion.”
Thomas Merton wrote these words in the late 1950’s, but sadly they are still relevant to the current state of the world. This is a bit depressing, but it also tells us the importance of the Feast we celebrate today.
Now just before the beginning of Advent, the time when we prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord, the liturgy invites us to celebrate Christ the King. A very strange king, I have to say, because kings are usually monarchs, which in Greek means “one who rules alone”. A monarch suggests the concentration of power in one person, who is head of state and commander of the army. We have just heard Luke’s Gospel telling us the story of a king who has been crucified. In Jesus’ case the title of “king” is not a recognition of his royalty, but more a sign of mockery and humiliation. There was no army defending its king to avoid him being arrested, tortured and hung on a cross like a thief. Jesus never had any military power. He can hardly be described as the general of an army! The image which we usually attribute to Him is as a peaceful shepherd or a prophet, but not as a king riding a horse and holding a sword!
Paradoxically, He is the peaceful king who rides a donkey on entering the city of Jerusalem. Christ the King is a powerful sign of contradiction for our modern societies and a prophetic message to the world, that Jesus Christ is the ultimate sovereign of this world, and to Him belongs the earth and all that is in it.
This feast is also a good opportunity to reflect on our church leaders. Is Jesus our main point of reference when we look at our religious leaders? I remind myself every day that Jesus is the only shepherd of the flock, the one true leader, the authentic pastor, and I am just a sheepdog: the people of God don’t follow me, but Him, who is the only king we worship. This seems something obvious! Something we should already know, but very often forget.
As a democratic state -with all its limitations- could be described as the guardian of our external freedom, the church may be seen as the guardian our inner freedom. So Church leaders should always look to Jesus as the source of this inner freedom. Often church leaders, as well as political leaders, are at risk of wanting to change reality through force. And this is a great danger!
The Feast of Christ the King is a strong reminder for leaders to be protectors of our freedoms. If you are a political leader, you are called to protect our freedom, not to fulfill your compulsive need to maintain power and control over others. If you are a religious leader, your call is to nurture people’s inner freedom, and not to fulfill your compulsive need to seek approval from others. This is the important message that comes from the celebration of today’s feast: don’t use power, or control, or religion to feel superior, but to enable people to be free!
What is freedom for us as a community of faith? Jesus, the unarmed and peaceful king, says: “The truth will set you free”. In the words of the Canadian Jean Vanier -Founder of the Arche Communities- freedom is to accept that when we belong to a group, a tribe, a family, a community, a religion, that none of these is perfect, that each has its limitations and weaknesses. We are always part of something greater than ourselves. We journey toward the source of light, truth and love. We are free to love and to be compassionate. The Feast of Christ the King reminds us, and our leaders, to protect and nourish this freedom as the most valuable treasure we have as individuals and as a community.