Christ the King
You might be forgiven for wondering why the gospel reading today tells the story of Jesus’ crucifixion: its late November, not Holy Week. But today is the celebration of the Reign of Christ, or Christ the King, and this gospel story tells us about the kind of king Jesus is.
It was in 1925 that Pope Pius XI established the observance of Christ the King Sunday. He was deeply concerned about the rise of nationalism and class divisions in Europe at the time, and was equally critical of both capitalism and communism. He wanted Christians to be reminded of who they should be giving their allegiance to: not a human leader, ultimately, but Christ. Christ rules not through violence and domination but through love, and his teachings should inspire love and service. So Pope Pius declared a Sunday to celebrate Christ the King, and for us it falls on this last Sunday before Advent begins.
The metaphor of kingship or monarchy may now be a problematic, outmoded one for many of us. Monarchs are not necessarily held in high regard: the British royal family, for example, lurches from crisis to crisis, and in some countries the monarchy is a thinly veiled form of dictatorship, as with the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia, that represses the human rights of its people.
So the language around Christ has evolved. Instead of this Sunday being called Christ the King Sunday, we call it now the Reign of Christ. Others have substituted the word kin-dom for kingdom, suggesting a realm where all are seen and valued as kin, from the highest to the lowest, and all are included. Others simply use the word community: Christians are part of the community that lives in God’s way.
However we name it, the longing for humanity to live together in the peace and justice of God is an ancient longing. Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer we say, “Your kingdom come on earth as in heaven.” In the book of the prophet Isaiah we hear the longing for God to come among us: “O that you would rend the heavens and come down!” (Isa. 64:1) And in the passage from Jeremiah today we heard the longing for a good shepherd leader to replace the leaders of Israel who were like bad shepherds scattering and destroying the flock.
In the early church, too, Christians longed for Christ to return once again to earth in power and glory to put evil down once and for all, and establish the peaceable kingdom for ever.
That longing continues to this day, for an end to poverty, oppression, war…
But as Christians we believe that God came among us in Christ; the longing was fulfilled. Yet not in the way we expected. This King reigns from a cross not a throne. His power is revealed not in coercion but in vulnerable, costly love. New life and hope come through darkness and death.
So where do we see the reign of Christ in our lives? It’s often in the broken places, the hurting places. For me recently it’s been in the hospital rooms of dying patients, when family and friends are quietly gathered as a loved one slips from life to death. I see Christ in their tender, hurting love surrounding the one who is leaving.
This Sunday of the Reign of Christ is also the last Sunday in the long Pentecost season – the season that begins with the telling of the Holy Spirit coming upon the bereft disciples and transforming them into passionate, courageous followers of Jesus. And we too are Pentecost people: it’s through the Holy Spirit working in us that we can live in the realm of Jesus, the kin-dom of God. It’s through the Holy Spirit working in us that Christ’s community of love is made real in our day, in our context, in our lives. Our hands serve the poor; our feet go to the outcast; our lips bring good news. This is our calling and our joy, as we follow Christ our King.