Christ the King 2022
The feast of Christ the King is one of the most recent in the church’s calendar, and it came about in response to a very specific historical situation. In 1925 Pope Pius XI wrote an encyclical ’Quas Primas’, literally ‘what first,’ in which he wanted to tackle the growing tumult in the aftermath of the First World War.
The ten years prior to this had seen the dreadful loss and waste of the Great War, leading not to resolution, but to a simmering discontent that would erupt all too soon into another World War. That 10 years had also seen the passing of much of the old order of Europe and a huge shaking of the world’s foundations. The seemingly eternal empires of the Hapsburgs, the Ottomans, the Romanov’s and the Qing dynasty in China, all gone in an instant. People had for so long been used to a world order that looked fixed, where although their place may not have been ideal, it was a place they understood. Forces for change and revolt had blown all this apart, and now Kings and Emperors, Princes and governments looked less permanent and less unquestionable. And side by side with the excitement and possibility change brought, revolution and war also brought great suffering and uncertainty, if not the old order then what? People’s hopes of a fairer and more equal world were raised often to be dashed by new forms of oppression and corruption – as indeed they continue to be. In his encyclical the Pope restates firmly that without God as our head there is little hope for human harmony, peace or security.
These remain troubled time, with countless challenges facing world leaders, who being elected office holders also face the tension of trying to make the wise and right decisions knowing they depend on often fickle and self-interested support, who ultimately can remove them. It is hardly surprising that we are faced with many different ideas of what a leader feels they should look like – some opt for shows of strength, others for shows of certainty, still more play to the gallery, promising things they won’t ever deliver, and pandering to the worst instincts of the crowd, seeking people and events to blame for the collective problems faced. And in some ways the feast of Christ the King addresses just these questions; what is kingship, what is power, strength and leadership, riches or success, what makes a leader, a king? The world offers many examples of the strong man approach, military strength, brutal prosecution of war and control, suppressing enemies and perceived enemies, allowing no voices that could challenge or question. We marvel at the super rich, a Bezos or a Musk who have more wealth than the world has ever known, and with it the power to influence events, and if they choose to do great good. The merely very rich are admired, imitated, envied for their luxurious lifestyles, their possessions and their influence over style and fashion. And yet for Christians this feast reminds us of the nature of the Kingship of Christ which in so many ways sits at the very heart of what the gospel is built upon. The incarnation at Christmas was none other than the son of God choosing to leave heaven and come to earth in the service of humanity, emptying himself in all humility to live our life and be prepared to serve us to the extent of being prepared to die for us. Jesus was the King of Peace, King of Kings even, and yet he owned no home, had the wages of a country carpenter, but even gave that up when his ministry started. He owned by accounts one outfit, and didn’t mix with the rich and famous, indeed had a passion for the poor and the vulnerable, and was at home with those that society despised or disapproved of. Even to his contemporaries who saw his miracles and heard his teaching, he didn’t seem the obvious idea of a messiah, of a leader and saviour – and yet he advocated the strength of weakness, the power of humility and service, the riches to be gained in putting others first, of laying aside thoughts of oneself to think more of those who needed it most. And his death on the Cross when proclaimed as victory shocked and confused even those who came to believe it. How could God choose all this as a sign of His eternal victory over death and sin – it didn’t look anything like the leadership they knew and expected.
One of the great changes in the early twentieth century was the beginning of the decline of deference; leaders, monarchs even princes are not above scrutiny. Our new King understands this and expects to have to commend his reign to his people, and to change how things are done to reflect new understandings of how life has changed, and how leadership must change too. The late Queen was comfortable with the idea of being a servant, her life being in service of both Jesus and her people, and the King takes this forward, and seeks to keep all this meaningful to a modern and diverse realm.
It was Pope Paul VI who tellingly moved this Feast to the Sunday before Advent, and now it forms the beginning of a meditation on the nature of Kingship, of authenticity, the nature of riches and power, and the purpose of God in the incarnation of His Son, and the promise of his Kingdom.
I follow an Instagram site called ‘ Honoring Jimmy Carter’. This extraordinary man now in his 90’s and his wife of 76 years live modestly, and despite accidents and illness every day build homes for the homeless, still teach Sunday school and live lives of real authenticity. He is a deeply committed Christian, he never judges others, and his message of acceptance of difference in others, and God’s manifest preference for the poor, is it seems to me a model every world leader should take as their guide. This man was once the most powerful leader in the world, but one wonders if in that role he ever made such a statement as his life subsequently has done. When we look around today it is easy to despair, but the answer to Pope Pius’s question ‘ What First?’ is surely seek first the kingdom of God, and hold your leaders to the Kingship of his Son, you will recognize authenticity when you see it.