November 24, 2013
Christ the King Sunday
Along with everything happening in the world this past week, the news item that I have seen over and over is the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Friday was the 50th anniversary of that terrible day, but every day leading up to the anniversary saw at least one news report about it; how it changed the country, politics, our future as a nation. There have been specials on JFK’s early life, his heroic actions in World War II, his rise to the presidency and how his presidency actually played out from election to assassination. It has been chilling to be reminded again of how close we came to actual nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I have wondered how the Civil Rights Movement would have played out had he not been killed. And even though I wasn’t around yet, it’s almost impossible not to feel the pain and terrible loss that followed his death.
One of my kids, watching one of the many news reports about Kennedy with me, commented, “There were like royalty, weren’t they?”
Our nation was built on the premise that royalty was not for us. We declared our independence from the oppression and tyranny of King George’s unjust rule. We built our democracy on the idea that power should never rest in one person’s hands alone. Checks and balance. Three different branches of the government. The ability to have our say in how we’re governed. But in spite of that, royalty holds a fascination for us. I may not have been around yet for Kennedy’s presidency, but I’ve grown up hearing his time in the White House described as Camelot. Camelot, that mythical place of Arthurian legend, where peace and beauty and grace resided – at least for a short time.
They were like royalty weren’t they?
If Kennedy’s presidency was compared to Camelot, it’s not because there was unparalleled peace and justice during his time. That’s not a slight against Kennedy, it’s just reality. The reference to Camelot is a reference to the hope and the optimism that came with his presidency. But don’t we do that with every elected official? Isn’t that why we vote for the people we vote for, no matter who these people are, because we want to believe that the leader, president, governor, senator, etc. will make things right. Whatever may be wrong at the time, we want our leaders to make things right. For many of us, we’ve become cynical as to anyone’s ability to do that. But deep down, I think that’s what we hope for. We invest our hopes and our desires for our state or our country in the persons in office. We want them to make it right.
I don’t think that’s much different from what the people of Israel did with Jesus. They wanted him to make things right. They wanted him to break the yoke of Roman tyranny. If he was, in fact, the Son of God, the Messiah, then surely he would rule as a great king; greater even than King David. As the Messiah, he would be a ruler. He would be a warrior. He would save them. He did, just not in the way he expected. The inscription, “This is the King of the Jews,” may have been meant as a mockery, but I am certain that many saw him as that. King.
I didn’t realize it, but there is debate among theologians as to whether this day should be referred to as “Christ the King” or the “Reign of Christ.” For many the problem with calling it Christ the King is that the word “king” carries the same kinds of connotations for us as it did for the people of Israel. Maybe, unintentionally, it perpetuates the image of Jesus ruling as King in the way we understand kingship. A king should have power and authority and the ability to destroy enemies before the enemies do the destroying.
However calling this day the reign of Christ designates what Jesus did, what Jesus does, instead of giving him a label. With his life and his death and his resurrection, Jesus ushered in the kingdom of God. The kingdom he reigns over.
In light of this dissention, it may be helpful to know a little bit more about the history of this Sunday. Christ the King wasn’t actually a day on the church calendar until 1925. In that year Pope Pius IX declared the last Sunday before Advent a feast day, the day when we recognize Christ as King. What were the circumstances surrounding Pope Pius’s decision? Well, World War I was over. I don’t need to tell the history buffs out there that World War I was also known as “The Great War,” because it was supposed to be the war to end all wars. But as early as 1925 the stage had been irrevocably set for another war. A global depression loomed. Across Europe, leaders were rising who were rallying people around themes of fear, hatred and suspicion. Anyone who didn’t look, act or think like them were to be distrusted. We know the monstrous outcome of that distrust. It wouldn’t be long before names like Hitler, Mussolini and Franco were known throughout Europe and throughout the world.
Pope Pius realized that people were being drawn away from the gospel of Christ. They were following a different kind of leader, a different kind of king. So what better way to end the church year, than by proclaiming to all the world that no matter what earthly leaders may rise and fall, it is Christ who is our one true King. So now, the Sunday before Advent is known as Christ the King.
It seems to me that the disagreement over whether this day should be known as Christ the King or as the Reign of Christ is misleading. It is both. Pope Pius made this day a feast day as a way to remind Christians that Jesus was the King, but not in the manner of the kings and rulers and leaders of this world, even the best of them.
Jesus as King has authority, true, but it is the authority of God who created life out of chaos; who forgives sins and offers new life. Jesus as King has power, but it is the power of the suffering servant. He has the power of the One who shepherds, who protects, who loves, who willingly embraces death so that we may embrace life.
Jesus the Christ, the King reigns. Yet his judgments are pronounced from the most unlikely of thrones, the cross. Christ is King and the kingdom that his reign ushers in is one where death does not have the last say. Death does not have the last stay. Christ the King reigns over a kingdom whose foundation is grace and mercy and love. Christ our King reigns over a kingdom that offers us a second chance, and a third and a fourth and so on.
On this day when we lift up Christ our King and the Reign of Christ, maybe what we also need to lift up are those parts and pieces of our lives that are broken so that they may be made whole. We lift up our mistakes not only for forgiveness but that we can try again and try anew. We lift up our hurts and our fears, our anxieties and our needs, trusting that the grace of Christ’s reign abounds. Most of all on this day of kingship and kingdom, we open ourselves, our hearts, our minds, our hands, ourselves to God’s love. Jesus was the incarnation of that love. The Holy Spirit makes manifest that love as it continues to breathe new life into what was once thought dead.
Earlier this week, I read and subsequently posted a most powerful quote from Ray Bradbury. He said, “Looking back over a lifetime, you see that love was the answer to everything.” Christ is King of that answer and it is the ongoing power of his reign. Christ the King reigns over the kingdom built on love. Let all God’s children say, “Alleluia! Amen.”