Christ Belatedly Crowned King in 1925, Sources Say
I have been misinformed.
That’s nothing new, I get confused and mixed-up and proceed on the basis of faulty assumptions all the time, but it doesn’t often happen to me liturgically.
Most of the time I know what’s going on in terms of worship and liturgy, it is what I get paid for, after all, but I had the wrong end of the stick on this one.
Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the church year.
I have always thought of Christ the King Sunday as an archaic feast.
It seems ancient, or at least medieval–old, anyway–to take an entire Sunday to talk about Christ as our Almighty King.
It would make sense that it comes from a time when most people who were Christians were in fact functioning in a system of government in which they were subjects of an actual, earthly king of some sort.
It makes sense that people who lived under a monarchy might need a reminder that there is a higher, more powerful king who trumps their current earthly king or queen, particularly if that earthly king or queen was oppressive or stupid or both.
But lo and behold, the Feast of Christ the King was not celebrated in the year 325 or 825 or 1125 or 1525.
The first time the church celebrated the Feast of Christ the King was 1925.
There’s still a lot of colonialism going on in 1925, but many, many Christians are living in democracies or locally governed tribal societies or even underground in communist regimes—fewer and fewer people had a king anymore.
So why celebrate Christ the King?
It turns out that the feast of Christ the King was declared by Pope Pius XI in 1925 as an anti-nationalist, anti-secularist statement.
Now, consider what was happening in Europe in 1925.
Fascism and totalitarianism were on the rise.
Mussolini had come to power in Italy in 1922.
Hitler had been released from prison and refounded the Nazi party.
Lenin had died in 1924 and Stalin was consolidating power in the Soviet Union.
People all over Europe were being asked, even demanded and forced, to pledge their loyalty to cruel, dominating, abusive totalitarian leaders.
I’m hoping that this doesn’t seem as terrifyingly relevant to you as it does to me.
Pope Pius wanted to remind them that they had another option, that Christ was their true and righteous ruler.
But along with the noble, pure and pastoral reason for declaring Christ the King, which was no doubt the lion’s share of his motivation, Pope Pius, given the politics of the day, probably had another drive as well.
As well as being the spiritual home of millions across the globe, the Roman Catholic Church was a political and economic force in its own right, a force that had to show its power against the encroaching totalitarian regimes.
As much as the first celebration of Christ the King was a spiritual realignment for the Christian faithful, it was also a political statement from the Pope to Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin that the Roman Catholic Church would not be bullied or induced to swear allegiance to any earthly leader.
The birth of the Feast of Christ the King was a power play.
Given the political context of the origin of this day, and no less our current politically volatile climate, our gospel story becomes all the more striking.
We have the crucifixion account from the Gospel of Luke.
We have the story of how Jesus lost.
We have the story of how the dominant, totalitarian political regime beat Jesus and won.
They put him to death, ensuring the end of his power and his movement.
This feast is supposed to be about how Christ is the King, the ultimate wielder of power and might.
There are all kinds of stories demonstrating Christ’s kingly power in the Bible. Why wasn’t one of those chosen?
From the transfiguration to the ascension to the great visions of Christ on the throne in Revelation, why don’t we read one of those stories today?
Choosing the crucifixion story for Christ the King is in fact the best choice possible, because this was Jesus’ finest hour.
Jesus’ power and Jesus’ right to rule came not from political domination, from oppression, from demanding loyalty and fealty.
Jesus’ kingly power exists in his humility, in his giving up of himself, in his pouring out of himself on the Cross for our salvation.
Jesus undermined all the great political and military powers of the day by surrendering himself to death on the Cross.
The world looked at him and saw a beaten and humiliated man, dying a shameful death.
But in reality he was the king going to battle against the darkness, a king who would emerge victorious on the third day, having defeated death itself.
Jesus’ glory came from his love.
He never needs to coerce anyone to serve him, only invite.
He is the servant king, teaching us by example the words that he said, that the first must be last and the greatest among us is the servant of all.
I ask myself, in the swirling emotions and continuing aftermath of our election, am I following his example?
Am I becoming wiser or simply louder?
Am I praying for humility and steadfastness or glorifying my own desires and fears?
This account of the crucifixion points out the two men being crucified on either side of Jesus.
One demands that Jesus show his kingly power and save all of them from their oncoming deaths.
The other, referred to as the Righteous Thief, asks for something quite different.
He does not ask for his body to be saved from suffering or death.
He does not ask for riches or power or even salvation.
He asks for Jesus to remember him.
This man, even in the awful suffering he is undergoing on a cross, knows that the hunger of his soul is deeper than the pain of his body.
What we want at our core is someone to know us at our depths, someone to deem us important and place us at priority amidst all other things competing for their attention—someone to remember us.
And Jesus does.
Amid all the things he is trying to accomplish as King of the Universe, at the moment when he is engaged in an epic battle with sin and death that is surely testing his power to its limit, he prioritizes this one sinful man and tells him that he will be with Jesus in Paradise that very day.
Because being remembered by Jesus and being in Paradise are one and the same.
When we open ourselves up to that profound intimacy and love that God offers to us, there is a freedom and grace that drives out all shame and fear.
Jesus, the almighty king, throws away all his power and glory to die for love of us.
And no matter how long it takes us to take him up on his invitation, even if we are as far gone as the thieves hanging on the cross next to him, he is always ready to stop everything to answer our call to him, however small and hesitant it may be.
And being remembered, being known, is a desire so universal that even Jesus himself felt it.
What does he say to us in the Eucharist? “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Being remembered, being known, seems all the more scarce today, when I know I am guilty of judging everyone around me with speed, with arrogance, with certainty.
Remembering can be a slow and painstaking process, one where we need to constantly correct our assumptions and rely on others to boost our faltering and imprecise memories.
Perhaps doing in remembrance of Jesus is impossible as individuals.
Perhaps only as the Body of Christ can we recall and summon and learn and know the Mind of Christ.
We live in a vastly different world from that of 1925 when Christ the King was first celebrated, but there are parts of that world and that time that are echoing in eerily familiar ways today, right here in America.
History’s lessons are more important than ever.
We who are the most powerful people in the world in every sense—militarily, economically, politically—need to ask ourselves: even as we ask Jesus to remember us, what is Jesus asking us to remember?
Where are the areas in our lives where we are clinging too tightly to power? Where do we need to follow the example of our Servant King and let go of power for the sake of love?
Because next week we begin a new journey with Jesus, the journey with Joseph and Mary through Advent to the birth of a king in a stable.
The baby Jesus is vulnerable and his presence in our hearts must be shielded and cherished.
Even as we ask Jesus to remember us, we need to remember him.
We are approaching the time of year when we wish to bring an offering and a gift to the feet of our newborn king.
What will it be? A harvest of arrogant certainty and proud domination?
Or a realization of our smallness and our frailty, an unexpectedly healing truth that it is in our very weakness that Jesus cherishes and knows and remembers us?
Our job today as we celebrate Christ the King is to take the opportunity to unshackle ourselves from the heavy and confining chains of our own power.
It is our opportunity to renounce the totalitarian regimes of materialism and exploitation and oppression, of prejudice and hatred and violence both spoken and acted.
Then we will be free to begin the journey to Bethlehem, free to serve our king who puts one conversation with a sinner ahead of ruling the whole universe.
Because once we are in real relationship with our king, then we can begin to build the kingdom.
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