The Feast of Christ the King is one of the most recent additions to the liturgical calendar. Born in 1925, just as earthly kingdoms were well and truly going out of style permanently, at least in Europe, Pope Pius XI instituted the solemnity, in order to counter the growing nationalism he saw in European politics. The tragedy of the 20th century was that so many people threw off the tyranny of despotic monarchs, only to find themselves under the thumb of equally despotic, and far more efficient democratically elected tyrants. Pope Pius XI saw the two most heinous incidences of this before he died, and retained his determination that humanity would simply accept the kingship of Jesus Christ, everything would turn out much better.
No doubt the Holy Father was correct, but it is quite difficult for Christians in the modern era to wrap their heads around the idea of kingship. Kingship in the modern west, with its purely ceremonial nature, bears no resemblance at all to the kind of kingship we are called to contemplate on the last Sunday of the year. There are only five absolute monarchs left in the world, and one of them is democratically elected. No, kings are completely out of style now, which perhaps explains why so many denominational calendars have renamed this observance “Reign of Christ.”
In 2009, Kathryn Barba Pierce invited readers of Homily Service to focus their attention on the reign, rather than on the King. She did not, however, promise that doing so would render the day any less paradoxical and challenging.
Because if the kingdom is in the world here and now, if we are the kingdom, then we must be open to all that Christ brings to the table, including the mystery. Christ is full of mystery. Just look at the incarnation or the crucifixion. We will never and can never fully contemplate what those events in history have meant for us. Can we ever truly understand what it means to share in the inheritance of Christ? Probably not. This mystery is beyond us, and yet it is part of us. If we are a part of the kingdom, we are deeply embedded in this mystery. And for most of us, mystery is very unsettling. We enjoy our enlightenment views where we can prove everything and everything fits into some picture. But, with Christ, with Christ’s kingdom, everything is upside down. Everything is both known to us and shared with us (in theory) but yet, we cannot fully understand it. Everything is clouded by a mystery that we, as followers, must learn to embrace and live into.
Christ’s reign is breaking into the world in myriad ways. Which ones disturb you the most? I really hate the way that all of the supposedly right answers I learned in the past are now simply one among many competing narratives. Also, the children are getting mouthier.
Kathryn Barba Pierce (2009). 22 November; The Reign of Christ; Homily Service 138.
Kathryn Barba Pierce is a United Methodist pastor in South Dakota.