I’ve been taking some heat for not posting any homilies lately, so here you go. This isn’t a good one, by any means, but it certainly had potential. Essentially all I’m doing here is giving you a synopsis of Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quas Primas, which you should read in it’s entirety (it’s short.). I’m going to try to get back to writing on a more consistent basis (famous last words, I know.) Also, I’m working on this on my iPad in an empty conference room in the student union of one of my colleges, so I’ll fix up some of the formatting issues and add some links when I get home.
I’ve always struggled with this particular feast because it seems so…well, un-American, for lack of a better term. This is the feast of Christ the King – Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, if you want to be technical – and the US was pretty much founded on the premise that kings are a bad idea. (Particularly English kings named George, but I digress.) My undergraduate degree is in history, which has done nothing to dissuade me of that view. I had plenty of chances to travel in Europe while I was studying in Rome. Charlemagne’s palace in Aachen? Museum. The palace complex in Krakow? Museum. King Ludwig of Bavaria’s beautiful castle, Neuschwanstein? Yep…museum. Kings are on the way out. It’s a new age. Even the monarchies we have are basically ceremonial at this point. Is it possible that this feast is a bit…dated?
Nothing could be farther from the truth. This feast isn’t even one hundred years old yet, which makes it incredibly young in the life of the church. Pope Pius XI called for this feast in 1925, not necessarily because of the decline of monarchies, but because of the tremendous social disturbances that were happening at the time. Europe had just tried very hard to destroy itself in the Great War, and revolutions were happening across the Continent. America was trying her best to blissfully ignorant of anything outside of her borders, and closer to his home, a man named Mussolini was coming to power in Italy. Pius XI rightly wanted the church to once again give due consideration to the fact that Christ is King, because the ruling powers of the world simply weren’t very inspiring anymore.
Makes sense, I suppose, but surely he doesn’t really want us to think of Christ as a King, right? I mean, this has to be some kind of metaphor, right? Partially true. The Pope acknowledged that it was common usage to give Christ the title of King in a metaphorical sense because of His perfection. He was perfect in intellect, in that He had full knowledge, but also in that He is Truth Itself, and from Him all truth must be obeyed. He was perfect in His will, in that at all times, His will was perfectly and entirely obedient to that of the Father, whereas our wills are often led astray by sin. He was perfect in love, in that His perfect charity exceeds all things, and His mercy and kindness draw people to Himself. We will never be better at these things than He is; we will never get anywhere even approaching His level. Therefore, it is only fitting that we call him King – it acknowledges that, frankly, He’s better than us.
While that is all very true, it would be a terrible lacuna to think that Christ’s Kingship is only metaphorical. The Pope goes on to demonstrate how the Scriptures make clear that His Kingship is, in fact, very real. The psalms speak in clear terms of the Kingship of the Messiah:
“…in his days shall justice spring up, and abundance of peace…And he shall rule from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth.”
The prophets are even more explicit in their testimony, particularly Isaiah, but also Jeremiah, Zechariah, and Daniel, whom we heard from today. The New Testament doubles down on that. Remember what the Archangel Gabriel tells Mary as he informs her she is to bear a son:
“The Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father, and he shall reign in the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”
And, of course, there are those times when Jesus refers to himself as a king. One can’t get more direct than that.
If we’re going to insist that Christ’s kingship is as literal as it is metaphorical, then it seems that at least two questions come to mind. The first concerns the origin of his authority; the second is related to his kingdom. Answering the first question could lead us down a deep theological rabbit hole; luckily, the theology has already been done for us. Pope Pius XI quotes Saint Cyril of Alexandria, one of the great church fathers, in saying,
“Christ has dominion over all creatures, a dominion not seized by violence nor usurped, but his by essence and by nature.”
In other words, Christ has the authority of a King because of the hypostatic union – or more simply put, because He is both God and man.
The nature of His Kingdom is, perhaps, the larger issue here. That He is a king is no longer in question. But what do we know about His kingdom? In fact, in today’s Gospel, he tells Pilate in no uncertain terms, “My kingdom is not of this world.” and in many other places in the gospels, when the crowds wanted to carry Jesus off and make them their king, n0t only did he refuse, but he would escape from them so as to prevent it from happening. His kingdom is obviously spiritual. The gospels seem to make clear that one can only enter this kingdom except by faith and through baptism. His kingdom, then, seems to be some kind of interior thing to each person, so to go back to the beginning: why bother with this feast? If Pope Pius was so concerned about the swiftly changing tides of civic life, was a feast dedicated to Christ as King really going to be the most appropriate solution?
In a word, yes.
If we truly let Christ the King reign in our hearts – if we truly let the source of our salvation and the author of all happiness reign in our hearts – then wouldn’t we start to recognize the dignity inherent in our brothers and sisters? Wouldn’t we be convinced of our own inherent dignity? And wouldn’t that make us more aware of our responsibility to promote and protect the common good? The answer is, I should think, quite obvious. The challenge is – and has been – to move this out of the realm of an intellectual exercise and to start making it more real, more practical. To start dying to ourselves more, so that Christ might live more fully in us. To pray for the grace of a spirit of detachment, so that we can worry less about the things of the world, and only about the things that matter for eternity. To let Christ truly reign in our hearts.
Today we celebrate Christ the King, and it is right and fitting that we do so. May God give us the grace to be able to celebrate the fact that we truly are His subjects.