Today’s feast of Christ the King is a great gift to the Church from Pope Pius XI in 1925. This feast was given even greater importance by Pope St. John XXIII in1960 when he transferred it to the final Sunday of the liturgical year, thus making it the culmination of each liturgical year. What could be more fitting than to close each liturgical year by celebrating the feast of Christ the King which, in a wonderful way, ties together the present time and eternity. One day Christ will return in glory, in the glory of his exalted kingship, and He will reign forever as our God and as our king. What irrepressible joy this truth should bring to us each year when we celebrate this great Solemnity.
However, the institution of this great feast shortly after World War I must have seemed an unusual move on the part of the Church and Pius XI, both to the world at large and even to many Christians. After all, one of the results of that war was the dissolution of certain ancient monarchies throughout Europe and their replacement by new democratic forms of government. Thus, it might have seemed, especially in light of those developments, to be a kind of cultural intractability on the part of the Church, clinging to a past that was gone forever. But that is a very superficial misunderstanding of the motivation behind the establishment of this great feast.
Obviously the Church did not begin to believe in the kingship of Christ in the age of monarchies. The truth of the Kingship of Christ was in no way derived from monarchial cultures; indeed, it’s quite the other way around, at least if we are speaking about monarchies in the Christian cultures of the past. That being the case, it should be understood that at least one of the motivating factors in establishing of this feast surely had to be to preserve belief in the Kingship of Christ, to make sure it was not abandoned by the Catholic faithful along with the jettisoning of these earthly monarchial systems of government in their Christian countries. Moreover, Pius XI quite clearly intended by his action to deepen the faithful’s appreciation and understanding of the truth of Christ’s unique kingship and the significance of that kingship for their life, both here and beyond.
In this regard, it has long been a matter of curiosity for me that so many of my British friends maintain their strong loyalty to their monarchy, in spite of the great weakening of that institution in terms of actual power. But then it hit me that this loss of power was itself the clue to their fidelity. They loved their monarch but without in any way wishing the monarchy to regain its former power as an unelected absolute governing power. They love the monarch because she, or he, in a singular way represents the glory and the prestige of the British people among the nations. The monarch and monarchy are essentially symbolic of something much greater and dearer. That something greater and dearer, their nation, is what they most love.
At any rate, all this musing helped me by analogy to understand much better the meaning of Christ’s kingship for us today and forever. We also did not elect Christ to be our King, nor did Christ gain his kingship in the way that earthly monarchs always have. Earthy monarachs were not chosen by God nor by the general citizenry. They became monarchs either by force of one sort or another, or were granted the role by their peers.
Moreover, Christ, unlike worldly monarchs was King from the first moment of his conception, and he was so precisely because he was always the Lord of creation and the Lord of history. Thus Christ alone possesses the sole perfection of kingship, and His every action was and always is both fully good and noble. Thus, unlike earthly powers, Christ the King has won the undying love of his subjects, who are so his subjects both by nature by faith, precisely because He has fully exercised his kingship by dying of their sake and by rising again for their sake. Christ, then, is the only king who is so by nature, the only true absolute monarch, and by faith, and, as we say in the creed, His kingdom will never end.
But then what is meant when Jesus says that His kingdom is not of this world? That assertion is true in several senses. First, His kingdom is never in competition with other earthly powers who rule, because his rule is essentially above them. For His kingdom, as Vatican II said, is one of truth and justice, of love and mercy, and as such it is itself the spiritual foundation for any governing institution in this world worthy of the name.
Secondly, the kingship of Christ is not of this world in quite another sense, that is, simply because this world can never contain Him or His kingdom. His kingdom and kingship is infinitely superior in every way, for it extends over the whole universe which He himself has both created and redeemed.
Finally, His kingship is such that it fills us with the greatest joy, for it is the source of the very glory and dignity which belongs to His Church, and thus most wonderfully to his subjects. Indeed, that fact is the ultimate capping of our joy in Christ’s kingship, for although by nature we are his subjects, by faith and baptism we are his friends called to reign forever with him in heaven, to share his eternal kingship. What joy fills the heart of the Christian who truly believes that as of St. Paul writes, “If we suffer [with Him], we shall also reign with Him.” (2 Tim. 2:12)
Thus, the integral meaning of reigning with Christ, in this world means to be willing to follow our king into His battle with the powers of evil, both angelic and human, and to wage that battle just as he did on earth, not with force of arms, but with the force of divine love and the divine empowerment of suffering. Only in that sign can we ever conquer ans share his joy.