The church’s year draws to a close this coming Sunday, with the festival of the Reign of Christ, after which we enter a new church year. The church’s year is organised differently from the calendar year; it revolves around the key events of our faith: the birth of Jesus, which we celebrate each Christmas, the death and resurrection of Jesus, which comes into focus at Easter, the birth of the Church, which we recall at the celebration of Pentecost, and the long season after Pentecost, when we attend to our life as disciples and the mission into which we are called as people of faith.
What I am referring to as the festival of the Reign of Christ has been known traditionally as the festival of Christ the King, when we commemorate the reign that Christ exercises over the world. I prefer the term Reign of Christ as at least one step away from the connotations that are associated with that archaic institution of monarchy. And that flags one of the issues that I have with this feast day—more below.
This is a relatively new festival in the calendar of church festivals—it was introduced by Pope Pius XI in 1925, and has since been adopted by Lutheran, Anglican, and various Protestant churches around the world, and also, apparently, by the Western Rite parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. (Yes, that is a real denomination!)
So that is a second issue that I have with this day—along with Trinity Sunday, it sits as a day devoted to “a doctrine” developed later in the church’s life, rather than “a time in the life of Jesus”, which is what Christmas and Easter is, or “a time in the life of the church”, namely, Pentecost.
In Roman Catholic tradition, the day is explained by some words from Cyril of Alexandria, a fifth century Doctor of the Church who served as Patriarch of Alexandria, in Egypt, from 412 to 444. In establishing this festival, Pope Pius XI quoted from the writings of Cyril: “Christ has dominion over all creatures, …by essence and by nature … the Word of God, as consubstantial with the Father, has all things in common with him, and therefore has necessarily supreme and absolute dominion over all things created. From this it follows that to Christ angels and men are subject. Christ is also King by acquired, as well as by natural right, for he is our Redeemer. …’ We are no longer our own property, for Christ has purchased us with a great price; our very bodies are the members of Christ.”
Now, if you wonder where the Pope derived this understanding from, then perhaps the words offered by the Revised Common Lectionary, from the letter to the Colossians, might have provided the foundations for this grand cosmic vision of the place of Jesus, the Risen Lord, in the overall scheme of things (Col 1:11–20). Here, Jesus is described as, not only the agent of God’s creative powers (1:16) and the one who is “before all things” (1:17), but also as the one who has “first place in everything” (1:18). The passage also indicates that believers are “transferred … into the kingdom of [God’s] beloved son” (1:13). It is a festival that invites us to lift our eyes to grasp this grand vision, of the one ruling over all creation, with a realm dedicated for those who have been rescued (1:13) and redeemed (1:14).
The Hebrew Scripture passage provided by the lectionary this coming Sunday is an oracle of the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 23:1–6). In this oracle, the promise is that the Lord “will raise up shepherds over [the people] who will shepherd them, and they will not fear any longer” (23:4), followed by a direct statement that the Lord “will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (23:5). The connection with the Reign of Christ is clear; the reign of the righteous branch will be executed with assistance from good shepherds who will care for the people.
The Gospel is the story narrated in Luke’s orderly account of the last hours of Jesus, hanging on the cross (Luke 23:33–43). This passage relates to the theme at two points. First, it contains the mocking of the Roman soldiers at the cross, as they taunt Jesus, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (23:37)—a taunt provoked by the sign that was affixed to the top of the cross, bearing an inscription that read, “This is the King of the Jews” (23:36). That inscription, although it is intended to identify Jesus, is actually a statement of power and authority, made by Governor Pilate on behalf of the Roman Empire which he served.
Second, this passage contains the word of one of the two criminals who were being crucified alongside Jesus; the one who petitioned him, saying, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (23:42), to which Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (23:43). The correlation of Paradise to Christ’s kingdom is a link that can legitimately be made. Jesus has earlier declared to his disciples, “I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (22:28–30). Jesus as King hovers, perhaps uncomfortably, in this passage. It’s not as clear cut as it might appear on first reading.
So, at this time of the year, the green of the season after Pentecost is retired from view, and the white of this high festival comes into view. White, for a festival of the Church, is the colour for this one Sunday. And the passages offered are “cherry picked” from the range of scriptural options, with little regard to what went before or comes after—the three key passages are chosen because they have the buzzwords “king” or “kingdom”.
However, the basic reason for my angst with this day is the way that the central message of Luke’s Gospel, which we have been following throughout the year, appears to have been put to one side. This Gospel is the one which introduces Jesus, early on, as a revolutionary, when his pregnant mother looks to the time when he will have “scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts … brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly … filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51–53).
This is the Gospel in which Jesus blesses “the poor … those who are hungry … those who weep” whilst promising to bring down “the rich … those who are filled … those who are laughing” (6:20–26). It is the Gospel which contains an explicit critique of monarchy: “the kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors; but not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves” (22:25–26). Would Jesus appreciate being identified as a king, after he has uttered this saying?
It is the Gospel (along with the other Synoptics, Mark and Matthew) in which Pilate sarcastically poses the direct question to Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?”—to which Jesus answers with a neat deflection, “You say so” (Luke 23:3; see also Mark 15:2; Matt 27:11). It is the sole Gospel in which Jesus is mockingly dressed as a king by the soldiers of Herod (23:11). Is this the kind of kingship to which he really aspires?
And it is the Gospel which flows on into a second volume, Acts, in which followers of Jesus are portrayed as “people who have been turning the world upside down” and accused of “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor”, with the mocking claim that they say “there is another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:6–7). The tone is clear; this Jesus cannot be king, surely?
Kingship, in Luke’s narrative, is consistently portrayed as an institution which fails to adhere to the standards that the Lord God expects. In Hebrew Scripture, the king of Israel was expected to “trust in the Lord” (Ps 21:7), “rejoice in God” (Ps 63:11), and “judge [the] people with righteousness, and [the] poor with justice” which have been granted by God (Ps 72:1–2).
We know, of course, from the narratives that tell the story of Israel over many generations (1–2 Samuel, 1–2 Kings, 1–2 Chronicles), that many kings failed in this requirement, and “did evil in the sight of the Lord”, fulfilling the predictive prophecy of the prophet Samuel (1 Sam 8:10–18). Nevertheless, the idealised view of kingship, which Samuel dutifully set out in writing for the people (1 Sam 10:26), held sway through the ensuing centuries. It was particularly developed in the portrayal of Solomon, filled with “wisdom and knowledge”, and granted “riches, possessions, and honour, such as none of the kings had who were before you, and none after you shall have the like” (2 Chron 1:7–12, especially verses 10 and 12).
Does the festival of the Reign of Christ draw on the idealised view of kingship that Hebrew Scripture advocates? Is Jesus put forward as the King who fulfils the hopes for Israelite kingship—which so many of the kings had failed to achieve? That’s a disturbing, possibly antisemitic, way of treating the stories of scripture.
Or even more disturbingly, does the festival of the Reign of Christ reflect the height of Christendom, ideas first shaped by Cyril in the 5th century, then adopted and expanded by Christian rulers over the centuries (Charlemagne, or Vladimir the Great, for example)? That, too, is worrying.
This festival was introduced into the liturgical cycle of the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Pius XI in 1925, at a time when Fascist dictators were rising to power in Europe. I have read that “the specific impetus for the Pope establishing this universal feast of the Church was the martyrdom of a Catholic priest, Blessed Miguel Pro, during the Mexican revolution”; see Today’s Catholic, 18 Nov 2014:
The article continues, “The institution of this feast was, therefore, almost an act of defiance from the Church against all those who at that time were seeking to absolutize their own political ideologies, insisting boldly that no earthly power, no particular political system or military dictatorship is ever absolute. Rather, only God is eternal and only the Kingdom of God is an absolute value, which never fails.”
The scriptures puncture the pomposity of powerful kings, and subversively present Jesus as the one who stands against all that those kings did. In that sense, and only in that sense, this is a feast day to maintain and support.