Dear People of God,
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
The final Sunday of our liturgical year is observed as The Reign of Christ, also called Christ the King. This was not always the case. For generations, this Sunday was called The Sunday Next Before Advent or Stir-up Sunday. This latter name came from the collect that was then assigned to this Sunday, beginning with “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people…” That collect was also a reminder that it was time to go home and begin stirring up ingredients for Christmas baking that needed time to soak and age properly. The day looked toward the new liturgical year and preparations for the high seasons of Advent and Christmas, but did not mention Christ the King. These days the entire Sunday is The Reign of Christ. Why the change?
In December of 1922, Pope Pius XI published an encyclical—a formal letter about Roman Catholic teaching and doctrine. In it he expressed his deep concern about the end of World War I and how, while open hostilities had ceased, there did not seem to be any true peace in Europe. The pope saw class divisions widening in the world, causing hardship and conflict. He also saw rampant nationalism taking hold in a number of countries, causing even further rifts. People were being drawn into secular life and encouraged to identify first as citizens of a particular country, and to think of themselves as Christians in a private, personal way. An afterthought. One’s passport was becoming more important than one’s baptism and this was of deep concern to the pope. The encyclical reminded its readers that true peace could be found only when people confessed Christ as their king and mortal rulers ceased their squabbling and fighting, united under the one who would rule even them.
Thinking further on this subject, in 1925 Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King into the Roman Catholic calendar. Over the next few decades, it was adopted by many other churches in the West, including our Anglican Church of Canada. The intent of the day is to remind Christians of who their true king is through a yearly festival observance, and to remind everyone of how a good head of government, a good ruler, behaved.
There were many helpful comparisons to be made between Christ and our mortal heads of government. “Christ” means “anointed” which is a part of many Christian coronation ceremonies for mortal monarchs. Christ is the king of creation by virtue of being God, the Creator of it all; Christ holds kingly authority by right, not by power seized through force and violence, making Christ a truly legitimate king. Christ, being the legitimate king and having no worry about hanging on to power, displays lordship by loving and serving others, rather than seeking ways to obtain more and keep what he has by force. Christ is the ideal ruler.
But Christ is also many things that we do not expect of a king. Christ does not establish himself in a palace, choosing instead a stable as his first court. Christ does not gather loyal followers by force or promises of power, but instead through conversation, teaching, and healing. Nor does Christ gather the most powerful to himself, but looks instead to the outcast, the sinner, the broken, the everyday, and the forgotten as those to first collect under his banner. Christ does not display his kingship with robes or a crown or a great throne; instead he is given these things by his persecutors as mockeries and he reigns, bleeding and dying, from the Cross.
These are not the actions and priorities we would expect of a good king, nor were that what the people of the first century expected of a good king. A good king is one who has much power, authority, and influence. A good king uses it to benefit the citizens of the kingdom, but also certainly takes good care of himself. Few kings, even those who rule benevolently, make time to eat with the outcasts of their society and even fewer willingly go to their own executions.
This seems a strange, disconnected set of circumstances at first. The one who made all of Creation, the God who makes all things, the truly legitimate king is found among those judged least valuable by their society and is executed as a common criminal. Isaiah may not have been so surprised. The prophet spoke over and over again of how the priorities of God, the truth of God’s kingdom, were not like those of mortal rulers:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. Isaiah 58.6-8
When the pregnant Virgin Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth and is asked about the child in her womb, she sings of God’s glory and of the role her son will play. The entirety of the Magnificat, heard around the world in evening prayers, speaks of the up-ending of all known systems and the establishment of a kingdom where the lowly are raised on high, where the hungry are fed, and all of the prophecies about justice and righteousness are realized. (Luke 1.46-55)
And even more important is the realization in Mary’s song that this is not the trading of one king for another. This prophecy is not Judean kings and their wars traded for Roman occupation and their wars, nor is it slavery in one country traded for slavery in another. This is a complete revolution—the turning upside down of what is and reimagining what might be possible for all people.
Christ himself carries on these prophetic descriptions of the Kingdom of God. He speaks in the Beatitudes of a kingdom that sounds rather different from the earthly ones to which his followers, and indeed all of us, are accustomed to. (Matthew 5.3-12) This kingdom is a place where the meek shall inherit. Where the poor in spirit will be welcome. Where those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are oppressed and marginalized, those who are left out and cast aside, those who are thought of as unworthy will be remembered and cared for. Those whose lives have been deemed as unimportant, expendable, cheap, and disposable will be revealed as the precious, blessed images of God that they are.
It is here, I think, in these prophecies and descriptions of the Kingdom of God over which Christ reigns that we begin to understand how the pieces of this feast connect. If this feast is meant to remind us of what a truly good king is like, it seems so strange to pick an example like Christ, who was cast out, humiliated, derided, and executed in his earthly life. But I think, perhaps, this connection to a king who dies as a common criminal is clearer in some lives than others.
Perhaps this good king, weighted with suffering and difficulty, is seen more clearly by a mother who walked hundred of miles to the border of a country meant to represent safety, only to have her children taken from her and to be sent away empty. By those who flee their homes under threat of war and persecution, like the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. By George Floyd’s family, or any of the countless families who, over the centuries, had to watch their husbands and brothers and mothers and sisters be lynched because of the colour of their skin.
Our Christ, our king, is one who is willing to share in the lives of his subjects—the citizens of the Kingdom of God—in every way. Christ the King laughs with us in our joy, weeps with us in our sorrow, and, for us, dies hanging upon a tree. The good king is one who not only uses power and authority to aid his citizens, but one who is willing to live through all things with them and to give each of them a share in his glory.
Christ the King lives in palaces and halls of government, certainly. Christ the King also eats in soup kitchens and sleeps on park benches through cold nights.
As we look toward Advent, we think of the yearly remembrance of the First Coming of Christ and our preparation for the Second Coming of Christ. We remember the holy child and we look for the glorious king. May we also offer prayer that we will see and know our Christ where he wills to be found, and not where we presume he ought to be.
Be safe, be well, and be richly blessed this day.
Yours in Christ,
The Rev. Andrew Rampton
This pastoral letter was written for the Parish of Holy Trinity, Winnipeg.