The annual solemnity provides a much-needed corrective against the perennial temptation to view the world through the lens of earthly power and squeeze our understanding of God into that prism.
The Solemnity of Christ the King is an occasion for us every year to recalibrate our lives to the reality of Christ’s kingdom and to follow the criteria Christ gives us to enter it, live in it and proclaim it.
The annual feast is much needed to fight against the perennial temptation to view the world through the lens of earthly power and squeeze our understanding of God into that prism.
This was happening in 1925, when Pope Pius XI established the solemnity. There was a militant atheism — the most notorious examples were in Russia and Mexico — seeking to repress belief in Christ and suppress Christian presence in the world. There was, moreover, a much larger secularizing trend that was attempting to order life without reference to God and make faith exclusively private. Then there were the burgeoning fascist movements keen to instrumentalize the Church for political ends.
All were trying to amputate innate human transcendence, make the state or political leaders the object of faith, hope and love, and supplant Christian works of mercy with the bureaucratic largesse of the state.
This flattening of faith is still happening today in other forms. Many, for example, spend more time thinking about who’s in charge in Washington — or Beijing, Moscow, Budapest, Caracas or Havana — than who’s in charge of the universe.
Some priests and faithful seem to want the pulpit to be used to endorse individual political candidates or denounce particular parties rather than to endorse Jesus Christ and his evangelical platform.
Some will spend all night watching election returns but not have time to adore the King in a Holy Hour.
They’ll labor indefatigably to elect favored candidates, give maximal contributions to campaigns, parties or political action committees, but often won’t work anywhere near as hard or contribute as much to building up Christ’s kingdom.
This isn’t to disparage political involvement. Some political issues are literally questions of life and death, common good and intrinsic evil. Catholics are called to be salt of the “earth,” light of the “world” and leaven, including in the political dimensions of community life. The question, however, is whether Catholics will be in the world but not of it, or become worldly.
And when Catholics become of the world, they often import worldly categories into the Kingdom that subsists in the Church.
This mundanity happened with liberation theology. It occurs occasionally with Church charitable work, when Church agencies behave, as Pope Francis has said, like NGOs. It also happens when people begin to look at things in the Church with political categories, treating popes and bishops as if they were politicians, evaluating Church documents as if they were political manifestos, and attempting to understand everything according to the political matrix of liberal vs. conservative.
The Solemnity of Christ the King is meant to serve as an annual inoculation against this spiritual pathogen.
The Divine Physician himself had to battle against the politicization of his Messianic work. Many of his fellow Jews anticipated that when the long-awaited One came, he would rule as his ancestor David had done, defeating foreign powers, triumphing over all who opposed him, and extending his dominion “from sea to sea and … to the ends of the earth” (Psalm 72:8).
Jesus regularly had to instruct those whom he had healed not to say anything lest the mobs carry him off to crown him a king according to their erroneous, earthly expectations.
The apostles themselves sometimes succumbed to this temptation, competing against each other for the top cabinet positions in the Messianic administration they imagined Jesus was about to inaugurate.
We see the brutal contrast between the kingdom Christ came to inaugurate and the political kingdom people expected on Good Friday. Mocked by Pilate by the Crown of Thorns and derisive inscription “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” and ridiculed by the crowd, chief priests, soldiers, passersby and the Bad Thief, the last thing the Crucified Jesus looked like on Calvary was a king. The only demonstration of kingly power most could comprehend was earthly force: saving himself and others like some comic-book superhero or WWE champion, routing Romans and Sanhedrin alike.
Yet, rather than using power to subjugate those who opposed him, Jesus endured abuse to save his abusers. The kings of the age used to send soldiers to death in wars for the king’s aggrandizement, yet Jesus was dying so that his subjects could live.
When Pontius Pilate, who believed that kingship meant having the power to crucify or pardon, asked Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” he was unprepared for Jesus’ answer: that his “kingship is not of this world” and “for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth.” Jesus’ kingdom is not about earthly power but divine power. He came not to be served like earthly rulers, but to serve, and to give his life in ransom. And he summoned his followers not to “lord” over others, but to become the servants of the rest, reigning with him through self-giving, loving service of the least.
This is not the spirit with which many celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King. We prefer to focus on the “objective reality” of Christ as King of the Universe and belt out hymns like Christus Vincit or To Jesus Christ, Our Sovereign King, proudly proclaiming that Christ conquers, reigns and commands, and thereby putting all earthly or pseudo-divine power-grabbers in their place. As we see in Jesus’ earthly life, however, he’s far more interested in the “moral dimension” of this feast, getting us to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
In the Gospel Jesus described the moral characteristics of those who “inherit the kingdom.”
They are born anew from above and keep their baptismal garments ready for the banquet of the Kingdom. They are poor in spirit since, he said, it’s harder for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom. They seek the Kingdom first, willing to lose body parts to enter, to welcome it like a child or a wise virgin, and to treat it like a pearl of great price or a buried treasure.
They care for the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick and imprisoned. They do the will of God the Father, treat others with the mercy they have received, live in communion with others, and suffer for the Kingdom. They receive Christ’s words and work on good soil and allow it to grow like mustard seed. They permit Christ to plant them in the field of the world as hardworking harvesters honored to work.
As we prepare to celebrate Christ the King in the midst of contemporary political concerns, it is helpful to remember what the Eucharistic Preface of the Solemnity reminds us: that Jesus came to establish a “kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.”
The best way we can serve both God and Caesar, to be the king’s good servant but God’s first, is through holiness of life. The greatest crises that face us, St. Josemaría recalled, are “crises of saints.” God provides the grace we need to unite ourselves to him and become seeds of the Kingdom in the world, capable of leading others to him who is just, grants us peace and shows us the way to love.
This is the path of the Kingdom, now and not yet, that Christ the King came to establish.