The Feast of Christ the King, or since Pope Paul VI augmented it in 1969, “King of the Universe,” is strangely paradoxical. During his lifetime and ministry, Jesus denied that he was “The Man Who Would be King,” as Rudyard Kipling might have it. When challenged on this by Pilate, he replied, simply enough, “My kingdom is not of this world.” And small wonder. For a thousand years, almost everyone who called himself a king in Israel and Judah had been a villain, thief, and thug. Even David, the “model king,” was not very good at it. The reign of his son Solomon, arguably the greatest of the old kings, ended in disaster. So did most of the others.
In John’s gospel, people dangerously acclaim Jesus as their King when he enters Jerusalem: “…they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” This act of political impudence most likely led to Jesus’ arrest. Jesus himself said nothing about it until before Pilate.
“Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice’ (John 18:33-37). Jesus was nevertheless executed for sedition and treason by pretending to be “King of the Jews,” as Pilate made clear by the notice posted on the cross itself: ‘This is the King of the Jews’ (Luke 23:38). As we
heard in today’s gospel reading, taunted by the soldiers, the leaders of the people, and even one of the criminals crucified with him, Jesus remained silent. But when the other criminal refused to mock him and says, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,’ Jesus gives him what he asks for: ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’ (Luke 23:43).
Clearly, Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God, a realm of human affairs ruled by the divine laws of love, justice, truth, and mercy. He came, moreover, to inaugurate that reign. In later times, Jesus was seen to have done so and not only inherited that Kingdom, but entrusted it to all who follow him. For centuries, however, Jesus was rarely referred to in royal terms. The earliest pictures of him painted on the walls of the catacombs depict him as a young shepherd. But when Christianity emerged from the shadows of illegality in the fourth century and eventually became the religion of the Roman Empire, the image of Christ the King came increasingly to the fore in icons and hymns. He now wore a crown not of thorns, but of gold. He sat on a throne and held the royal orb and scepter. Just like the emperor. To be sure, there was some precedent, especially in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 22:1-4). Still, it seems a little odd.
By the Middle Ages, when kings had emerged as the powerful and contentious rulers of Europe, the figure of “King Jesus” also rose to greater prominence. Liturgical celebrations were established here and there to imbed that tradition and, in effect, to remind the rulers of the earth that there was a greater King over all. Art and music followed suit. But it was not until the twentieth century that the Feast of Christ the King was extended to the entire Church by Pope Pius XI. By then, kingship was in a pretty sad state, having been widely supplanted by both republics and dictatorships.
So you may wonder, what does it mean today to celebrate the feast of Christ as King? And in recent times, King of the Universe? Especially in a country like ours, which was founded on the premise that in the main, kings were a royal pain? And in an era of scientific discovery which has shown us that the universe is millions of times larger and stranger than anything believed in 1925?
Even so, in 1969, Pope Paul VI moved the feast from the last Sunday of October to the last Sunday of the liturgical year and also added the phrase “King of the Universe.” That gave it a cosmological and more eschatological tone in keeping with the readings at this time of the liturgical year and also removed it from competition with Reformation Sunday. Jews, on the other hand, have long since used the phrase “King of the Universe” in reference to Almighty God in the blessings before solemn occasions involving the fulfillment of a commandment. Long before that, “King of the Universe” was a title given by ancient Mesopotamian empires, the Assyrians and Babylonians, to justify a claim to universal rule. The Jewish appropriation of the title, like the later Christian title, was likely a not-too-subtle correction.
We may still be left wondering: What kind of king is this? And what kind of Kingdom does he rule? Is Jesus the Lord of the Universe? Or as one of my students asked, “Did Jesus save the Klingons and Romulans, too?” Strangely enough, that’s not an idle question as scientists, philosophers, and theologians ponder what “universe” has come to mean. But that is not really our concern here and now.
Our concern is whether the Reign of God preached by Jesus is a fiction or a real force in tide of history, not simply a given, but a goal, a mission, and often a struggle. Yet it is also a gift; one given to the poor, sick, and suffering, captives and refugees, even thieves who hear the good news and treasure it. For the kingdom of Jesus is a realm of mercy and grace and truth, a kingdom of justice and real freedom. This kind of kingdom and this kind of king should still strike fear into the heads and hearts of tyrants everywhere.