The liturgical year draws to a sad end this Sunday with the Solemn Feast of Christ the King of the Universe. Amid a worsening and even spreading pandemic, monumental political blundering, and economic crises, it may seem ironic as kingship seems at least irrelevant in the face of such global disasters. [See Ezek 34:11-12, 15-17, 1 Cor 15:20-26, 28, Mat 25:31-46]
Kings are, almost by definition, a sorry lot. Historically, most were rapacious, egotistical, power-hungry autocrats corrupted, even if they started out well, by that very power, as Lord Acton observed – “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The proto-prophet Samuel sternly warned the Israelites that in demanding a king to rule over them in the manner of the gentiles they were playing with a fire that would consume them [1 Sam 8:4-22]. And it largely did. Hardly any kings in Hebrew scripture come off as less than villainous. Even the best of them taken as a model, David, was capricious and bloody-minded, capable of adultery, murder, and deceit. (That is not to say that modern dictators and presidents are not equally capable and often expert at the task.)
In Christian scripture, the accusation that Jesus “made himself” king of the Jews was a false testimony that led to his execution. But by the time the epistles and gospels were written, what had been taken as a parabolic figure, if not ironic and subversive, was now accorded to Jesus as the “true king.” It is this figure of speech that animated the hopes of subject peoples down through modern history, hopes that were often dashed when the lure of absolute power succeeded in corrupting the royals.
When emergent democratic republics repudiated kings wholesale, the term became odious but managed to survive in folklore and fairy tales as the image of the “true king,” an Arthur or an Aragorn. In fact, modern monarchs are still a pretty sorry if more impotent lot. At best, the survivors are usually little more than expensive political decorations, nice folks kept in office and affection as one might a favorite Corgi.
Perhaps the title of “Christ the King” is a misnomer even apart from the diminished longing for a “true king.” The intention of Pope Pius XI when in 1925 he instituted the Feast of Christ the King for the whole Church was in some measure an effort to shore up what was inexorably becoming a lost cause, at least in Europe, following the First World War. Today there are fewer monarchies than ever – about 25, all told, including grand dukes, sovereign princes, and the like. Only about a dozen actual kings and queens hang on, many in Africa and Asia. Adding to that number several dozen emirs, sultans, an emperor or two, and the pope, the number rises just over 40.
Similarly, when in 1970 Pope Paul VI extended the royal title to the entire universe, cosmologists might well have wondered if that was a pontifical bridge too far, so to speak. The universe is a mighty big area and whether or not there are any intelligent beings out beyond the reach of present knowledge, it could well be doubted whether the claim of universal kingship of an Earthling would mean anything to them. (Only half our own world is nominally Christian today.)
Where this leaves us on this auspicious Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, may be a little obscure to many. My suggestion is to once again consider the testimony of the ancient scripture and the gospel for the day. In Psalm 72, one of the “royal psalms,” we hear
Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor [Ps 72:1-4].
And, a bit later,
For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight [Ps 72:12-14].
The gospel reading chosen for today’s liturgy is perhaps the most telling of all, even though in his parable Jesus does not explicitly identify himself with the Son of Man or the King:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him,
then he will sit on the throne of his glory.
All the nations will be gathered before him,
and he will separate people one from another
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,
and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand,
‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father,
inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
for I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you gave me clothing,
I was sick and you took care of me,
I was in prison and you visited me.’
‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these
who are members of my family,
you did it to me.’ [Matt 25:31-36,40].