The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe
Or, more simply, the Feast of Christ the King. I have always found this to be the most curious and at the same time mysterious of all Christian observances. I remember standing in Bath Abbey and reading the following words: “Who is Jesus? Jesus was born in an obscure Middle Eastern town called Bethlehem, over 2,000 years ago. During his first 30 years he shared the daily life and work of an ordinary home…He had no money. He wrote no books. He commanded no army. He wielded no political power. During his life he never travelled more than 200 miles in any direction. He was executed by being nailed to a cross at the age of 33.”
He is a funny kind of king, Our King of the Universe, isn’t he? It’s even more curious when you consider what Verna Dozier calls the three falls of human kind. First, of course, is the business in the garden and eating the forbidden fruit. Next, she writes, comes that moment in time when the people of God demand of Samuel, last of the Hebrew Judges and first of the Hebrew prophets, that he petition the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to give them a king. Up to that moment the loose confederation of twelve tribes depended on Judges, un-elected and non-hereditary leaders appointed by God, to lead them in times of crisis and great peril. These were ad hoc judges, twelve of them, one from each of the 12 tribes, and one of them was a woman, Deborah. Samuel asks God for a king, and God replies that kings are really not a great model of leadership. Samuel tells the people God’s response, but they whine all the more, “Everyone else has a king, why not us? We want to be like everyone else!”
God finally relents, and Saul is anointed King over all of Israel. It does not end well. God eventually has to resort to sending more and more prophets in an attempt to bring the kings and the people back to the basics of being God’s people. As we know, God finally comes himself in Jesus only to discover for himself just how recalcitrant the creatures created in his own image had become.
The Third Fall, of course, is when the Church becomes the Empire as Constantine adapts the Church to become the enforcer of the Emperor’s will. The Church, which had existed for well over 200 years as an alternative to life in the Empire, as the Israel of God, if you will, over against the Land of Pharaoh, suddenly becomes that which it had opposed.
We all know the results, many of which are not good: crusades, expulsions, Inquisition, anti-Semitism and complicity in The Holocaust, which The Second Vatican Council acknowledged, apologized, and urged us to move on in a more inclusive manner including the importance of inter-faith dialogue and cooperation. Yet, it remains difficult to give up the goodies and privileges of being The Empire.
Christ The King is the newest of all church liturgical observances, having been instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in response to growing nationalism and secularism. Pius XI wanted this feast to inspire the laity, writing, “The faithful, moreover, by meditating upon these truths, will gain much strength and courage, enabling them to form their lives after the true Christian ideal….He must reign in our minds…in our wills…in our hearts…in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the sanctification of our souls, or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, as instruments of justice unto God.”
In our Baptismal Covenant we are asked, “Will you strive for justice and peace for all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” We answer, “I will with God’s help.”
So here we are on the Feast of Christ The King, in a country that indeed embraced the Biblical ideal of non-hereditary kingship for governance, a country populated nearly entirely by immigrants, many of whom came to these shores fleeing warfare and persecution, pondering, debating really, just how wide and how broad our definitions of justice and peace for all people really is. We find ourselves reacting without much reflection on just how we might wreak military vengeance on those who threaten the lives of innocent civilians with acts of horrendous and indiscriminate violence, while at the same time we threaten to close our boarders to those who are suffering the same violence first-hand.
Christ the King Sunday means to ask us, in the context of our present lives, how ought we to serve as “instruments of justice unto God”?
Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, has addressed this place in which we find ourselves: “In times like this fear is real. And I share that fear with you. Our instinct tells us to be afraid. The fight-or-flight mentality takes hold… And yet, especially when we feel legitimate fear, our faith reminds us “Be not afraid.” The larger truth is that our ultimate security comes from God in Christ.”
Bishop Curry goes on to remind us that “In the Book of Leviticus, God says to the people of Israel that, ‘the foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the foreigner as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.’ Accordingly, we welcome the stranger. We love our neighbor. The Episcopal Church has long been committed to resettling refugees in our own communities fleeing violence and persecution.” For over 75 years this has been the work of The Episcopal Church in partnership with dioceses, congregations and government agencies.
He concludes, “But Jesus calls us to go even further: not just to love our neighbors and our kin, but to love our enemies. This is particularly difficult when we are afraid. But even in the midst of our fear we stand on the solid ground of our faith and proclaim the faith of Christ crucified and risen from the dead. In practical terms, this may mean finding strength in prayer, or in our neighbors, or in our churches, or in acts of solidarity with others who live in fear. This is the hope that casts out fear.”
When faced with events like those of this past week in Europe and in Africa, I turn to scripture, I turn to prayer, and I also turn to poetry. Friday was the birthday of Pauli Murray, born in Baltimore, a civil rights activist, a founder of the National Organization of Women, a founder of CORE, the first woman awarded a Juris Doctor degree from Yale, and the first ordained African American woman in The Episcopal Church. Also a poet, I find these words of hers address where we find ourselves on this Feast of Christ the King. They seem to hint at the kind of kingship our Lord embraces.
I sing of a new American
Separate from all others,
Yet enlarged and diminished by all others.
I am the child of kings and serfs, freemen and slaves,
Having neither superiors nor inferiors,
Progeny of all colors, all cultures, all systems, all beliefs.
I have been enslaved, yet my spirit is unbound.
I have been cast aside, but I sparkle in the darkness.
I have been slain but live on in the river of history.
I seek no conquest, no wealth, no power, no revenge:
I seek only discovery
Of the illimitable heights and depths of my own being.
-Pauli Murray, Cambridge, 1969