88 years ago great and dangerous philosophical tides were beginning to rise from the ocean of 19th-century European nationalism. Communism had overtaken Russia, fascism was slowly swallowing Italy, and socialism was gestating in post-war Germany. The papacy itself was locked behind the Leonine Walls surrounding Vatican Hill, as the stand-off between the Italian monarchy and the Apostolic See of Peter for rule over the city of Rome persisted. Trusting in the power of prayer as the one surest weapon against evil left at the Church’s disposal, Pope Pius XI fired a shot that he must have hoped would cause a chronic, perhaps fatal, injury against the relativism that threatened to sweep the globe. He established a new feast of the Church, to be celebrated throughout the world, with a special focus and a clear goal: “Once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony.”
The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe begins the end of the Church’s liturgical year. On this feast we remember, celebrate and believe that He Who is our brother is also our ruler, He Who saved our lives will also judge them. It is especially significant to me, a member of a parish devoted to the Most Precious Blood of Christ, by which He ransomed all the peoples of the world from sin and death and made us all, as Revelation says, “a kingdom and priests for our God.” But what kind of kingdom is it? And what does it mean to recognize Christ as King?
Let’s look at the second question first. And as we do, let’s look at the very first of the laws and commandments given by God to the chosen people. He had made a deal with the Israelites: worship me, and I will set you free. He had brought them out of the land of Egypt where they had lived in slavery, and now they sat in the wilderness, lost and rudderless. And so God gave them the commandments in part to clarify their end of the bargain, and also to establish them as a free and just society, And the very first item on the list reads as follows (Deut. 5:7-9a):
You shall not have other gods beside me. You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or serve them.
The meaning here is unambiguous: before all else, God must come first. Why? Because God loves all He has created so much that He is jealous for their love, and none moreso than this group of people He has singled out as His own. And in exchange for the preservation of the freedom He has won for them, He expects first and foremost their total devotion and unwavering loyalty. God is their King, and love of God is to come before love of family, love of neighbor, love of things, love of self, because apart from Him they do not have the freedom to love anything or anybody. To acknowledge God as King is to give Him first place because He is the saving grace of life. As Christians, we believe that the totality of this saving grace is localized in the person of Jesus Christ. Emptying Himself of His equality with God, He took human form and became obedient to death. When God exalted Him for this act and gave Him His own Name (cf. Phil. 2:8-9), He began to rule on the Father’s behalf. Christ is King, and all the love and loyalty due to God from the children of Israel is now due to Christ by all His Church.
Now, I’ve been involved with this love affair that is my religion long enough to know at least this much for sure: I’m a tawdry and faithless lover. I find more ways to disappoint Him on a daily basis than I wish to think about right now (although I have to have that conversation on a regular basis). But every mortal sin is, at its core, a violation of that first commandment. It is a willful placement of someone or something else ahead of Him, and as a result it separates us from Him in such a way that we must make a willful effort to reunite ourselves to Him. We reneg on our “return to the LORD for all the good He has done for me” in order to put our wants ahead of His. We sinners are indeed idolaters all. And yet He, like a battered wife with Stockholm syndrome, keeps taking me back when I come crawling home in tears apologizing, because He loves me that much and wants my love that much.
Is that not crazy? What kind of weak Lifetime Movie Network nonsense is that? He wants to rule so badly He’ll preside over a kingdom of daily disloyal subjects. Some kingdom, right? It makes no sense. Or does it?
When confronted on the morning of His death with the charge of kingship, Jesus had this to say (John 18:36):
‘My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here.’
If His kingdom were in this world, of course the needy jealousy and the welcoming-back-no-questions-asked mentioned above would seem like a pretty shoddy way of running it – to say nothing of the fact that a tired itinerant preacher with no one to fight for Him tacitly claiming to be a king while practically begging to be executed is utterly ludicrous. But the kingdom over which He rules “does not belong to this world,” which means it’s not subject to our ideas and notions of what makes a king a king. And it is in recognizing that His kingdom isn’t just not what we think it is, but something unlike anything in our frame of reference, that we begin to realize what Christ the King is really all about, and why He does what He does when He does it in the way He does it. Somewhere outside all of this, somewhere out of this world, this galaxy, this space, this time, there is a kingdom where an all-powerful King reigns over all of it, because He made all of it. And all the power He has He wants to use to love all He has created. And the fairest way to do that is to let His creation make the choice to love Him “with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength” (Deut. 6:5b).
Do we have to choose to love God so entirely? No. But if we don’t He can’t be our king. And if He’s not our king, someone or something else will be. And that someone or something may promise liberty and discipline and peace and harmony, but will at best deliver only a shadow of those…and will at worst deliver only lies. The one sure weapon against the flatteries and failings of this world is to acknowledge where the true power resides, and why.
‘Do not worry and say “What are we to eat?” or “What are we to drink?” or “What are we to wear?” All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.