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Today is Christ the King Sunday, that day at the end of the liturgical calendar when we celebrate Christ’s lordship over all of creation.
I suspect for many readers, this is not new information. What may be less known, however, is that the celebration of this day is a relatively new addition to the church calendar. For centuries, the church recognized Christ’s sovereign rule within the context of Advent, Lent, and Easter. Devoting a specific day to commemorating Christ’s Kingship was instigated by Pope Pius XI in 1925. In the aftermath of World War I with the subsequent rise of hyper-nationalism institutionalized by populist dictators, Pope Pius XI wanted to remind the church that their primary allegiance and their primary hope was not in the principalities and powers of this world, but in Christ.
The contrast between these dictatorships and the Kingdom of Christ could not be starker. The leadership of the likes of Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler were characterized by the exercise of authoritarian power consolidated through the use of intimidation and violence, the militarization of the nation, and a racist undercurrent that was masked in the guise of patriotism and nationalist fervor. By contrast, the Kingdom of God is depicted throughout Scripture as a kingdom of justice, righteousness, and peace. A kingdom where people of all stripes and colors will live in harmony with each other. A kingdom where weapons will be turned into farming tools so they can no longer harm and kill. A kingdom where the poor and the needy will be taken care of and where all will have what they need to flourish.
Rather strikingly, even with this vision of the Kingdom of God available to them, Christians supported the rise of dictators like Mussolini and Hitler. Whether out of fear and anxiety about the future or out of a sense of desperation, people entrusted these leaders with their hopes for a better tomorrow. Of course, no matter how charismatic, or convincing, or even capable these leaders appeared, they couldn’t deliver. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. As their power increased, their moral sensibilities diminished. And what they instituted was not a better tomorrow but a reign of terror that spawned more anxiety, more hate, more violence, and more bloodshed.
On Christ the King Sunday, we are invited to consider a different kind of leader and different leadership style, one that is decisively different from that of these authoritarian rulers.
Right up front, the gospels of Mark and Luke signal this difference in the story of Jesus’ baptism. When Jesus comes up out of the water, he sees the heaven torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven announces, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased (Mark 1:11).” The words are a combination of Psalm. 2:7a and Isaiah 42:1. The first text is a royal psalm whereby God affirms the adoption of David as his representative king (his son) who rules on his behalf. The second identifies Jesus with the chosen servant in the book of Isaiah who will bring justice to the nations.
Together, they affirm not just that Jesus is the long-anticipated ruler in the line of David, but that he is a ruler of a different sort. He is a servant-king. Already in Isaiah 42, we get a picture of the servant as one who will bring about justice through non-violent means. As one moves through the Servant Songs (Isaiah 49:1-6, 50:4-9, 52:13-53:12), however, it becomes increasingly clear that the servant is one who will bring about this kingdom of justice not through the exercise of political power, but through a power that emerges out of suffering motivated by love, not for self, but for the world. In other words, he is a King who will bring about his kingdom through self-giving love and personal sacrifice.
Now, times have changed and the stakes are not nearly as high here in North America as they were in early 20th century Europe. But Pope Pius XI’s concerns are still valid. It is tempting in times of uncertainty and fear for Christians to get caught up in nationalistic fervor and nativism. In the face of this tendency, we need reminding that our primary allegiance and our primary hope is in Christ and his Kingdom. And that to follow Christ is to participate in and advance his Kingdom in much the same way he did—not through the wielding of power and political maneuvering, but through self-giving love.
If history has taught us anything, it is that hatred and fear will only spawn more of the same. But to love as Christ has loved us, is to tap into a power that can bring healing and transformation to our world.
So let us on this Christ the King Sunday together affirm that,
“in Christ alone, our hope is found,
He is our light, our strength, our song …
Til he returns or calls us home
Here in the power of Christ, we’ll stand.”