The Reign of Christ, which is what we call this last Sunday of the church year before the start of Advent, is one of those peculiar observances that invites a preacher to dizzying heights of eloquent discourse on majestic themes of Christ the King and his power and glory, and how we the loyal subjects owe him our allegiance, etc., etc., etc., all wrapped up in the traditional language of monarchy. Today’s theme is a convenient and to some a rather classy way to wrap up the church year – a glittery bow that adorns the brightly wrapped package of our faith…. the crowning touch, as it were (if you’ll forgive the pun).
Interestingly, the institutional feast of Christ the King, or the Reign of Christ, isn’t really that long a tradition. It only dates back to 1925 when Pope Pius XI instituted it as a measure to counteract the growth of secularism in society. With people of his post-World War I era starting to opt out of going to church, I suppose the Pope felt it was time for some drastic measures, and what better wake-up call than to convince the faltering faithful that someone with great authority and power was watching them from the great beyond, perched on a bejeweled throne.
In our own tradition, kingly, monarchical images of Jesus are so commonplace that many of us don’t even notice them anymore, or even pay much attention. Our prayer books are full of such language – I think just about every collect that we use in the BAS has us praying regularly in the name of Jesus (quote) who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever (unquote). In the BCP, we confess our manifold sins and wickedness which we have committed against thy Divine Majesty. Look around most churches where there are stained glass composites of the life of Jesus, and a frequent, if not central representation is Christ the King, pictured with a regal robe and a crown on his head. Think about some old-time beloved hymns – like When He Cometh – and many of us will remember singing about little children becoming the stars in Jesus’ crown. And don’t you wonder where all this regal, kingly, monarchical language originated? I do – not least because it’s not particularly scriptural.
Jesus certainly talks about the Kingdom of God, but nowhere does he elevate himself to kingly status. The one significant time he’s called a king, if I’m not mistaken, is found in today’s reading from Luke (and other accounts of the crucifixion) when he’s mockingly called the King of the Jews. So it could be that the kingly language used to describe Jesus over the centuries is more a reflection of the human social order than anything Jesus himself would have suggested. If our lived social reality is monarchy, then that’s a familiar way to think about other relationships where there is some kind of power dynamic, even a spiritual relationship. If Jesus has top priority in our spiritual lives, we’ll call him “king” because that’s an image we can understand and relate to. Knowing that here in the Anglican Church our spiritual heritage came from a society with a long history of monarchy, it’s not surprising that as a group we’re pretty comfortable with our monarchical images and titles for Jesus. They may comfort or relieve us or make us feel important at some deep psychological level, but they’re not, as I said before, particularly scriptural.
Another reason for looking more deeply at monarchical language is one of perception. Images of kingship, crowns, thrones, and so on, all co-exist comfortably within the language of patriarchy, triumphalism, privilege, and exclusionary belief. This is the language that quite inflexibly promotes images of God as a gendered humanoid (male, of course), and Christianity as an elite belief system, having exclusive claims on eternal truths – a position which historically has rather arrogantly dismissed other established and rich faith traditions as worthless without so much as a second glance. To many, this kind of narrow-gauge thinking is all about power and control, and certainly contributes to all kinds of ills in the world today – all the way from discrimination against women and minority groups to extremism in all its destructive forms. Surely we’ve missed the boat somehow if the metaphorical monarchical language that we use for Jesus distorts our beliefs to this extent. It’s one of the many ways that the gospel is potentially dishonoured.
The bottom line is that if we’re really determined to hang onto the language of monarchy to describe who Jesus is for us (old habits die hard, after all!) then maybe the dial has to be reset on how we understand monarchy, or kingship, as Jesus lived it. And it wasn’t at all about power and control. It wasn’t at all about status or privilege. It wasn’t at all about being right, and everyone else being wrong.
Jesus on the cross had no power or control in the way we typically understand those concepts. He had no power to change what was happening, and no power to stave off the approaching spectre of death – a fact for which the unrepentant thief mocked him. But the penitent thief witnessed in Jesus another kind of power – the power to forgive his executioners – and it transformed him. Forgiveness, and by extension, love, was the hallmark of life-giving leadership that Jesus demonstrated – not just once with the penitent thief, but often throughout the Gospel record. That kind of power didn’t judge or exclude, but brought courage and hope to others, opening them to new possibilities and fullness of life.
So I guess if we MUST call Christ a King, we can go ahead and do it so long as the power and triumph we associate with that title resides in his willingness to be a servant, to live and dine with the least and the lost, and to share the transforming love of God without exclusion, and without exception. If that’s how we’re able to imagine his kingship, then may he indeed reign in our hearts now, and forever.
The Venerable Nancy Adams