“For the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Christ our God, cometh forth…”
The Feast of Christ the King, celebrated by the Western/Latin Church on the last Sunday of the ecclesiastical year (today), is an odd feast. Unusual not only because of its novelty, being an observance introduced only in the 1920s, but also because it serves synthetically to combine several theological themes deemed appropriate for reflection and celebration at the end of the year and before Advent. I draw some of them to your attention here for your consideration, academic or otherwise:
- CtK affirms the continuing relevance of the history of Israel and Judah. The New Testament affirms that Christ is the last and greatest King of the House of David. The Gospels’ infancy narratives stress Jesus’s Davidic parentage (though many have puzzled over the fact that the genealogies given focus on Joseph’s royal ancestry, which is a little odd given their simultaneous insistence on the Virgin Birth). Even Pilate acknowledges, with bitter irony, that Jesus is rex iudeorum on the titulus affixed to the Cross. This (a) suggests that God has some eternal concern for the particularity of Israelite history; and (b) reminds us of the everlasting and irreducible Jewishness of the Son of God.
- The feast is of Christological significance; it further explores the central Christian conviction that God the Father is somehow manifest in Christ. It offers us a Christocentric reading of those Old Testament texts which speak of YHWH of Hosts as a king. One thinks particularly of how Christians use those Psalms which proclaim the enthronement or kingship of God with the refrain YHWH mlk, e.g. Pss. 47; 93; 95-99.It is also of more overtly dogmatic Christological importance. The Papal encyclical establishing the feast quotes St. Cyril (that darling of radical Orieldoxy) in connecting Christ’s sovereignty to his sharing in the divine ousia: “Christ has dominion over all creatures, a dominion not seized by violence nor usurped, but his by essence and by nature.” Christ is necessarily, rather than contingently, King; he is not simply put at the head of creation by the arbitrary will of the Father. Incidentally, this is why (probably in response to the modalist tendencies of Athanasius’s friend Marcellus of Ancyra) the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed concludes its section on Christ by affirming that “his Kingdom shall have no end.”
- Finally, the feast is of political significance. It was instituted in an era when the ideologies of communism, fascism and empire were placing claims on humankind’s ultimate allegiance that no earthly power has sufficient authority to make. This is always an important political-theological point to make, but it seems particularly pertinent today when faced with a political-religious enemy in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, which claim to manifest the sovereignty of God on Earth via acts of brutal violence. Christianity’s response is to point out that Christ has already done this, and that He directly refused those among his disciples who wished to employ the sword in doing so.Given the feast’s eschatological placement – sandwiched between the various remembrances (ecclesiastical and civil) of November and the apocalyptic looking-forward of Advent – we might also note that in some small ways groups like ISIS do manifest the Kingdom. For example, on a beach in Libya last February, they showed the world twenty-one persons who witnessed to the Kingdom to the point of death (real martyrs die, rather than kill, for their faith), adding despite their diabolical best efforts to those “who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh”.