The Triumphant King of Kings
Today is the Solemnity of Christ the King. In establishing this feast, Pope Pius XI intended it to be an antidote to the many forms of Godlessness in modern society, including secularism, atheism and anticlericalism (Quas Primas, 24).
Throughout history, but especially in modern times, there have been kings and other worldly rulers who have asserted that they are sovereign, that the state is the highest authority with supremacy over everything, including matters of conscience and faith, religion and the Church. The 19th and 20th centuries even began to see many traditionally Christian countries placing the concerns of the state above all else, with many people living as if God does not exist. Claiming to be “enlightened,” they simply lost interest in religion, preferring their own gods and idols – money, power and pleasure among them.
When the Solemnity of Christ the King was established in 1925, belief in God had been effectively outlawed in the new communist Soviet Union. A revolution in Mexico, like the French Revolution before it, had instituted periods of hostility and violence against the Catholic faith, including expropriation and destruction of church properties, and imprisonment, exile or the killing of priests and others. Many Catholics in Mexico resisted these affronts by invoking the name “Cristo Rey” – Christ the King. Even in Italy, because of laws hostile to the Church, the Pope himself was essentially confined to the Vatican.
This was the worldwide climate in which Pius XI established the Solemnity, warning in his encyclical Quas Primas that, with the Lord excluded from public life, “human society is tottering to its fall, because it has no longer a secure and solid foundation” (18). However, the Pope offered this observation not as a messenger of doom and gloom, but a herald of hope and the blessings of genuine freedom, peace and harmony because Christ reigns over everyone and everything.
It was in the face of fierce persecution in the early Church that the Book of Revelation was written likewise to provide confident hope. When Jesus was born, it was prophesized that he would be a “sign of contradiction” to the ways of the world. He told his disciples that if they followed him and his kingdom, the world would oppose them too. And it did. Peter and Paul and the other apostles all gave the ultimate witness, they were all martyred, except for Saint John. The authorities would put to death many other Christians in Rome and throughout the empire because they were serious about Christ and his kingdom.
As Jesus’ disciples make their pilgrim way through the centuries, they will always face persecution. In one form or another, the Church, Christ’s body in the world, will undergo suffering, treachery and abandonment. But it will endure. Although worldly rulers throughout history, having given their power to the ungodly, “will fight with the Lamb,” the Book of Revelation assures us that “the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and king of kings, and those with him are called, chosen, and faithful” (17:12-14).
Christ triumphs and has dominion over all not by violence or usurpation, but by the power of his persevering love, by his essence and nature, explains Saint Cyril of Alexandria (quoted in Quas Primas, 13). From his royal throne, Jesus promises that the names of his faithful people shall be written in the book of life and he will make all things new. Those who persevered despite great trials will have their robes washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb, poured out by Christ on the Cross. Those who thirsted for him, he will give to drink from the spring of life-giving water (Revelation 7:14, 20:11-21:7).
Knowing that Jesus is the victorious universal king should free us to live confidently in the world. In the midst of difficulties and trials, where any manner of Caesars and Pharaohs – ancient and modern-day – may set themselves against the good, Christ’s kingship of love and truth will prevail over all – suffering, persecution, sin and even the great enemy, death.
This blog post is adapted from the book that Mike Aquilina and I wrote, “The Feasts: How the Church Year Forms Us as Catholics” (2014).