Today is the Feast of Christ the King, a reminder to us that this world is under the judgment of Christ. From the context of European Catholicism, it is easy to understand why earthly kings became a symbol of Jesus’ eternal reign. Even in the fourth century there are images of Christ as the all-powerful ruler.
The Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke all speak of the “reign of God” or the “reign of heaven,” which was proclaimed by Christ and described in parables. So it was an easy transition to understand Jesus as a king. Indeed, much of the Christian art of the post-Constantine era depicts Jesus as the great ruler—pantokrator—who was envisioned wearing a crown and garbed as a Greco-Roman emperor. (The image to the top and left is from Hagia Sophia, currently a museum, in modern day Istanbul.)
Today’s celebration of Christ the King marks the end of the Church’s liturgical year. This feast reminds us that our faith teaches that, at the end of time, Christ will come again to judge “the living and the dead.”
In 1925 Pope Pius XI made the Feast of Christ the King part of the Church year. Why so late? The answer lies in the cultural wars of modernity. Beginning with the Enlightenment, various social and political movements sought to secularlize governments to ensure that there would be no church control or interference in the affairs of nations. Few people wanted a king or a bishop dictating what they must do. In the search for freedom and power, for example, political leaders in France (and later in Mexico), denounced church interference in civil government; however, there were serious reactions. During the French Revolution, Vendean insurgents fought against the suppression of the Catholic Church. Their motto was “God is the King.” In Mexico, secular rulers sought to remove every vestige of Catholic influence, but they were opposed by the Cristero movement, which made Christ the King its symbol of defiance.
When Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King, he reminded Christians that their first allegiance was to their spiritual ruler in heaven, not to their earthly ruler or head of state. In addition he pointed out that the rule of Christ was not attained by violence. Today I think it would be wrong to defend our faith by violent means; nevertheless, I believe that all of us Catholics should be prepared to defend the faith by the lives we lead and by our ability to speak the truth of the gospel to others. Happy feast day!
Photo: Jesus Christ—detail from Deesis mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, from Wikimedia Commons