Since 1970, the Roman Catholic Church has celebrated the Feast of Christ the King on the last Sunday of the liturgical year. It is fitting that this feast should close a year that began with Old Testament prophesies of a coming Messiah, a Messiah who Christians believe is Jesus Christ.
The scriptural readings (Cycle C) that the Church has chosen for this feast day introduce us to three distinct but related aspects of Christ’s kingship:
First, a reading from 2 Samuel recalls the inauguration of the historical King David, chosen by God and ratified by the leaders of Israel’s twelve tribes:
“All the tribes of Israel came to David in Hebron…all the elders of Israel came to the king in Hebron, and at Hebron King David made a covenant with them in the presence of the Lord; and they anointed David king over Israel.”
Jesus, of course, is of the House of David and therefore has a valid hereditary claim to David’s throne. As David’s successor, Jesus represents the historical kingship of God.
Yet Jesus never suggests that he should have universal political authority. He did not come to depose Rome and inherit its empire. In fact, absolute political power was the third and final temptation offered by Satan, and rejected by Jesus, during Jesus’ 40 days in the desert (Mt 4: 9).
Instead, Scripture and the Church teach that all political rulers, whether emperors, kings, presidents or legislatures, derive their authority from God and maintain that authority only in so far as their policies are consistent with God’s laws.
Christ the King is not Christ the Bureaucrat. God does not dictate the details of public policy but rather establishes guidelines and principles that all laws, if they are to be valid, must respect. No law of ‘man’ is binding if it conflicts with a law of God.
So, Christ’s royal authority does extend to the historical realm but it is exercised through the agency of secular rulers chosen according to the unique culture and tradition of each political entity (e.g. nation).
The second reading is from Paul’s Letter to Colossians:
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and invisible…all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together…For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross, whether those on earth or those in heaven.”
This is not Jesus, the historical successor to King David. This is the Son of God, the King of Creation, Ruler of the Universe.
Colossians makes a series of bold claims for Christ that are especially relevant to today’s world:
All things in heaven and on earth were created in him, through him and for him.
Christ is the locus of creation (in him), the agency of creation (through him), and the aim/purpose/end (teleos) of creation (for him).
All things hold together in him.
It is only because of Christ that what we call ‘things’ constitute a universe.
Through him all things in heaven and on earth are reconciled for him.
Through Christ, conflicts are resolved into contrasts and contrasts into harmonies.
Today, most members of the cognoscenti believe that Universe came into being on its own. In the terms of the Scholastics, Universe is causa sui. Modernists that we are, we take it for granted that this is at least possible. But what if it isn’t? What if an independent, self-created universe is intrinsically unstable and therefore impossible?
It is beyond the scope of this essay to resolve that question but the question per se underscores the importance of Colossians for contemporary cosmology. Safe to say, Colossians presents a very different model of cosmogenesis than we are used to hearing. Imagine a visiting professor from Colossae addressing a classroom of eager graduate students at Cambridge:
“In order for a non-trivial Universe to emerge, evolve and endure, a number of factors must come into play simultaneously. First, there must be a creative force that gives rise to novel entities (events); second, those entities must occur within some sort of defined ontological locus; third, all the events that make up Universe must be oriented toward a common end (teleos); and fourth, the creative force must not only bring novel entities into being but it must also work ceaselessly to resolve conflicts among those entities.
“Creation is as much about the ends of things as it is about their beginnings; it operates throughout the entire life of every entity. Ultimately, it is a process by which a multiplicity of simple things becomes a complex unity. It is that process that binds entity to entity in a way that constitutes Universe.
“Otherwise, anything that might emerge randomly and spontaneously from the void would either be isolated and stagnant or cancelled out by conflicting events. The net informational content of any such universe would always be approximately zero.”
Now one of our ‘sophomore’ cosmologists might be expected to interrupt vehemently at this juncture:
“Sir, you are quite simply insane. We know exactly what holds our Universe together; it is electromagnetism, gravity and the strong force…not Christ.”
“Not so fast,” our professors retorts. “Can you fully explain the nature of any of these forces? Can you explain how it is that each has the exact quantitative value it does? Do you understand that if any one of these apparently arbitrary values varied even slightly, Universe as we know it would be impossible? Is it not much more likely that these forces are simply the physical manifestations of something deeper in the structure of the cosmos? Something like Christ, for example?”
The final reading, taken from the Gospel of Luke, tells the story of Jesus’ crucifixion:
“The people stood by and watched; the rulers meanwhile sneered at him and said, ‘He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Messiah of God.’ Even the soldiers jeered at him…they called out, ‘If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.’ Above him there was an inscription that read, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’
“Now one of the criminals hanging there (Jesus was crucified between two ‘thieves’) reviled Jesus, saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.’ The other, however…said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He (Jesus) replied to him, ‘Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’”
Enigmatically, Pontius Pilate had ordered a placard, reading “King of the Jews”, nailed onto the cross above Jesus’ head. The Jewish leaders complained to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews’, but that he said, ‘I am the King of the Jews’.” But Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”
The ‘rulers’ and the soldiers overseeing the crucifixion turned Pilate’s affirmation into a taunt:
“If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.”
The first thief joins in:
“Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.”
But the second thief surprises:
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
This is the first time that anyone (other than Jesus himself) has clearly acknowledged the other-worldly nature of Christ’s Kingdom. Before Pilate, Jesus says, “My Kingdom does not belong to this world…my kingdom is not here.” Before that he has tried many times to educate his disciples on the eschatological nature of his reign – without any apparent success.
But the so-called ‘good thief’ gets it…and just in the nick of time at that; Jesus reassures him:
“…Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The reading from Luke’s Gospel introduces us to yet a third aspect of Jesus’ Kingship. While his laws are normative on Earth, they are often ignored in practice; but in the Kingdom of Heaven, Christ is the supreme ruler. That is what we mean when we pray, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.”
Looking for Heaven (aka Paradise)? It’s at the intersection of History and Eternity! It consists of historical entities but historical entities that have somehow been ‘glorified’ (i.e. reconciled and eternalized). When Colossians speaks of all things being “reconciled for him”, it is describing the Kingdom of Heaven.
So on the Feast of Christ the King, we justly celebrate Christ as Sovereign of this world, Ruler of the Universe, and Heavenly King. But how are these aspects of Christ’s kingship related?
The reconciliation of all things through Christ and for Christ can only occur based on the consistent application of specific values. Beauty, Truth, Justice and Kindness are some of those values.
How do we know which values must be followed for reconciliation to occur? Assume the opposite. Would reconciliation be successful if it was based on the absence of Beauty, Truth, Justice or Kindness, i.e. if it was based on ugliness, falsehood, injustice or cruelty?
Obviously not! In fact, such moral failings are the main sources of conflict in the first place. Ugliness is inherently unstable as the urge to beautify is universal. Falsehood eliminates any objective basis for consensus. Injustice is the principal cause of conflict in our world. (Who has not chanted, “No justice, no peace!” at least once?) And cruelty is the very definition of objectification and marginalization, two states of affairs radically inconsistent with reconciliation.
By making a list of various values and their opposites we can rather quickly identify the sources of conflict in our world and the avenues available for the reconciliation of that conflict. These values, once identified, are the same values that must guide all valid law-making in the historical realm. Laws that explicitly and intentionally undermine Beauty, Truth, Justice and Kindness, for example, are invalid on their face.
(Note: we are not concerned here with legitimate differences of opinion. For example, well-meaning people may disagree about which laws would be most effective in promoting justice. It is the purview of secular governments to choose among such potential laws; any one of those choices would be valid. What would be invalid is a law that aims to undermine justice per se.)
So we see that there is a single thread that unites Christ’s historical, cosmological and heavenly kingship. It is the set of values that form the basis for universal reconciliation, that are normative on earth and that are realized perfectly in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Of course, we know from other essays in this collection that these values constitute the Good, God’s very nature. Therefore, Christ’s three fold kingship is inherent in the nature of God himself. What better way to celebrate the end of the liturgical year!