If, like me, you attended a Catholic elementary school in the 1960’s (or earlier), your memories of the feast of Christ the King probably include lots of marching. We’d line up– boys on one side, girls on the other, and led by our battalion commander, Sister Mary Alma, we would march from the school yard into the Church, singing some sort of martial hymn proclaiming ourselves soldiers of Christ, following the cross, and ready to storm the ramparts of evil. It was pretty rousing stuff.
Back then we knew what a King was, because we were still pretty close to fairy tales and storybooks. But even then, because we didn’t have a King– in fact, since our country was founded in opposition to a king– we knew that this was metaphorical. And as we grew up, the metaphor became more and more of a problem.
I suspect that for most people, the generic King is like the little guy from the comic strip the Wizard of Id. This king is short, impulsive, reactionary, and exercises absolute authority. I don’t think it’s an accident that the kingdom he rules is called Id. This is a dangerous king, because at the least offense, he could order you jailed or thrown on the rack. Not surprisingly, the king of Id is universally disliked and feared. It’s the reason our country has never vested unlimited power in one man, or one office.
For many years, that was the sort of King most people saw on this feast day, I suspect. Christ the King was one of the most triumphalistic feasts of the Church’s year. Lots of talk of thrones and dominion and majesty and power. You can see that even in today’s first reading from 2 Samuel, where David is anointed King of Israel. David wasn’t the first of Israel’s kings, but he was considered the greatest of them. At first, God told the prophets that his people didn’t need a king. But the people insisted. Why? For security. The nations around them had kings, and they wanted to feel secure. The prophets warned them that kings are dangerous, that they would be taxed, oppressed, and drafted into their king’s service.
And all of that did come to pass. For all his strength and military power, David did some terrible things. And Israel’s subsequent kings would be progressively worse, until the nation itself was divided and conquered. Throughout the Scriptures, having a king is generally speaking a disaster for God’s people.
So why do we today celebrate Christ the King? The answer is in the Gospel.
Christ the King isn’t the triumphalistic king, or the king of armies and wars, or the king who rules by capricious commands. He’s the king on the cross. He’s the king who taught that to b the ruler of all is to be the servant of all, and in this Gospel, he’s offering the ultimate service: dying for our sins instead of saving himself.
All three of the Gospels for this feast function this way. In year “A” we get the judgment scene from Matthew 25, where the king separates the sheep from the goats. The ones welcomed into heaven are the ones who recognized their king in the hungry, and the thirsty, and the refugees, and those in prison. In year “B”, Jesus stands before Pilate and declares that his kingdom is not of this world. These Gospels shatter our images of the king who lives in the castle, exercising absolute authority over his subjects. What it leaves us is the King who sacrifices, who lives in the poor and the rejected. Whose highest value is the truth, and who lays down his life for us. That doesn’t leave much room for triumphalism, or imperialism, or even for authority as we understand it.
The feast of Christ the King ought to make us a bit uncomfortable. Not because we’re uncomfortable with the metaphor of a King, but because we’re still too comfortable with our own power, and our own place in the hierarchies of our world. Part of our sinfulness is that as much as we say we dislike the idea of Kingship, there’s always a temptation to think, “Well, it might be OK if I were King (or Queen).” But the Christ the King of these Gospels challenges that temptation. We are asked to follow the King we see in the poor and the rejected, the criminal who stands before Pilate for threatening the status quo, and the king who died on the Cross.
This is the last Sunday of the Church’s year. Next week begins the season of Advent. That time of preparation ask us to get ready for the coming of our King—both the victorious Christ who comes at the end of time, and the helpless infant born into our world 2000 years ago. But we really begin that preparation today, with the realization that power and glory as this world understands them are corrupt and temporary things. We follow the one whose reign begins with service, compassion, and justice: Christ the King.