Christ the King

Last Sunday after Pentecost

The last Sunday after Pentecost is known as ‘Christ the King’ Sunday in the modern Roman Kalendar and the Revised Common Lectionary, though it is not so called in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

The Feast of Christ the King was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 to remind the faithful of their allegiance to God and not to earthly rulers (specifically, Mussolini). Originally it was celebrated on the last Sunday of October, but in the revisions of the II. Vatican Council and the ecumenical consensus that followed, it was moved to the last Sunday of the Church year.

From the beginning, this feast has reflected the ambivalence of Our Lord himself towards the monarchical imagery that often attaches itself to religion and religious figures. The Gospel originally appointed for this feast (which is used in Year B of the three-year lectionary) is the scene of Christ before Pilate: Christ is being hailed, or mocked, as the ‘King of the Jews’ but seems reluctant to take on the title, being more interested in truth than (earthly) power. Pius XI’s encyclical, quoting Clement of Alexandria, reminds us that ‘Christ has dominion over all creatures, a dominion not seized by violence nor usurped, but his by essence and by nature.’

And what is that nature? The Epistle read this year tells us something about it, in the kind of language earlier used to describe Wisdom and later used in the Prologue of St John’s Gospel where Christ is called the Lógos of God:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
     Cl 1.15–20

This reconciliation or restoration is also the main theme of the Collect (the Prayer Book Collect being loosely based on the Roman one) –

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in thy well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who liveth and reigneth...

– and is called in the Prayer Book Catechism the mission of the Church, a mission to be lived out as the Church ‘prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love’. [bcp 855]

It is most appropriate that the Kingship of Christ should be celebrated on this day of the Church’s year, the culmination of not only the look toward heaven and the Last Things that began at the Feast of All Saints, but truly of the entire year. And yet we know that we still wait for Christ to come in glory, to come into His Kingdom – for the final marriage and banquet and consummation of Christ and His Church (and indeed this part of the Christian story continues liturgically into Advent, past Christmas to the Epiphany and finally to Candlemas, when ‘the Lord will suddenly come to His Temple’). Meanwhile we pray, as Our Lord taught us, ‘thy kingdom come...’