Pope Pius XI instituted the feast in 1925 in the midst of the political tumult following World War I
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Although the annual celebration of the Solemnity of Christ the King has been part of the life and prayer of the Church for many years, two years ago I had an opportunity to experience this celebration in a very different context: with a Protestant community celebrating “Reign of Christ” Sunday. Their observance of this day provided me with a new perspective on this feast and for what it can mean for all, particularly in these post-election days when our nation, communities, and families seem more divided than ever before.
And so, to help us have a better sense of what this Sunday’s celebration is all about, I think it’s important for us to consider the history of the feast and the reasons that we have a special day dedicated to the Universal Sovereignty of Christ as part of our liturgical calendar.
When Pope Pius XI instituted a special feast honoring Christ “the King” in 1925, he grieved for a world that had been ravaged by the First World War and which had begun to bow down before the “lords” of exploitative consumerism, nationalism, secularism, and new forms of injustice. The old power structures in Europe and the Middle East were fading into memory (including the colonial system that allowed European nations to claim lands in Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America). A new and uncertain world was rising in their place.
Pope Pius recognized that, for the Christian, those passing empires and colonies did not define who or whose they were. Instead, he reflected that the kingdom to which Christians belong is “spiritual and concerned with spiritual things… it demands of its subjects a spirit of detachment from riches and earthly things, and a spirit of gentleness. They must hunger and thirst after justice and more than this, they must deny themselves and carry the cross” (from the Encyclical Quas primas, 15). Pope Pius envisioned “a dominion by a King of Peace who came to reconcile all things, who came not to be served but to serve” (20). As the Second Reading this Sunday reminds us, the reign of Christ embraces all people. This is certainly a timely reminder as we confront violence, uncertainty, and questions about what we owe to those who are the victims of terror and oppression.
The idea of a “king” is very foreign to most of us. In fact, there are only 29 sovereign monarchs in the world today. (This number would be 30, if we include Pope Francis as the sovereign head of Vatican City.) And yet, in our communities, many of us will sing great hymns like “To Jesus Christ Our Sovereign King” and “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” By limiting the focus of this feast to the kingship of Christ, we risk losing the broader view of what we are really celebrating today: our citizenship in the Kingdom of God. And the message that we hear today is that we can no longer identify simply ourselves as “American,” “Navajo,” “Italian,” “Dutch,” “Sudanese,” or “Thai.” We have been claimed by and for Christ in our baptism and our true home is in the Reign of Christ—a reality that surpasses the limits of boundaries, ethnicities, and even time itself. We are co-citizens of God’s Kingdom, with all the Communion of Saints.
In the end, this Sunday’s celebration of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe reminds us that the Kingdom of Christ isn’t some far-off reality. We are living in that Kingdom now. After all, Jesus tells the dying thief “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” But this feast also reminds us that while we should honor Jesus as our “Sovereign King,” we must also emulate his total gift of himself, perfectly embodied in his sacrifice on the Cross. It is only by imitating our thorn-crowned King that we can help bring relief to those who suffer and God’s healing mercy to those who long for forgiveness, helping to proclaim the Good News of the Reign of Christ in the world today.
What does it mean for you to be a citizen in the Kingdom of Christ?
How are you being called to promote Pope Pius’ vision of the Reign of Christ in the world today?
As we mark the conclusion of the Year of Mercy, how have you experienced God’s boundless love and tenderness in this Jubilee Year?
Words of Wisdom: “Jesus in Galilee was not teaching a religious doctrine for his listeners to learn and follow. He was proclaiming an event, so could accept it joyfully and faithfully. No one saw him as a teacher devoted to explaining the religious traditions of Israel. They knew a prophet with a passion for a fuller life for everyone, who only wanted people to embrace God, so that God’s reign of justice and mercy would become ever wider and more joyful. His goal was… to hasten the coming of the long-awaited reign of God, which meant life, justice and peace.”—José A. Pagola, Jesus: An Historical Approximation