Christ the King

Beset with laziness, I am copping out and posting my homily for today’s feast of Christ the King. This evening I read the Pope’s homily for today, and his conclusion was not so remote from mine; so I will attach it as food for meditation.

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On 11 December 1925 Pope Pius XI published an encyclical entitled, Quas primas, instituting the feast of Christ the King. Though it appeared only 87 years ago, already the feast might seem incongruous in a world in which monarchs are an endangered species. We could of course more completely spiritualize the feast, honouring our Saviour as king of every human heart, looking forward to that day when he will reign in every human heart. That is something we are right to hope for and await. However, on reading again the encyclical Quas primas, we might find that it has relevance still.

Pius XI in explaining why he was introducing this feast at that time notes that throughout the Church’s history its doctrines and dogmas have initially been promulgated through the written word, accessible only to a tiny minority in the Church, its bishops and theologians. That the mysteries of the Church’s faith might reach all the people She employed liturgical feasts. Unlike documents which were circulated among the few, a liturgical feast day was an annual public proclamation of a particular mystery or teaching, a proclamation made not just in word but in ritual action before the face of all the Church.

New feasts were introduced to meet particular demands of the time. Thus in the early Church the feast days of martyrs were celebrated to emphasize the mystery and value of martyrdom to the many persecuted Christians who battled the temptation to deny Christ. Later, when reverence for the Blessed Sacrament grew tepid, the feast of Corpus Christi was introduced to remind the Church of its supreme and essential value. Later still, the feast of the Sacred Heart was introduced when the cold and dehumanizing influence of Jansenism was strong, with its puritanical diminishing of the fundamental mystery of God’s self-sacrificial love for humanity in Christ.

So, too, Pius XI was addressing a need by instituting the feast of Christ the King. Under the title of anti-clericalism, he identified secularism’s attempt to neuter Christianity, not least in Communism’s assault on the Church and its clergy. Behind this was the relativism which held any religion to be as good or bad as another, a product of human society rather than an expression of objective truth. When religion is seen as a human social construct it takes very little time at all for secular governments to see it as yet another tool for social control. Marx saw religion as the opium of the people, and his followers held that its dosage should be modified, or eliminated entirely, as the state saw need. This was the global context Pius XI faced: a world of atheistic, secular materialism.

Well Communism might be a discredited and largely abandoned system now. The great totalitarian regimes of the last century have mostly fallen or are poised to topple. Each year sees more countries moving towards democracy. This is not 1925. Yet, atheistic secular materialism is as strong as ever, even in democracies.

The Church has always prized the common good, but it never equates the common good with the will, or whims, of the majority. Democracy is no better guard against human self-centredness than any other system. In a society in which religion is more and more marginalized, with freedom of religion interpreted as merely freedom to worship, the shared self-interest of the majority increasingly triumphs over the moral truths on which good society is built. Even to wear a cross to work can be labelled as an attempt to force one’s religion on others, and if no one religion is better than another, then this is a grave affront to democracy. The accusations are shriller still if we dare to uphold publicly the Christian teaching on sexual morality, the nature of marriage or the dignity of all human life. Democracy at its best allows the individual to flourish free from the demands of a powerful minority. At its worst, it replaces what is right with what is merely popular, and too often what is popular has little to do with the common good and more to do with common self-interest.

We heard again today Christ’s words, “My kingship is not of this world”. But Christ’s kingdom is in this world, seeded in the Church. As Pius XI reiterated, Christ’s dominion is over not just the Church but all the world, including every government and society, whether they acknowledge him or not. Authority does not derive from people but from God. Christ assured Pilate that what little power he had, had been given him by the Father. So this feast reminds us who live in an ostensibly democratic society that we must exercise the democratic powers we have been given to ensure that Christian truth is heard, in season and out. In fact it is our duty, not just to God but to our neighbour. To adapt St Thomas More’s words, we must be society’s good servants, yes; but God’s first.

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And a snippet from the Pope’s homily today at the Mass he concelebrated with the 6 new cardinals he created yesterday. What he says to them applies also to us whatever our state in life.

To you, dear and venerable Brother Cardinals – I think in particular of those created yesterday – is is entrusted this demanding responsibility: to bear witness to the kingdom of God, to the truth. This means working to bring out ever more clearly the priority of God and his will over the interests of the world and its powers. Become imitators of Jesus, who, before Pilate, in the humiliating scene described by the Gospel, manifested his glory: that of loving to the utmost, giving his own life for those whom he loves. This is the revelation of the kingdom of Jesus. And for this reason, with one heart and one soul, let us pray: Adveniat regnum tuum – Thy kingdom come. Amen.

Christ the Universal King – a Homily

[typos now corrected –  mea culpa!]

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So observed Lord Acton in 1887. While pithy truisms like this are often too neat to be adequate to reality, nevertheless, Lord Acton has pinpointed a genuine and enduring phenomenon in any human society, namely: the greater the power, the greater the temptation and the capacity to abuse it.

Abuse of power has at least one consistent outcome. It oppresses and makes prisoners of people. Global examples, both now and throughout history, come easily to mind. Yet more insidious is the mundane, local abuse of power. There is the abuse of power by the clever over the not so clever, demeaning and patronising them. There is the tyranny of the strong over the weak, learned all too often from childhood. And there is the tyranny of the favoured over the unfavoured, secure as the favoured are that those who favour them will bolster them. There is even the tyranny of the professional victim, whose constant cry of “foul” becomes a weapon to make genuine victims of those whose only crime is perhaps to have stood up to them. In all these and other examples, those who suffer the abuse of power become imprisoned, constrained and put down by what is essentially the law of the jungle. Sadly, we too often see this manifested in religion, in the Church, in parishes and religious communities. This should not really surprise us as the Church is made up of fallen men and women: after all, only our Lord and his Blessed Mother were sinless.

Ultimately all abuse of power, all sin in fact, stems from putting self and self-interest first, and others, including God, last. So it behoves religious people especially to ask of themselves: do I really serve God and his Church first, or do I serve self first?

Christ, our King, is the one who manifests and embodies power at its best and most noble, divine power exercised by human hands in the service of God’s will and for the good of all. It is power characterised by those two seeming opposites: justice and mercy. True power, the power that comes untainted from God, is a power that does not imprison but liberates. Christ, to whom all divine power over humanity has been given, used that power to triumph over sin and death, that human tendency to self-destruction, by submitting to humanity’s abuse of power and free will, by sacrificing himself to it. It is this sacrifice which is symbolised by the Cross. By this sacrifice of the Cross, this seeming defeat, Christ revealed his true divine power, his victory, crowned by the resurrection, liberating humanity from the prison of sinful self-obsession. The Cross is his throne.

The key to understanding this paradox lies in what we might call Christ’s motto as King: I have come to serve, not to be served. He took the form of a slave, one without power, that we might all be delivered from the imprisonment we impose on others, and on ourselves. Indeed the more we oppress others the greater the possibility that we will make prisoners of ourselves for eternity, in a confinement far more dreadful than any which earth can produce.

The feast of Christ the King marks the end of the liturgical year and acts an an entrée into Advent, when we focus more particularly on Christ’s second coming as King in judgement. Though that day is veiled in mystery we do have an insight into its character from the mouth of the King himself, as we heard in today’s gospel passage (Matt 25: 31-46). The criterion of judgement he reveals lies in what we put first in our actions: others or ourselves. In other words the criterion is the Cross, the great act of self-forgetfulness and other-centredness. The concrete examples he gives show us how we can use our freedom and its power, either to help others or to spurn them, to uplift others or to oppress them. Truly this gospel today should frighten us: for what we do to others, or help to be done to others, is done to Christ. Do we raise him up or strike him down, in others? On Judgement Day will we be found to have crowned our King with the laurels of charity, or with the thorns of our self-centredness?

Let us pray at this Mass for the grace so to use our freedom and the power that comes with it as tools with which God might build up his kingdom here and now, and that we might thus be a part of it. For if we are building our own kingdoms, which only imprison others and ourselves, they will fall, and great will be the fall of them. But if we are found to have been building up his Kingdom, then Scripture makes us this promise: we shall reign with Him.