Preparing as we are to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum jubilee next year, it may come as a surprise to know that in the Bible kingship was rather a disputed idea. In the Old Testament, it seems, the people of God wanted to have a king because their neighbours all had one, and God, it seems, was reluctant before granting them the right to have one with the warning, ‘you may come to regret this.’ And indeed the wonderful story told in the books of Samuel and Kings tell the story of human kings falling far short of the glory! They did come to regret this.
This festival in the Church is less than a hundred years old, so it is very new on the scene, given the two thousand years of church history and worship. Introduced by the Pope in the 1920s in a Europe recovering from the ravages of the war, it was intended to combat something of the rising secularism of a world disillusioned by war. You might with some justification think how strange an idea it was to introduce a new religious festival to stand up to the rise of secularism. And yet it was introduced prophetically during the early years of a century which was to produce Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and countless despotic rulers. It is celebrated today in the Church throughout the world in which we see powerful and not always benign leaders still exercising their might over ordinary people.
Christ the King means that He is king and no other. Christ the King puts other kings in their place. And for us Christ the King has an allegiance no other king has. This has always made Christians slightly dodgy patriots, loving their country yes, but loving their Lord more. It has empowered Christians to stand up to tyranny whether abroad or at home. It has reminded us that our ultimate citizenship is in heaven, not on earth, and the values by which we try to live the values of the kingdom of heaven here on earth.
But if kingship is such a dodgy deal, why ascribe the term to Jesus Christ? Well, as ever, Jesus takes concepts and belief systems known to everyone and re-works them. He turns them upside down. This king is humble, arriving in his capital riding on a donkey. At the Last Supper he says that, yes he is your Lord and Master, but then kneels down to do the work of a slave, washing their feet. In John’s Gospel he is exalted and lifted up, but his throne is the Cross from which he reigns. This king is humble: this king serves his people; this king is vulnerable; his only power, the power of love, is in stark contrast to the leaders of the world with their love of power.
In a sense Christ doesn’t claim kingship at all. It is claimed for him by his followers, for whom in the Early church it would have been very clear that there was one King, and he was in Rome, and in many senses it was dirty word. Who would want a king like that? This king subverts the only other king they knew. Their king was more interested in his followers than in being their leader – perhaps a challenge to our Church to invest more in what someone has called ‘followership’ than leadership. In fact, our king even subverts the language of power of his day: I do not call you servants, he says, I call you friends. Christ our King is Christ our friend, reminding us the only power with real integrity is the power of the bonds of affection and love.
This is a king who anoints others. At our baptism and confirmation we are quite literally anointed, reminded of our truly royal status as children of the heavenly Father, brothers and sisters of Christ the King. Following this king reminds us just how loved, just how important we are, despite what the world has to say. Paradoxically, following this king gives us a worth and value not all rulers accord to their subjects Christians make the bold statement that this is the authentic way to live life because it is living out the life of heaven here on earth. It is at the heart of the daily prayer of Christians, the Lord’s Prayer, which prays ‘your kingdom come here on earth as in heaven.’ In that sense it is very this-worldly, which is why we don’t just sit around waiting for heaven, but actively work to promote some its values in the way we live and do our business here and now.
And it is also at the heart of the season we are about to celebrate as we move into a new Church year. Advent is a season, if you like, of bifocals: we keep our feet firmly on the ground, but we keep our gaze on the things of heaven. Christ the King with its invitation to live the life of God’s kingdom sums up the Christian year and points us to the weeks to come. It celebrates or crowns what has been, and draws us into what shall be.
- What do you think this festival might say to today’s rulers and leaders?
- What should good governance look like?