The Paradoxical Kingship of Christ
Today is the climactic finale of the Church’s liturgical season, the Solemnity of Christ the King. Next Sunday we will inaugurate a new liturgical year that begins with the joyful anticipation of Advent. The solemnity of Christ the King has always held great personal significance for me and is, in some ways, my favorite feast of the year. What is the significance of calling Christ a king? Isn’t that just a hold-over from some bygone medieval era or worse, an attempt by tyrannical monarchs to use Christ as some kind of exemplary justification for their own rule? Christ’s kingship is actually a summary expression of the most important truths about who Jesus is. For those who are His disciples, there can be nothing more important to know and share than the true identity of the Savior.
Bishop Robert Barron is fond of deploring the increasingly common “domestication” of Jesus. He emphasizes that Jesus is not someone we can control or put a lid on when we start to feel threatened by Him. Nor can we limit the truth of who Jesus is to the sayings and actions in the Gospels that make us comfortable. I think something like this often happens on this glorious solemnity: we’re afraid of calling Christ our king because of our own bad experiences with human authority. As a result, we end up saying something to the effect of, “Well, Christ is King, but not really because his way of being a king is completely different from that of earthly kings.” But we can’t limit or alter Christ’s kingship or anything else about Him to the things that make us feel comfortable. A careful reading of the Gospels reveals Jesus who is entirely ‘out of control’ in the sense that He refuses to meet the expectations of those around him. In fact, the most relevant descriptors of the Jesus revealed by the evangelists are more like: scary, powerful, disruptive, supremely confident, and unafraid of anything or anyone.
Paradoxically, I think it is exactly this quality of Christ, this being totally and entirely His own, that enables him to bring us any comfort at all, comfort that is beyond the saccharine comfort of greeting cards and kitsch wall-art depictions of a warm and nice Jesus. Not that Jesus isn’t gentle, warm, comforting, and perfectly loving to each person. He certainly is. But it’s tragically wrong to reduce Him to these qualities alone. In fact they aren’t even His main identity.
Christ’s supreme confidence in Himself, his total knowledge that he is in complete control of every situation is what enables Him to give us comfort in all of our own afflictions. It’s this line from St. John’s Gospel that has always struck me as indicative of this part of his character: “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” (John 10:18) I have power. That’s the central claim that Jesus is making about himself. Why does this matter? Why is important to me that Jesus not only loves me, but is powerful in His loving me?
It all comes down to the Passion. Even as a child, the Passion of Christ always caused me difficulty because I couldn’t understand what it was that made Jesus’ suffering different from all the other terrible deaths that people have endured throughout history. I understand the Jesus is God incarnate, but doesn’t that just make it worse? Isn’t a God suffering the terrible fate of an unfortunate man much more shameful than the ignominious deaths of many other thousands? In other words, I know that Jesus loves me and is dying to save me, but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept that, on the face of things, he seems like he’s losing the battle. If I’m loved by God, I need God to be very powerful to overcome the very big problems that I have in my life. The mocking reaction of the pharisees is all too natural “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him.” (Matt 27:42)
It occurred to me once when I thought about this particular feast. Jesus’ suffering and death are different from everyone else’s because He has kingly power. His authority is so comprehensive and powerful that even His suffering is an act of His own Will. Jesus is not the hapless victim of whatever or whomever. Jesus is in complete control over everything that happens to Him and He has the power to make it stop at any moment. He suffers deliberately because His kingly Will orders it to be so. Jesus Christ is so powerful that He is the agent of his own sacrifice because is not only the victim, but the priest who offers the sacrifice. That is authority. If Jesus can do that, then He can overcome anything else and everything is His by right. Now when I look at the passion, I don’t see yet another sad victim of violence and terror who can sympathize in some vague way with my sufferings because he suffered too. That is very lame. Now I see a victorious King whose power is so absolute and irresistible that even his sufferings are a deliberate act of His own power to order all things to His Will. That’s comforting to me, the other is not.
There are a great many things that can be said about this great solemnity in relation to things like the Social Kingship of Christ; the way that public society is obliged to recognize Christ as its head. I could also say more about how absolutely crucial it is to the Jewish understanding of Messiah that Jesus be a King, (“Hosannah to the Son of David!”) and how it’s therefore wrong to denigrate or dilute His quite literal kingship over the Jewish people and indeed over all the world.
Jesus Christ is Lord and His power is absolute. If that isn’t true, then He is just another wise and nice person who was trampled by the jackboot of history. If it is true, then He has the right to our total allegiance and He has the power to fulfill all of our greatest hopes and desires. There is a place for those who are uncomfortable with that.
By the way, Pope Pius XI, the same man who wrote the great pastoral appeal to the German people after the ascent of Nazism, is the one who erected this great solemnity with his letter, Quas Primas. I recommend that everyone check it out.