Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, as well as commemorating the Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost. This feast was instituted for the last Sunday in October by Pope Pius XI in the early twentieth century. It emphasised the importance of Christians holding to the truth of the Kingship of Christ in the face of an increasingly secularised society that in many countries had come to embrace a totalitarianism that actively persecuted Christians. The kingship of Christ stood in contrast to the false claims to supremacy by the totalitarian states of the twentieth century.
However, though this feast is of recent origin the doctrine it proclaims is the foundational truth of the Christian religion itself. The titulus on the Cross read in Hebrew, Greek and Latin “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. Since the Jewish nation was at that time subject to the Roman Empire anyone who claimed to be “King of the Jews” was placing himself in opposition to the power of Rome and was therefore guilty of treason. Pilate agreed to crucify Jesus because, though he realised that Jesus was not an insurrectionist in the conventional sense of the term (had he genuinely believed this he would have executed his followers as well), Jesus had not disavowed when interrogated a technically treasonable claim. The Jewish authorities pointed out to Pilate, “If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend, whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar” (John 19:12). Pilate therefore crucified Jesus in order to maintain his own position as a governor on good terms with the Emperor.
This message of a crucified King scandalised the ancient world. As St. Paul put it to the Corinthians, it was foolishness to those who were perishing but to those who are being saved, it is Christ the wisdom and power of God. It was foolishness to the Greeks, who sought for wisdom from philosophy, not from a crucified Saviour. It was a stumbling block to the Jews, who did not acknowledge the first coming of the Messiah as a suffering servant before his second coming at the end of the age.
St. Paul and the first Christians lived in a world in which the cult of the Emperor was the fastest growing religion. Kyrios Kaiser, Caesar is Lord, was the message of the Roman Empire. By contrast Christians proclaimed, Kyrios Christos, Jesus is Lord. For the Romans this amounted to treason against the State and it seemed that Christianity was turning the world upside down, for they proclaimed that there was another king, one called Jesus (Acts 17). That is why so many of the early Christians became martyrs, because they refused to accept the cult of the Emperor and were therefore deemed guilty of treason against the State. In effect the Church presented an alternative society to that of the Empire.
Eventually the Empire succumbed and accepted Christianity. The Church no longer trained its members for Christian dying, but for Christian living. Though in the West the Empire fell to the barbarian incursions they were in due course converted to Christianity and Christendom was the result. Subsequently, Western societies succumbed to the Enlightenment and were secularised (the situation we find ourselves in today). In the East the Roman Empire continued as Byzantium for another thousand years before it too fell to the Islamic Ottoman Empire. The ideal of a Christian civilisation passed to Russia, before that itself fell to the militant atheism of the Soviet Union in the twentieth century (returning to a situation like the age of the martyrs).
The purpose of the European Enlightenment was to effect a separation between Church and State and so create a civilised, but non- religious humanity. In effect, western societies repudiated Christian dogma, but still sought to live by a secularised version of Christian ethics. However, it now seems that our society is reverting to open paganism. Instead of being seen as a necessary evil to keep the peace in a fallen world, the increasing power of the State is now presented as the necessary solution to every problem. It is the modern day equivalent of the cult of pagan cult of the Emperor, for it involves the worship of the civil power.
Since Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever, the truth of the Gospel is unchanging. The message that it is Jesus and not Caesar who is the true Lord and King is still the same today. This is especially important at the present time when governments all over the world are trying to use the present crisis as a way to increase their power and control over people. But we know that the powers that be in this world are not the ultimate authority. If Jesus Christ is Lord and King then the Chinese government is not, Vladimir Putin is not, Jo Biden is not, the President of the European Commission is not, Boris Johnson is not. All these people and other similar ruthless seekers after power and success in this world may seem all powerful and may be very successfully manipulating the present crisis as a way of amassing more power for themselves and their governments, but they are not (whatever delusions of grandeur they may have about themselves) the ultimate authority.
God in Christ has triumphed by the Cross over the principalities and powers, the dark forces of rebellion against God that seem to rule this world. We now live in the time between his victory over the forces of evil by the Cross and the final victory at the end of the age when God will be all in all. For, as St. Paul put it to the Philippians, our true commonwealth is in heaven, from where we await the final coming of Christ the King to transform our mortal bodies into the likeness of his glorious body, by the power whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself (Philippians 3).
Christ is the King! O friends upraise!
Anthems of joy and holy praise
For his brave saints of ancient days.
Who for a faith for ever new
Followed the King and round him drew
Thousands of faithful men and true.
O Christian women, Christian men,
All the world over, seek again
The Way disciples followed then.
Christ through all ages is the same
Place the same hope in his great Name,
With the same faith his Word proclaim.
Let Love’s unconquerable might
Your scattered companies unite
In service to the Lord of Light.