This coming Sunday is a feast with one of the most epic names of any liturgical commemoration: the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. This feast day is densely packed with historical and theological significance, and we would do well to unpack some of it in preparation for this celebration.
The feast is a relatively new addition to the liturgical calendar, having been added only in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. At that time, Europe was experiencing a rise in both nationalism and secularism as after-effects of The Great War (now known as World War I): the dismantling of the Ottoman and German Empires created a vacuum which was filled by the aspirations of ethnic nationalities to have their own states, and the horrors of the trenches and No Man’s Land had led many to question whether a provident God cared for the world, or was even present, and whether churches should have a say in anything.
Closer to home for Pope Pius, the newly-forged unified Italy, which had swallowed up the Papal States, continued to struggle with the Vatican over political authority in the city of Rome. The world seemed to be in a state of crisis, unsure where to turn or whom to trust.
With the proclamation of this feast day, Pope Pius reaffirmed the answer the Church had always given to this question: trust Jesus. Jesus is Lord of history, King of all, God Incarnate. Though it was not a new claim, it was a revolutionary one in its time.
To reassert the kingship of Christ in this time was a seemingly foolish endeavor. In a world that was dethroning czars, kaisers, and sultans left and right, to proclaim a king was to set a target on his (and your) back. Yet this was no different than in Jesus’ own day, for when he rode into Jerusalem being hailed by the crowds as the Son of David (a kingly title), he rode beneath Roman soldiers perched on the city walls.
Octavian had taken other titles apart from Augustus Caesar: Savior of the World, Son of God, Lord. When Jesus’ followers proclaimed him as Lord, it was an inherently political statement: if Jesus is Lord, Caesar ain’t. To proclaim Jesus as king was treason.
And though we sit in relative comfort in the post-Christian Western world today, where most are too apathetic to bother bludgeoning you for your belief in Christ, in many other places around the globe to take to yourself the name of Christian is to mark yourself for execution, as the international news reminds us daily.
But these principalities and powers, these dictatorships and oligarchies, even our democracies which too often operate under the assumption that any course of action is justified if it receives a plurality of votes, none of these has the final say in history. None of these will determine our fates in the end. Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was among us 2,000 years ago, and that kingdom has continued to build over all that time.
The grace of God merited through the cross of Christ has moved the hearts of many and shaped the course of the world, producing countless saints and a Christian consciousness that has improved the fates of many in myriad ways, from the invention of universities and hospitals to the abolition of slavery to the continual struggle for peace. And in the fullness of time, the King of Glory will come again, to rule the nations with justice and mercy, to reign over God’s new creation in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
This is why the Church sets this feast just before Advent begins: to remind us of his Second Coming before we commemorate his first. Let us approach this season of anticipation with joy and longing, echoing the Book of Revelation: Come, Lord!