Feast of Christ the King – November 20, 2005 – Blessed Sacrament
This feast was established by Pope Pius XI in 1925–not a long time ago, as the history of feasts go. The circumstances of its creation deserve a moment’s notice. Pope Pius XI, like many other popes of the last two centuries, was convinced that the ills of the modern era were in good part the consequences of the abandonment by modern nations of their Christian faith and practice. For a millennium of European history Christianity had had a formative, indeed a normative role, in society and culture. Ever since the Renaissance and Reformation, this hold had been loosened, and vast areas of human activity–science, philosophy, the economy, politics, education, culture, the press–had declared their independence and done so often in explicitly anti-Christian terms. For Pius XI, the failure of the effort to build a society without Christ was brutally revealed in the First World War, which his predecessor had called “Europe’s suicide.”
The years after that war saw the publication by many people, of all faiths and of no faith, of many books on the crisis of western civilization. Pius XI instituted this feast as a way of holding up before Catholics the right of Christ to reign as king not only over the hearts of private individuals, not only over Christian communities, but also over the whole of culture and society: his teachings should inspire a culture’s meanings and values, its sense of the true and the false, the good and the bad, and should govern relationships among individuals, groups and even nations. On the feast of Christ the King, celebrated on the last Sunday in October, it was common for preachers to speak of “the social reign of Christ,” and of the need to restore it.
You don’t hear much about the social reign of Christ any more, something much regretted by a number of Catholic traditionalists. At the Second Vatican Council the Church adopted a more nuanced, indeed a more positive, attitude toward the modern world, and even saw the work of God in many of the principles that inspire it and in the institutions that embody them. It taught that if the Church has something to bring to the world, the world has something to teach the Church. That Christianity would ever have again the kind of social influence and political power it possessed during the Middle Ages was no longer considered an ideal. It was significant of this that the feast was moved to the last Sunday of the Church year, and that the NT readings speak not so much of Christ reigning in the here and now but rather of his achieving his full royal power only at the end of time, when he returns in glory.
Similar issues, of course, are still discussed today in this country as we debate what role religious faith and practice should have in society at large and particularly in the exercise of political responsibility. At the one extreme are those who want to invoke the coercive power of the State on behalf of their religious views; at the other are those who seem to believe that the only people who have no right to enter the political process are those with firm religious convictions, who think that religion should be purely personal and private.
But that religion, or at least Christianity, cannot be merely personal and private is clear, I think, from today’s Gospel in which Christ passes judgment on how people have acted toward him: whether they fed him or not, gave him water to drink or not, welcomed him as a stranger or not, clothed his nakedness or not. To both groups of people, inquiring when they had encountered him, he replies: When you did (or didn’t do) it for the least of my brothers, you did (or didn’t do) it for me. This vivid scene, which surely leaves each of us uneasy, need not be interpreted only personally and privately, of our responsibilities upon encountering Christ in the needy, as was seen, for example, in the generous response of people and of nations to the various natural disasters that occurred this last year.
But besides natural disasters, about which there is little that human beings can do, there are other problems over which we could have some control. There are disasters in the world that are largely the result of human ignorance, folly, malice or indifference: over a billion people living in extreme poverty, half of them children; tens of thousands of people dying of starvation every day and thousands from AIDS; millions of small children dying every year, most from preventable diseases; millions of children deprived of the most elementary education; a quarter of the earth’s population without access to safe drinking water.
When this parable is read out today, Jesus is speaking to us in the present tense: Here I am before you: I am hungry; I am thirsty; I am a refugee; I am naked; I have smallpox; I have AIDS; I cannot read; I cannot work, and he leaves it to us to decide how we respond to him now.
These kinds of problems require, I believe, coordinated activity on the part of nations and the international community, that is, these are public, political matters. These are cases in which our Christian faith and commitments should surely have some public impact. The issue may be put in terms of whether the Church makes a difference: that is, whether the fact that there is a body of Christian believers makes the world they inhabit different because they are there and they are thinking and living and acting as Christians. Do we make a difference? Is the world different because we are living lives that respond to today’s Gospel? Does this determine how we perform our professional duties–in business, government, law, the media? Does it determine how we shop, what we buy? (Could it determine how we spend our money this Christmas?) Does this Gospel influence how we vote? In all these ways, Christ can still make a difference in the world. If through a Gospel like today’s Christ can still rule over individual Christians and over our Churches and communities, then he will continue to make a difference, and the world will be different because he has existed, because he lives still, because he inspires Christians to see him and to help him in the needy.
Today’s beautiful Preface speaks of Christ’s reign: It will be over a “Kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, a Kingdom of justice, of love and of peace.” That sounds like a utopia, and in one sense it is, but it is a utopia that stands as a challenge to us to reflect on where our world, our public world, falls short of that, and to try to do something about that failing. We could do far worse than to dedicate our lives to such a Kingdom, to that “Kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, a Kingdom of justice, of love, and of peace.”