Two years ago I posted three homilies for the feast of Christ the King, which you can find here.
Here are six other ones on the readings for this C cycle:
The Feast of Christ the King – October 31, 1965 – St. Bartholomew’s
The feast of Christ the King is designed to emphasize the central place of Jesus Christ in our lives. If in our time and society to speak of kings is a little odd, still there is no doubt that what a king was once to his nation, Jesus Christ is to each of us.
I should like to reflect a little on what Christ should be for us, and, since there is little danger of our ever ignoring or neglecting his divinity, I want to speak about the meaning for us of that humanity of his we so easily pass over.
The Gospel of St. Mark is the earliest of our Gospels and its portrait of Jesus is the least sophisticated of the four we possess in our Gospels. Perhaps for that very reason the Jesus who emerges from its pages is one whom we can easily identify as one of us. We meet a Jesus who walks by the sea, who talks a human language, who eats and drinks. We meet a man who is taken aback by his countrymen’s lack of faith, who is angered and sorrowed by stubbornness, who rebukes a rebellious Peter. We meet a man whose heart goes out to the people, sheep without a shepherd, who welcomes children into his arms and blesses them, who stretches out his hand to touch a blind man, a deaf man, a leper. We meet a Jesus who feels horror, and dismay, and grief in the Garden, who knows the pain of betrayal of unfaithful friends, of injustice, of torture, who feels abandoned by God, who cries out in agony as he dies. Finally, we meet a Jesus whom death does not keep in its grip, who rises from the tomb, who is now living.
Such is the portrait of Jesus we gain from the first of our Gospels, but it is one which is present or implied in every page of the New Testament. And since today’s feast has special reference to the risen and living Jesus, it is fitting that we recall that the Jesus who is the center of our lives knows us now with a human mind, loves us now with a human heart, prays for us now in human words.
This is he who is the Lord of our lives, not some angelic, half-human, mythical hero, but a man, a man who shared every sinless human experience, who expressed the love of a human heart by shedding human blood, who received back a human body at his Resurrection, who now stands with us before his Father and pleads for us his fellow human beings. The Epistle to the Hebrews says it all:
The children of a family share the same flesh and blood; and so he too shared ours, so that through death he might break the power of him who had death at his command, that is, the devil; and might liberate those who, through fear of death, had all their lifetime been in servitude. It is not angels, mark you, that he takes to himself, but the sons of Abraham. And therefore he had to be made like these brothers of his in every way, so that he might be merciful and faithful as their high priest before God, to expiate the sins of the people. For since he himself has passed through the tst of suffering, he is able to help those who are meeting their test now.
For ours is not a high priest unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who, because of his likeness to us, has been tested in every way, only without sin. Let us therefore boldly approach the throne of our gracious God, where we may receive mercy and in his grace find timely help (Heb 2:14-18; 4:15-16).
Finally, to apply some of this to the end we work for. Do not dissolve heaven into a blob of light and call it the Beatific Vision. Heaven is companionship with Jesus. It is sharing all of his glory it possible for us to share; it is sharing his knowledge, his love, his joy–his laughter. It is, in a word, perfectly realized friendship: complete openness to one another, complete commitment to one another, complete fidelity to one another.
That is what the communion of saints is (whose feast we celebrate tomorrow)–common sharing of friendship with Christ. Friends of his, we are friends of one another: friends with our fellow pilgrims here, friends of those who are already with Jesus, whom we can call upon as friends do call upon friends, who pray for us as friends do help friends.
What we have more and more to realize is that Christ and Christianity are not the suppression of human values, but their full guarantee and even their ennoblement. That is why for nearly every Christian mystery the Bible speaks in terms of human realities, of marriage, of friendship, of family. To be a Christian is to be fully human, for it is to resemble Jesus Christ.
Feast of Christ the King – November 21, 1971 – CNR
At first sight, the second and third readings of this Mass seem to come from opposite ends of the New Testament’s reflections on Christ. The Gospel pictures Christ on the cross, the object of the jeers and taunts of crowd and soldier, while the reading from Paul is the glorious hymn in honor of the same Christ as “the image of the invisible God, first-born of all creation.” There is a remarkable contrast here, but I should like to suggest that it is central to Christian faith that these readings not be seen in opposition, but as the paradox contained in the inscription on the cross, “This is the king of the Jews,” to which we might add, “And this is his throne.”
No sane man enjoys suffering. No man of any depth pretends that evil does not exist or that he can escape suffering. “The grandeur and the misery of man” lie in these two statements; people suffer and suffering is an evil. And man’s questions about himself and about God do not arise in some abstract world immune to evil and suffering; they arise precisely within, because of, and as colored by man’s experience of evil, suffering, and death. No theory of man is worth anything if it does not speak of man’s suffering; and no idea of God is tolerable that does not wonder that a world of his creation should know such pain.
It is in such a context that the cross of Jesus Christ stands to be interpreted. It is, first of all, a cross, an instrument of torture and a symbol of punishment, the cause of a man’s painful and humiliating death. And yet, it is also for Christian faith the instrument of salvation and a symbol of glory, the means by which joy has come into the world. The cross is both, at one and the same time: it does not pretend that suffering is not suffering, but it asserts also that evil has been met and overcome by good. The evil of the suffering persists, but the evil of the hatred that inflicted it has been met and overcome with the words of the suffering one, “Father, forgive them.”
It is in that moment that Christ becomes king, begins his reign. That is the moment in which he is most manifestly “the image of the invisible God,” the revelation of our hidden God’s love and purpose. For in the free forgiving of Jesus Christ is revealed the possibility of evil’s defeat, if only there can be a love and patience deeper even than evil’s hatred and cruelty. To proclaim the crucified Christ to be King is to see in the cross something more than an instrument of death; it is to see in suffering–one’s own suffering– something more than bitter and absurd necessity. It is to know the cross as the weakness in which power worked; and it is to know suffering–one’s own suffering–as the dull and shapeless mass out of which, through our loving endurance and forgiveness, God can create a world of meaning and joyful life as new and fresh as the dawn of light in the beginning.
It is then and only then, by passing through the cross (not ignoring its presence in Christ’s life or in our own), that we can give Paul’s meaning to the splendid words of his hymn:
In him everything was created; all things were created in and for him.
In him everything continues in being.
It pleased God to make absolute fullness reside in him and, by means of him, to reconcile everything i4n his person, everything, I say, both on earth and in heaven, making peace through the blood of his cross.
Feast of Christ the King–November 24, 1974–CNR
The first thing that strikes one upon hearing the glorious language of our second reading today is that it seems so manifestly untrue. For–make no mistake about it–Paul is saying nothing less than that the whole of creation, natural and historical, cosmic and human–things visible and invisible, thrones and dominations, principalities and powers–all of it was created through Christ and for him, that all of it in him hangs together. Some of our problem surely comes from the enormous expansion of human knowledge since Paul’s time. We know of expanses of the universe infinitely beyond Paul’s imagining; the world of man’s labors goes far beyond the inhabited world which he knew. And, perhaps most importantly, we have, I think, lost almost all sense that things really do hang together at all. We have no sense and no evidence that Christ has reconciled all things, both on earth and in heaven, making peace through the blood of his cross. In a hundred different places, we continue to be alienated from one another, making war through the blood of our brothers.
We can be tempted, of course, to restrict the meaning of Paul’s words to the world of “religion.” “He is the head of the body, the church, the beginning, first-born of the dead.” That seems to reduce the problem to manageable proportions and can provide congregations like our own something to praise in this feast. But, we must in honesty then acknowledge that we are reversing the thrust of this letter of Paul and also, contradicting the purpose of this relatively recent feast. For, in the letter to the Colossians, Paul has deliberately expanded his vision to include the cosmos, intentionally broken out of a religious ghetto, to insist that there is no sphere of existence which has not been made subject to his Lordship. And Pius XI instituted this feast, in the confusion of the years after the First World War, as a way of reaffirming what Paul says, that the primacy is to be Christ’s in everything, in every sphere of life. For neither Paul nor Pius, then, was the small world of “religion” large enough to encompass the Lordship of Jesus.
And maybe that should be our starting-point on our way out of the dilemma–maybe we should start by overcoming our own “religiosity”: the neat distinctions we make between Church and world, between prayer and work, between Sunday and the rest of the week. There have been several recent efforts to overcome that constriction of Christianity–Teilhard’s cosmic vision of the whole universe as Christogenesis, Christ’s coming-to-be; Bonhoeffer’s man come of age, in whom at last God can be seen to be God; a theology of liberation, in which the overcoming of sin reaches out into every area in which the image of God, which should shine on the face of every man, has been obscured. None of them, perhaps, is entirely successful, but at least they reach towards the vision which Paul holds out.
Most of all we should then be practical. Paul did not write a textbook in philosophy or cosmology to the people at Colossae. He wrote to a church so fascinated with speculations about angels and other intermediaries that the unique role and sovereign authority of Christ were threatened, so concerned to appease them that they were resorting to superstitious fastings and scrupulosity about taboos. And the practical import of Paul’s teaching, especially in the hymn he quotes in our reading, is that, whatever power these forces may be thought to have, they have been radically overcome in Christ, so that there remains only the one great obstacle to the universal reign of Christ, the ignorance and sin of mankind. It is, then, a message of liberation, which must begin in the Body of Christ which is the Church, but which begins there only in order to become the principle of a new order of all things and all men, a universe given sense and consistency and purpose in him and through him and for him.
We are ourselves not so distant from that message as we may think. If we keep our eyes open to the large world and confront the riot of bloodshed on the one hand and the slow, un-bloody agony of starvation on the other, we can be tempted to the same despair and surrender to powerlessness that the Colossians experienced, and we can seek some relief also in a superstitious retreat back within the holy and pleasant confines of the Church. This feast is meant to prevent that; it is meant to shake us out of our coziness and our compulsion and our superstition; it is meant to make us acknowledge the meaning of our confession of the Lordship of Jesus, to make us admit that it has dimensions we don’t like to admit, ever further dimensions in our individual lives, in our works, in our relationships, ever further dimensions in our lives together, as this congregation, as the Church, as parents, as religious, as a society.
We must begin with ourselves, and we must begin from where we are. With this feast we conclude one liturgical year; next Sunday Advent introduces us into another. This whole business of liturgical years and Advents can be our little private, “religious” affair, or it can mediate the true dimensions of the Lordship of Christ. Fasting or other penitential works might be taken up superstitiously, or they might be taken up out of love, so that because we eat less often and less well, others elsewhere may simply eat. Christmas may be anticipated in the usual sentimentality, whether religious or secular, or it may be anticipated as the coming of the one who calls us and the world of our making radically into question and who asks each and all of us, what difference he makes and whether we are ready to be instruments of his reconciling power, making peace where we can, by the blood of our daily lives.
If we can permit such questions to arise, we are experiencing the liberating power of the Risen Lord and we may honestly thank God for bringing us out of darkness and into the light of the kingdom of his beloved Son.
FEAST OF CHRIST THE KING – NOVEMBER 22, 1992- BLESSED SACRAMENT
When viewed against the whole history of Christian liturgy, the feast we celebrate today is a very recent one. It was in only in 1925 that Pope Pius XI established it. It proved to be a remarkably popular feast, in part because of the lovely Mass texts and music that were chosen and created for it, but also because it addressed the needs of the day and provided a basis for some remarkable developments in the life of the Church.
In 1925 the world still retained a vivid memory of the First World War. That war had shocked the world, coming after almost fifty years of peace, after a period in which had reigned a sense of inevitable progress in human history as a result of the spread of scientific knowledge and democratic institutions. The war shattered that faith, as scientific knowledge was applied to the production of horrific arms that killed millions of people. Nor did the end of the war end the crisis, and the next decade would see the growth of totalitarianism in the forms of fascism, Nazism, and Communism, calling into question the viability of democracy as a political ideal. The Great Depression would only heighten this sense of crisis, now extending it out into a basic distrust of the capitalist economic system. Something seemed to have gone terribly wrong; all the dynamos of human progress that had so been exalted at the end of the nineteenth century seemed to have failed.
In the midst of this crisis, Pope Pius XI tried to rally Catholic minds and hearts around the symbol of Christ the King. In establishing this feast and in many other documents that drew out its implication, the Pope called Catholics to devote their intellectual, moral and active energies to a recovery of the principles and values that flow from their belief in the Lordship of Jesus Christ. For Pius XI, economic and democratic liberalism sacrificed the common good of society to the claims of individuals, while the various forms of totalitarianism emphasized the values of community, but at the cost of individual freedom. Only the Christian vision of things, the Pope believed, restoring a proper balance between individual and community, might be the basis of a third alternative. And the religious center of this grand vision was symbolically expressed in this feast of Christ the King.
That vision had a dramatic effect on Catholic thought and practice. It inspired a number of remarkable Catholic thinkers to begin to think about new ways in which Christianity might affect human history. The 1930s, when this vision was dominant in Catholic thought, provided the real break-through in Catholic intellectual life that would result, at the Second Vatican Council, in a comprehensive re-thinking of the Church’s challenges and responsibilities in the modern world. On the level of practice, the invocation of Christ the King inspired also a host of concrete activities, often known under the title “Catholic Action,” that were to implement the effort especially of lay people to observe and evaluate the social situations in which they live and to devote themselves to practical efforts to redeem it. Some of the older people here may remember groups like the Sodality, the Young Christian Students, the Young Christian Workers, the Christian Family Movement. It was an exciting time, when Catholics were convinced that they had something to offer to the, world, something the world desperately needed. This feast we are celebrating was central to that excitement, a reminder of the Christ whose influence upon history people wanted to make real and concrete, an inspiration to guide and animate their efforts.
One senses today that much of that excitement has faded, and this feast no longer plays the same inspiring role that it once did. In part this may be because things look far more complicated today than they did back then, and also because we have perhaps a greater sense of the values of pluralism and difference than many Catholics did then. But in a recent issue of Commonweal devoted to the role of the laity today, there was a sense also that something may have been lost, that the conviction needs to be rekindled that Catholics have a role to play in the world–as Catholics, as people inspired by a religious view of human history, for the good, not first of all of the Church, but of human society and history itself. We need, most of the contributors were saying, a revived sense that our faith is not intended only for the guidance of our individual and family lives, but has something to offer also for a vision of human life in community and society, both national and international. They were not proposing, as many fundamentalist groups seem to be proposing today, that there is some immediate step from the Gospels or from the Creed to specific answers to complex problems. But they were saying that a purely individual interpretation of Christianity is greatly inadequate to what we believe about God, about Christ, about human beings, and that we Catholics need to start thinking again about how we can bring the light of Christ’s word and the power of his grace to bear upon the larger questions of human life in society as well.
This feast, then, may not be an anachronism after all. It may still serve its original purpose if it encourages us to expand our vision of our own Christianity, if it makes us ask questions not only about what we do as individuals or within families, but about what we do in our daily work and as citizens, if it leads us to ask whether what we profess on Sundays influences what we do from Monday to Friday and how we do it. I do not pretend that there are easy answers to these questions, if we even begin to ask them; but I am saying that this feast challenges us not, by our own choices or by unthinking acceptance of the views of others, to restrict the potential power of the word and grace of Christ.
In the Preface of this Mass we will proclaim our faith in the character of Christ’s Kingdom: “a Kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, a Kingdom of justice, of love, and of peace.” We have only to stop for a minute to let those words flow over our minds–truth and life, holiness and grace, justice, love, and peace–to recognize how far we human beings are from having realized anything remotely like this in our own society or in the larger world. This Kingdom, it is true, will never be perfectly realized in this world, but the vision we celebrate today stands before us to indicate what God wishes our world, to be like, not simply at the end of the world, but here and now and across the globe, and it calls us all to consider what each of us can do to work towards that splendid vision. In the Lord’s Prayer we will pray again that this Kingdom come, but we cannot honestly say that prayer unless, even now, we try to live in its light, by our own efforts seeking to hasten the day, when by God’s grace and power, it will be realized.
CHRIST THE KING – NOVEMBER 26, 1995 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
The feast we celebrate today–Christ the King–is comparatively new–it dates back only seventy years ago, to 1925. Its institution by Pope Pius XI was in good part related to a view widespread among Catholics that the ills of modern society, most recently displayed in the horrors of World War I and soon, as we know, to be intensified by the Great Depression, the rise of several forms of totalitarianism, and the Second World War, were the result of the abandonment by the forces that made our modern world of the redemptive word and grace of Christ. Modernity had almost defined itself by its proud assertion that human ideas and programs could suffice for the construction of a social and cultural world. The reign of Christ, not only over individual hearts, not only over the Church, but over the whole of human life in all its aspects, private and public, had been repudiated. This feast was designed to redress the balance, to display that Christ’s word and his healing grace were meant not only for the comfort of individual hearts, not only for the guidance of a Church withdrawn to the margins of society, but also for how we live together, in our civic societies also, in the character of national life, in the choices that determine what the collective future of mankind will be. This feast, and the devotion it encouraged, in other words, had a political purpose.
The issue at stake in the 1920s and the 1930s, when this devotion spread throughout the Church, was for a time after the Second World War thought to have been resolved, and resolved on secularist terms: the fascist and nazi totalitarian regimes were defeated in the War, the Soviet variant declared its bankruptcy in 1989, leaving capitalist liberalism everywhere triumphant. But even as this victory was being trumpeted, the issue has returned when now the question of what freedom is for has gained center-stage once more. It is easy to defend freedom against various forms of repression that deny its very value; it is more difficult to agree about what freedom means in its essence, about what it says about the basic business of human living, about what we ought all to be pursuing–freely. There is much disagreement about that, including in our own society–about whether those two words “ought” and “freedom” can comfortably occur in a single sentence–think of discussions here and elsewhere about abortion, crime, divorce, homosexuality, marriage, poverty, etc. Religion itself is back in the news, in electoral campaigns, in foreign policy, in educational reform, in constitutional amendments.
And this is not just a problem other people are considering. Look around at this congregation and you will see people here, freely, who also are citizens, and not only citizens but also actively involved in government, in business, in the media. Are we here to do something on Sundays that is separate from what we do on the other days of the week? Do the bold things we proclaim in word and deed here fade out as the church doors close behind us? Conversely, do the concerns that constitute our public debate not agitate us as we enter upon a celebration like this? If so, then perhaps the original purpose of this feast is meant for us.
I do not mean by that the solution to the problem of the deliberate marginalization of Christianity that was in the minds of some of the proponents of the feast of Christ the King must be accepted. Too many of them longed for a restoration of an idealized Middle Ages when Christian truths and values inspired a common culture and directed the legal structures of society; too many of them were unable or unwilling to find anything of value in the structures and values of pluralistic democracies. Too many proposals today smack of a theocracy that has as many sorry moments in its history as does its secularistic opposite.
But what this feast should surely continue to press upon us is the need for us to seek some better integration of our faith and of our life in the wider society than is very common today. I do not say this because I personally have a very detailed view of what such an integration must mean when it comes to particular choices whether of parties or programs or candidates. But I would like to urge that the question has to be asked and addressed by all of us here, who are both Christians and citizens, constructing the Church by the faith that draws us together here as a community and constructing our society by the lives we live on the other days of the week. Putting it bluntly, I would say that if we are not concerned about that question, we are not taking seriously the two NT readings we have just heard.
Paul’s words are dramatic: he asserts that Jesus Christ is the one in whom the origin, center, and goal of creation are revealed: “All things were created through him and for him, and in him everything holds together.” That is not a small claim: it is catholic in the root sense: all-embracing, inclusive, integrating. Well, is this just rhetoric, something we hear once or twice a year, words that we let float away into some ethereal distance while we concentrate on what we call our “real world”? If so, we do not live any longer in Paul’s world.
And then there is the Gospel, which presents us with the great paradox, indeed contradiction, that it is the one who hangs in disgraceful death on an executioner’s cross who is the Savior. Note the several despising taunts: “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, the Chosen One,” jeer the leaders. “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself,” mock the soldiers. “Aren’t you the Messiah? Then save yourself and us,” blasphemes the criminal hanging on a cross beside him. Mockery all around: the Savior cannot save even himself. Some Messiah! Some King! And the mocking laughter echoes down into our own day. There are people who mock what we are doing here this day, you and I, gathered here at this moment. What we celebrate is what they mock, if not in such direct scorn then in perhaps what is more cruel, in sublime indifference to us and to the One whose name we bear.
The name of this feast, “Christ the King,” makes a claim as bold and as disconcerting as the inscription, “This is the King of the Jews!” that was nailed at the top of a cross. We live in at the heart of this paradox, this contradiction. We make a great and universal claim, but the one about whom we make the claim died in a fashion that seems at every point to refute it. This scandalous claim–in the original sense of the word: this stumble-causing claim–is the point on which our thoughts ought to concentrate. The one criminal mocked him; the other prayed: “Jesus, remember me when you enter upon your reign.” Our presence here places us in the company of the one who prayed to be remembered. And it is our prayer that we be remembered that has caused Jesus to be remembered. We remember the One by whom we wish to be remembered. Perhaps our greatest duty is to work to be sure that he is remembered, remembered by us, by our children, by our Church, by our society, so that we and they may know the promise he holds out to those who pray him to remember them.
Feast of Christ the King – November 25, 2007 – Blessed Sacrament
This feast was established rather recently, as these things go, in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. His purpose was to draw attention to the right of Christ to reign not simply over individual hearts, not simply over Christians in the Church, but over societies and cultures, too, in what was called “the social reign of Christ.” The Pope was responding to the growing secularization of the West, the removal of ever larger areas of social life and activity from the authority and even the influence of Christ by means of the Church. Grass-roots movements, such as the Young Christian Students and Young Christian Workers, were energized by the feast; hymns were created to celebrate it and to inspire young people (“An Army of Youth”); anti-revolutionary political activities and even parties took their names from Christ the King. The feast, and the title, were in aid of a re-christianizing of society and culture.
Behind all this, of course, lies the very difficult question of the relationship between religion and society. I put it that way–in terms of religion and society–because the more basic question lies there and not, as is often thought, at the institutional level of the relationship between Church and State. Even where these two are kept distinct, as in our constitutional system, which we Catholics accept in principle and in practice, the prior question is not settled of what the place and role of religion is in society. In other words, even when one does not want Church and State to be entangled, one may still argue that religion should have a pervasive influence within society. But there will be nothing coercive about this–a coerced religion is something like a contradiction-in-term; it will arise out of personal conviction and express itself in free commitment. The US bishops recently emphasized that, even when making statements of principle affecting social life, they are not appealing to conscience and not telling people how to vote. And in his first encyclical Pope Benedict XVI said that Church leaders were not supposed to attempt to replace the State or to be directly involved in determining the policies that best assure justice.
This leaves the larger issue, however. It helps if the question is not asked in the abstract, that is, about something called “religion” and some other thing called “society.” It is really about the relationship between religious people and the society in which they live. More concretely still, it is about whether the faith of us as Christians does not yield a vision of human life that we ought to strive to realize in our own lives and to see realized also in our communities and societies. The preface for this Mass speaks of the Kingdom over which Christ wishes to reign as a “kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, of love, and of peace.” One has only to hear the description to realize how far short our communities and societies fall from that ideal, how little our own lives reflect the values implied in such words as “truth and life,” “holiness and grace,” “justice, love and peace.”
The task of urging ourselves and our societies towards such ideals falls upon all of us, upon each of us. We are supposed to be Christians in all that we do, in all that we are. This often means running counter to what the surrounding culture urges on us. We find an example in today’s Gospel where Luke presents Christ in a tableau that includes the silent crowd watching, the religious leaders and soldiers mocking, and Christ speaking two words that reveal what kind of king he is: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” and “This day you will be with me, in paradise.” A word of forgiveness and a word of promise. Forgiveness opening up the possibility of a new life for those forgiven–is that not what forgiveness does: makes new starts possible? And a promise that inspires hope that one’s new start can be followed through and brought to completion. That is where we live our Christian lives: between forgiveness and promise.
Thus the Christian faith grounds a vision of what human life can and ought to be. And if we see the whole of reality within the light it offers, then we can make a difference in our world. We can be like a yeast within the mass of the body social and the body politic. And through ourselves and through others, through communities and movements, we can bring our societies and cultures at least some little bit closer to the only kind of kingdom over which the Christ who began his reign on a cross wishes to rule.