It will be the Solemnity of Christ the King, and while I mean no offense to the many faithful, generous men who serve me and my family as pastors (some of whom are marvelous preachers), I don’t think I can bear another sermon on the close of the liturgical year and the coming of Christ both at Christmas and again in glory at the end of days.
If that is said, it will be perfectly true –and beside the point.
Christ the King is more than a sort of Catholic New Year’s Eve – a special name given to the end of the liturgical year. To penetrate the full meaning of this great feast, it’s worth consulting Pope Pius XI’s reasons for establishing it, which he enumerated in an encyclical, Quas Primas.
In December, 1925, with charismatic leaders of tyrannical movements beginning their rise to power across Europe, and with the West enjoying boom times but also sinking into moral decadence, Pope Pius XI sensed the emptiness and unrest beneath the jolly roar of the 1920s and sought to lead his flock to an authentic peace.
In an age beset by propaganda, the Pope sought to re-propose Christ, the Word made flesh, as the only sure source of Truth. The hope the world is looking for, he taught, does not lie in the relentless pursuit of pleasure and possession; nor does it lie in political change or in the forgetting of God that tends to accompany accumulation of wealth and technological progress.
True peace and genuine happiness are to be found only in union with Christ, who is their author and source.
Throughout 1925, as part of a holy year dedicated to Christ the King, the Church had sponsored a series of events –including canonizations of martyrs and various seminars—as a prolonged meditation on this theme. Now the Pope wanted to crown the year as it were with something lasting: a feast.
A feast touches the mind, heart and will, the Pope reasoned. It places something great before us for our minds to reflect upon; something beautiful for our hearts to love; and something noble for our wills to strive for. When we know Jesus, when we find ourselves so tenderly and unconditionally loved in spite of every weakness, we can’t help but love him and want to live for him. As Pius wrote: “[Christ’s] mercy and kindness draw all men to him, for never has it been known, nor will it ever be, that man be loved so much and so universally as Jesus Christ.”
More to the point, the purpose of a feast is to reinvigorate love. When love for the Eucharist had grown cold, Pius said, the Church instituted the feast of Corpus Christi. When the Jansenist heresy made the faith seem dour and severe, the feast of the Sacred Heart restored our notion of Christ’s tender mercy.
When the Church needs to shake things up in a hurry, in other words, it makes a feast!
That’s what Christ the King is meant to be: a reflection on the end times, yes, but not so much a somber reminder as a celebration that on the last page of the book, the good guys win. It’s a glorious reminder of Who Christ is, how much he loves us, what he has done for us, and the fact that our souls are destined for him.
The diction of 1925 rings a little archaic in my ears, yet reading Quas Primas I can’t help noticing how similar its themes are to those of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy –because the cultural problems it addresses are parallel to our own.
Benedict XVI, like his predecessor, is eager to spare intellects from manipulation by encouraging people to purify their reason and conscience in the source of all truth: Jesus. Our Pope, too, proposes that a “roaring” world find its peace in the intimacy of prayer and union with God. Our Pope too, repeatedly urges Christians to re-propose Christ to the world.
What better way to do that than with a beautiful solemnity, meaningfully celebrated?