The Solemnity of Christ the King, properly understood, is one of those great gems of the Church’s liturgical calendar. Unfortunately, it is often misunderstood, and as a result, little attention is paid to Christ the King as it passes by.
The misunderstandings about this feast are numerous. There are some who believe that since the Feast of Christ the King was moved to the last Sunday of the year, the feast is more or less an eschatological feast. While we look forward to Christ’s Kingship, on Earth it doesn’t exist. Others interpret Christ’s Kingship as mostly a political agenda for a supposed golden age when Catholic monarchs ruled Europe.
While both of these views can be problematic when viewed in isolation, neither is wrong in and of itself. Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world, and Christ rules from heaven, where we long to join him. While the Church has always professed this, her members also worked tirelessly to fashion civil society towards following the Gospel. That this didn’t always work as advertised is true but beside the point. Christians believe that Christ is meant to be Lord not only of our hearts, but of all creation, and that includes governments. That’s an uncomfortable truth in today’s pluralistic society, but we really should believe governments be run according to the principles of the Gospel. Not to establish some theocratic regime, but because just as the Gospel can redeem individual souls, a society ran by the law of the Gospel is a society as God originally intended.
These two understandings of Christ’s Kingship have been the source for a lot of debate, especially during the last forty years. Unfortunately, this has remained mostly an intellectual debate. Our society has continued to secularize at a frightening pace, and far from having hope about Christ’s Kingdom in heaven, people are leaving the Church altogether. It has gotten so bad that within a generation, the Pope’s own Latin America, once viewed as a model for the future of Catholicism, will cease to be Catholic. What can we do to move this debate beyond the intellectual to the practical? As with many things in Catholicism, the answer is to take both sides of this debate.
If religious conservatives have learned any hard truth over the past decade within America, it is that Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world. The political coalitions that we were told would represent Christian interests have very quickly abandoned them, or only pay enough lip service to them so they can skate through the next election. The rest of the world isn’t any better, and likely a lot worse. In order to really advance Christ’s Kingship, we have to understand how little the world regards Him as King, and how that isn’t likely to change in this generation, or even the next. We can shout for the conversion of nations and the Catholic confessional states all we want, we still aren’t going to get them. We should also realize that, contrary to expressions of hope and optimism by some figures that true change is right around the corner, society isn’t likely to move closer to the Gospel anytime soon, and very likely move even further away from it.
Faced with such a bleak outcome how is expanding Christ’s Kingship even possible? While we are unlikely to influence civil government or secular society anytime soon, we must remember that Christ’s Kingship covers far more than that. His Kingship first and foremost rules over the individual. This isn’t some hope for the future; Christ is our King now. The most important thing about Christ’s Kingship is that when we submit ourselves under it, we are part of the heavenly Kingdom. The first part about being part of the heavenly kingdom is to have a love and desire for it that surpasses all patriotism for nations on Earth.
The second thing to understand about membership in heaven’s kingdom is that our actions are the visible proof of said membership. This is where the tension between the two concepts of Christ’s Kingdom comes together. While we are ultimately to be directed towards heaven, we direct ourselves towards heaven by our actions here on Earth. Everything we do on earth should have heaven in mind. If we haven’t reached that stage of perfection, congratulations, we still have holiness to grow into. Even if we never reach it perfectly, that is still the goal before us.
Once we have begun to do this on the individual level, we then turn to the family. While we cannot control what society at large is likely to do, we can control what our family does. We need to expand this understanding to the family, and realize that the family as well takes action that is directed toward heaven. How often do they pray together? How often do they do works of charity together? How is our family a witness to Christ?
When additional families begin doing this, this can be done together, and then you get the beginnings of society. One of the big barriers to living by the Gospel is people don’t believe it is possible to do so. When you see a huge group of families living by its decrees, that myth is shattered. There is no greater gathering of Christian families than in our parishes. But how often are our parishes a living witness to Christ’s Kingship? How often do we put our actions together and dedicate them towards heaven? How often does the world see parishes together, as a Church, out there in the streets implementing Christ’s gospel? Forget the world at large, how often do our parishes take care of the needs of their parishioners, helping them, to the best of their abilities, to live out the Gospel?
When looked at from this perspective, is it any wonder that nations long ago abandoned Christ’s ruling over them? It isn’t as if we Christians have done much about Christ ruling over our own hearts, or in those of our family, or our parishes. If faith comes from hearing the word of God, what is the world hearing from us? They are mostly hearing retreat and surrender, even from our top leaders.
Now that we have understood this problem, from where to do we learn about how to overcome it? The usual Catholic response is to check out this or that blog and buy this or that book that is going to reshape everything we know about Catholic life. Maybe the Pope in his infinite wisdom can come up with some breathtaking new way to present the faith, or maybe we should focus on whatever the latest important document from Rome is.
The man who instituted the feast rejected all these ideas. Extra parish programs are good, but those are only likely to reach those who have a lot of spare time to kill. Papal encyclicals and directives from the popes are great, but in the words of Pius XI, they “usually reach only a few and the more learned among the faithful.” It isn’t that most Catholics don’t care about the Bishop of Rome and what he says. They’ve just got better things to do than listen to every pronouncement from him. As far as us writers, tough as it may be to hear, most Catholics have no clue who we are, and an even smaller number have any interest in what we have to say.
While we should have these things, there is something far better, and it is almost universally ignored by Catholics today. The Sacred Liturgy reaches all Catholics, and if we use it properly, it teaches the faithful far better than any catechism or encyclical ever could. We not only learn about Christ’s Kingship during feasts like the one we celebrate this Sunday, we learn the virtues and good deeds required to put Christ’s Kingship into reality in our hearts and the heart of society. How often do our parishes look at it in that perspective? How many homilies present the Gospel as an instruction for how to order your life towards heaven and as a sign towards society that living the Gospel is possible? If we have to start anywhere, I think it should be there.