There is a story told of a Chinese artist in the third century BC who, having spent many years in carving dragons, birds, and horses upon a cherry-stone, offered his finished work to a royal prince. The prince could see nothing in it at first except a mere stone, but the artist bade him ‘have a wall built, and make a window in it, and observe the stone through the window in the glory of the dawn.’ The prince did so, and then perceived that the stone was indeed very beautiful.
The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested that ‘the early mornings belong to the Church of the risen Christ. At the break of light it remembers the morning on which death and sin lay prostrate in defeat and new life and salvation were given to mankind.’ Although in some ways this quotation is more appropriate for Easter than Advent, there is a sense in which the dawning of God’s light in this new and unique way in which it is revealed to us in Jesus Christ begins that first Christmas. As that particular prophetic reading from the Book of Isaiah, foretelling the coming of Christ, informs us: ‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned’ (Isaiah 9:2).
In the Christian Calendar, the last but one Sunday in November is celebrated as ‘Christ the King Sunday’. The ‘Feast of Christ the King’ is a relatively recent addition to the western liturgical calendar, having been instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in response to what he saw (at the time) as growing nationalism and secularism.
When Pius XI instituted The Feast of Christ the King he did so not only for the Roman Catholic Church but also in the hope that this celebration of Christ as King would be taken up by the universal church. He saw a connection at the time with an increasingly denial of Christ as King to the rise of secularism. At the time many Christians, of all denominations, had begun to question Christ’s authority and existence, together with the relevance of the Church as the Body of Christ in the world. Pius XI, and the rest of the Christian world, witnessed the rise of non-Christian dictatorships in Europe, and saw Christians being taken in by these earthly leaders. These dictators often attempted to assert authority over the Church. Just as the Feast of Corpus Christi was instituted when devotion to the Eucharist was at a low point, the Feast of Christ the King was instituted during a time when respect for Christ and the Church was waning, when the feast was needed most.
Pius hoped that the institution of the Feast of Christ the King, with its emphasis on the Lordship of King Jesus, would have various effects at a time when the universal church still carried some weight and authority. He hoped that the nations would see that the Church has the right to freedom, and immunity from the state, and that world leaders and nations would see that they are bound to give respect to Christ. He hoped that, at the same time, all those who ‘named the Name’ of Christ would gain strength and courage from the celebration of the Feast, as we are reminded that Christ must reign in our hearts, minds, wills, and bodies.
How successful Pius’ efforts were remains questionable. He is to be commended, however, for his desire to emphasise, to draw attention to, to place firmly in the foreground of Christian (and secular) thinking, the supreme place of Jesus Christ as ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’ (Revelation 19:6). Today, the same distrust of authority exists, although the problem has got worse. Individualism has been embraced to such an extreme, that for many, the only authority is the individual self. The idea of Christ as ruler is rejected in such a strongly individualistic system. Many balk at the idea of kings and queens, believing them to be antiquated and possibly oppressive. Some even reject the titles of ‘King’ or ‘Lord’ for Christ because they believe that such titles are borrowed from oppressive systems of government. However true these statements might be (we have to confess that some kings have been oppressive), these individuals miss the point!
Christ’s kingship is one of humility and service. Jesus himself said: ‘You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to become great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:42-45). The Gospel record also records that when Jesus was taken before the Roman Governor, ‘Pilate said to Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” … Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here.” So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth”‘ (John 18:33b, 36-37).
Jesus was well aware of the oppressive nature of secular kings, and in contrast to them, he described his role as King as one of humble service, and commanded his followers to be servants as well. In other passages of Scripture, his kingdom is tied to his suffering and death. Whilst Jesus Christ is coming to judge the nations, his teaching spells out a kingdom of justice and judgment balanced with radical love, mercy, peace, and forgiveness. When we celebrate Christ as King, we are not celebrating an oppressive ruler, but one willing to die for humanity and who’s ‘loving-kindness endures forever’ (Psalm 136). Jesus Christ is the King who gives us true freedom, freedom that comes to us in and through him. Thus we must never forget that Jesus Christ radically redefined and transformed the concept of kingship.
Today, the Feast of Christ the King is enjoying a renaissance amongst Christians and churches of all denominations. When Pius XI instituted the Festival in 1925 it was celebrated in October, but in 1969 Pope Paul VI moved the date to the last Sunday in the liturgical year, before a new year begins with the First Sunday in Advent. For me, it is both very fitting, and very appropriate, that the Feast celebrating Christ’s Kingship is observed right before Advent, when we liturgically wait for the Advent of the Promised Messiah or King. As the Advent Season (the four Sundays leading up to Christmas Day) is itself a preparation for Christmas, so the celebration of Christ as King is a preparation for Advent. Indeed we could perhaps learn from the example of the Church in Wales (part of the Anglican Communion) who observe the four Sundays before Advent as ‘the Sundays of the Kingdom and Christ the King’ thus taking this vital theme of Christ as King as a season and not just as a single festival.
Rather than be engulfed by the all the secular attractions of this time of the year, or overwhelmed by all the anxiety, tragedy and fear generated by the days we live in, perhaps we could take time out, as we approach Advent and Christmas, to reflect on the wonderful fact that that Child who was born in Bethlehem’s manger all those years ago was no ordinary child but One who was no other than the only begotten Son of God, One who was indeed ‘King of kings, and Lord of lords.’
As we read right at the beginning of this blog, in the old story of the artist and the prince: ‘The prince could see nothing in it at first except a mere stone, but the artist bade him “Have a wall built, and make a window in it, and observe the stone through the window in the glory of the dawn.” The prince did so, and then perceived that the stone was indeed very beautiful.’ If we are to really get to grips with Person of Jesus Christ and just why this question is of such vital importance to us all … we really do need to take time out to think seriously, to ‘observe (what happened 2,000 years ago) through the window (God has provided for us) in the glory of the dawn!’
JESUS IS KING and I will extol Him,
Give Him the glory and honour His name.
He reigns on high, enthroned in the heavens,
Word of the Father, exalted for us.
We have a hope that’s steadfast and certain,
Gone through the curtain and touching the throne.
We have a Priest who’s there interceding,
Pouring His grace on our lives day by day.
We come to Him, our Priest and Apostle,
Clothed in His glory and bearing His name,
Laying our lives with gladness before Him,
Filled with His Spirit we worship the King.
O Holy One, our hearts do adore You,
Thrilled with Your goodness we give you our praise.
Angels in light with worship surround Him,
Jesus, our Saviour, forever the same.
~ Wendy Churchill