I feel a little disoriented today. That’s because usually, on this Sunday after Thanksgiving, we are beginning the season of Advent. It’s always a bit of a mad rush—especially for the Altar Guild—as we do the switch over from Thanksgiving to hanging greens. But this year, because Thanksgiving came so early—with five Thursdays in November—we strangely have an extra week, before the Advent transformation.
The wider cultural is already embracing Christmas, of course. On Friday evening one station aired “Frosty the Snowman” and another showed “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” featuring my favorite Christmas villain, the Burgermeister Meisterburger. And I know some of you at home have made the transition already, with pretty Christmas decorations up—I bought an artificial tree on Friday—though, it’s still in its box, hiding behind the living room sofa. But here in church we have another week yet. A chance to pause, take a breath, and reflect on what this faith of ours is all about. In fact, in terms of the liturgical calendar, today—Christ the King Sunday—is the churchy equivalent of New Year’s Eve, when we sum up what we believe and who we believe in.
Two Sundays ago we, with much of the United States, Canada, Europe, and beyond observed the 100th anniversary of the Armistice of 1918, which ended the horrific fighting of World War I, after so many millions died—on battlefields, in makeshift hospitals, from starvation and disease. (Sermon here). Nearly 20 million people in the space of just 4 years. The world had never seemed anything like it. In the months after the war, leaders of governments and ordinary citizens alike hoped that the end of the war would bring a new order and stability.
Only, that’s not quite what happened. Instead, governments were destabilized. Sturdy, venerable old empires were swept away. Kings and emperors were overthrown. The Tsar of Russia was even murdered, along with his family. And in the place of the old world order came chaos, uncertainty, in some cases revolution. Faith, too, was shaken. People wondered where they could find God when so much was lost.
To that point in history, there was among many a belief that humanity was rising on a sort of escalator toward enlightenment and even perfection. With each new invention, each new opportunity, it was believed that humanity was becoming better and better. More enlightened. More rational. Even more God-like. In a way, it was kind of like the story of the Tower of Babel in the Book of Genesis, which we heard about in our Thursday night adult ed session a couple weeks ago. People thought that they could literally, physically climb up to heaven and see God face to face. It didn’t work in the Book of Genesis and it didn’t work in the early 20th century either. The war happened, millions were killed by machine guns, poison gas, bombs, and disease. Clearly, people were no better in 1918 than they were in 1518 at the start of the Reformation and no better than 2018 BC. We had just figured out how to kill each other with greater efficiency.
Into such a destabilized chaos authoritarian leaders came to prominence, filling a void, and giving people a sense of order, something they could believe in, someone they thought they could trust. Strong hands, strong voices, strong visions. Of course, in most cases where authoritarian regimes came to power, the citizenry had little experience with democracy, whether in Germany, Italy, or Russia. Emperors and dictators were all pretty much the same. Instead of turning to each other, or to God, many turned to dictators, who offered a sense of security, through strong language, through a promise of power and renewed national strength, through armies, and through suppression of difference.
It was in the midst of this disconcerting post-war new world order that today’s celebration—the Feast of Christ the King—was established, by Pope Pius XI in 1925. He set it as a new feast day to encourage and embolden the faithful, in light of the secularism, communism, and fascism arising all around them, in that especially tense in-between time between the two world wars.
The Feast of Christ the King was intended to remind Christians that their ultimate allegiance was not to a state, political philosophy, or world leader—whether king, president, or dictator—but instead always and only to God. At the same time, through the observance of Christ the King, Pope Pius urged nations to allow freedom for the exercise of religion and immunity from retribution from the state, while also encouraging the nations and their leaders to reorient themselves away from secularism, communism, and fascism, and instead respect and follow Christian teachings. Christ the King started as a Catholic-only observance, but over time many Protestant churches saw the wisdom in it as well, and now today, its observance is widespread, even as for many it may have lost its most intense meaning—seen so much more clearly in the 1920s and 30s.
That said, in our time, over 90 years later, the meaning of the day—and even more of the confession of Christ as King of our lives and souls—seems all the more important and even vital. We are reminded that the stuff which takes up so much room in our homes and souls—things people rush out to buy at the best and lowest price on Black Friday or Cyber Monday, can have no claim on us. We are reminded that governments and political leaders—whether we agree with them or not—have no ultimate claim on us, despite what they may think or would like to be the case. Not if we are Christians. Not if Christ is our real and true king.
We are reminded that our truest citizenship is not in the United States or any nation, but in the Kingdom of God. That’s what we claim and state and profess on this Christ the King Sunday. In fact, that’s what we profess every time we say the Nicene Creed on Sunday morning. In a way, it’s like we are saying the Pledge of Allegiance—only instead of pledging to a country or a flag, we are pledging ourselves to God. It doesn’t mean that we have to believe each word unfailingly necessarily. I am well aware that many of us here at Emmanuel have a diverse variety of beliefs and questions and ways of grappling with the meaning of our faith. But what we share is a commitment to God in Christ. We proclaim our spiritual freedom from earthly kingdoms and powers, in favor of a different kind of life and a different kind of commitment—in heart and mind, body and soul.
What’s more, this king that we profess, this Christ, is radically different from the emperors, kings, and presidents of the world. Just think about his life. He was born in a barn or a cave or a home filled with animals. He and his parents were refugees, who had to flee their home. Like so many immigrants and refugees, they weren’t looking for wealth or prosperity, just the chance to live in safety, away from an oppressive, murderous king. This Christ the King we follow was an ethnic and religious minority empire in which he lived. And he frustrated the authorities of even his own religion by challenging assumptions and questioning long-held practices. Many therefore considered him a heretic—for what he said, for the people he taught and touched, for his vision of a different kind of a kingdom, with a different kind of king.
Most horrifically, this Christ the King we follow was executed as a criminal. As a political revolutionary, a threat to the Roman Empire. H was crucified as an example to others who might believe that they, too, could upset and overturn the social order—by breaking rules, by speaking out, by questioning a system that sought that keep people down and in their place. Of course, what Pontius Pilate didn’t know and what the likes of Caesar and Herod and all those who opposed Jesus didn’t know and couldn’t understand is that killing Jesus didn’t stop him or shut him up. And it didn’t deter his friends and all whose lives he touched.
Instead, it emboldened them to proclaim their faith ever more strongly. With greater power and purpose. Rather than going away, being pushed aside and forgotten as the nothing the authorities thought he was, Jesus rose and he reigned. Not over kingdoms of the world. Not over armies or nations. But over hearts and souls. Over people who came to understand in a deep and profound way that their lives were bound to his. And that his manner of life, and the deepest concerns of his heart should be theirs as well.
When you think about it, there could be no more radical message or pledge than to proclaim Christ as King. Whether in the Roman Empire, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, or even the United Kingdom or the United States—2000 years ago, 80s years ago, or today. The question is for us, though, is how do we live what we profess? How do we put in action what we say in our prayers, sing in our hymns, and confess in our creeds? How do we make Christ the King, over our lives, over our hearts and our souls?
There is no set answer. For each of us it will be different. But how Christ can and should be king is something for each of us to ponder anew, especially as we end one season and begin another. Especially as we move into Advent and hear again the prophets’ calls for justice and mercy, the angels’ song of peace on earth and good news of great joy for all the people, and most especially as we recall the story of the birth of a king, our king, in nothing more than a manger.
To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD