The Meaning of the Solemnity of Christ the King

by Msgr. Peter Elliott

Looking at the doctrine of the Kingship of Christ, and its feastday, before and after Vatican II.

When the heroic Jesuit, Blessed Miguel Pro, was shot by order of a dictator in Mexico City in 1928, he held his arms outstretched and cried “Viva Cristo Re!” – “Long live Christ the King!” This was the cry of not a few Catholics in the pre-War era of the last century.

For some it expressed the vision of a totally Catholic society, even a return to “Christendom”, the vision of a totally Christian world that prevailed in Europe in the Middle Ages. Such unrealistic ideals failed to gain much ground among Australian Catholic social thinkers, but they still held on to the “social kingship” of Christ. They believed that, in a real sense, we are working to make Jesus the Lord of human society, imbuing society with his ethic of truth, love and justice.

They were inspired by the courageous social teaching of Pope Pius XI, who established the feast of Christ the King. But the Pope’s intentions to set Christ’s reign against totalitarian ideologies in the ‘Thirties were thwarted. The “social kingship” was high-jacked by extremists and opportunists, particularly in France by those who collaborated with the Nazis during the German Occupation (1940-1944). In reaction to such political delusions, the post-War social doctrine of the Church avoided the militancy found in some verses of hymns such as “Hail Redeemer, King Divine!” or “Thee, O Christ the Prince of Ages”.

At Vatican II, there were references to Christ’s kingdom and his priestly, regal and prophetic roles, but we find no specific teaching on his “social kingship”. In the post-conciliar liturgy the reign of Christ has been generalized and spiritualized. Now Jesus the Lord rules in a cosmic sense and in our hearts and lives. That is true and good, but should he not also be reigning in society?

The social reign of the Lord could be “re-visioned” in modern perspectives such as: the teachings of Vatican II, the cultural revolutions, the social teachings of John Paul II, the implosion of Communism, accelerating secularist challenges and the dreams and hopes of the Third Millennium.

A Kingdom of Justice

One common meeting point for a new vision of the reign of Jesus is a concern for justice. In the magnificent preface of the Mass of Christ the King the celebrant proclaims that his is a “kingdom of justice”. But justice issues reveal a tension between the “now” and the “not yet” of the Kingdom. Jesus tells us that “The Kingdom of God is among you”. Yet he teaches us to pray that the kingdom may come, that God’s will may be done “on earth”. Then we “wait in joyful hope” for his Kingdom.

We welcome his reign among us, yet we look forward to its coming. We fight for justice, yet we long for that day when justice will be given to the poor, the hungry and oppressed, the suffering. We see only too clearly that Christ does not reign on earth. The lying “lord of the world” (a description of Satan in John’s Gospel), reigns through corruption, greed, drug abuse, abortions, racism, wars, exploitation of women, elderly folk and children, contempt for the family, religious persecution etc.

A Scriptural Basis

Amidst these tensions, the Scriptures do find a place for the social reign of Christ. We learn through Revelation that there are at least four visions of the Kingdom of God: the cosmic vision, the inward vision, the social vision and the future vision of the Kingdom. Christians should try to keep these visions together in a healthy balance. To exaggerate one at the expense of the others robs the kingdom teaching of Jesus of much of its richness and depth. First we need to return to the Old Testament, finding in the Hebrew Scriptures the basis of Christ’s kingdom teaching.

The God of Israel reigned at a cosmic level. The “Lord” is also the “King of the Universe” in the Passover table prayers that have been adapted in the preparation of the gifts in our Roman Rite Mass: “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, through your goodness we have this bread/wine to offer….”. Through the temple worship God was adored in “enthronement psalms”, that still influence our liturgies.

According to the inward vision of the Kingdom, evident in the later Wisdom Literature, the God of Israel ruled as Lord in the heart of each just person, faithful to Covenant Law. At times this was only a “remnant”, a faithful minority, and under persecution the faith of Israel had to be guarded in a discreet way. Often those who were faithful were the poorest of the poor.

In terms of the social vision of the Kingdom, God reigned through the corporate fidelity of his chosen People to their great Covenant. By living the Law revealed to Moses in the ten “words” of the Lord (the commandments), Israel accepted the kingship of One who set the terms of the Covenant and yet was always faithful to it, a pattern that is clear in the covenant treaties of the ancient Middle East. Thus, in social terms, God was the real King and protector of the community, no matter whether it was governed by judges or kings.

The prophets affirmed the divine reign in terms of radical social justice for the poor and outcasts and strangers. At a more intimate social level, God reigned in the family through the royal mission of married love, especially by raising children as members of the chosen People.

The future vision of the divine Kingdom developed in two stages, first in the hope of a promised Land, especially as Israel moved from Egypt into the prepared place. Then, after all the twists and turns of living under earthly kings ended in the captivity in Babylon, the people hoped for a new kingdom of Israel, a restoration and triumph, God’s vindication of his suffering People, crushed by Syria, Babylon, Greece and Rome. This developed into the prophetic hope of a promised saviour figure, an earthly king sent on a divine mission, the Messiah. In some literature he will be a new David, that is, the ideal king, the true “son of David”. In other traditions he is a celestial “Son of Man”.

The Messiah King

In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) these traditions converge around Jesus of Nazareth and his coming. He reveals his kingship by constantly teaching about “the Kingdom” or reign of God. In certain parables, in his ethical teaching, his warnings and promises of God’s future, he reveals himself as the Messiah, the Christ, an anointed King, who is equally Priest and Prophet. Here and in the world to come he is both Son of God and Son of Man. Yet his Kingdom parables bear a subtle theme – the “hiddenness” of the Kingdom, its secret dimension, its sudden arrival, its intangible qualities.

His Kingdom bears the paradox that the “not so respectable” characters of society (prostitutes and racketeers) can storm it by their radical repentance. He reminds his listeners that it belongs to those regarded as “little ones” in the world of his time, women, especially widows, small children, the sick, the lame and the blind. They will take first place in the royal nuptial banquet that features in his teaching and is part of the climax of the whole New Testament library (Revelation 19: 6-9).

The healing miracles draw these little ones into the divine order. The carefully recorded miracles are common to all four Gospels. Undoubtedly historical and essential to any account of the life of Jesus, his many miracles are not conjuring tricks designed to impress or to impose faith. They too herald a new order, the coming of the Kingdom of the true Messiah when all will be set right. In John’s Gospel they are the “signs” of the Kingdom, also presented as the fulfilment of Isaiah’s messianic prophecy in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 4: 16-27).

In John’s Gospel Pontius Pilate retorts: “So you are a king then?” (John 18: 37) But Jesus had already said, “my kingship is not of this world”. Does that mean it is “otherworldly”? Not necessarily, hence our caution about over-emphasising a inward-looking vision of his reign: “the kingdom of God is within you”. In John’s Gospel the terms “this world” have a derogatory meaning: “Mine is no worldly kingship.” is what Jesus says to doubting Pilate, in fact implicitly contrasting his Kingdom to the ruthless rule of Rome. But there is also the nuance that his kingdom is still to come, the reign of truth. First he must wear a mocking crown of thorns and be enthroned on a criminal’s cross. This King must die to gather his people around him. This King is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah’s prophecies (Isaiah 53).

His kingship is sealed in Resurrection triumph and particularly in the Ascension. In that “enthronement” event we are called both to look forward to his return and to go out to “all nations” building his Kingdom here. The living Church is the dawn of his Kingdom. Through the Church his Kingdom grows. In every act of love and justice, the gentle dominion of the Lord extends, even among those who, as yet, do not know his name. Christ reigns as we build a just social order, beginning in the family and by affirming the basic right to life itself.

Kings or presidents come and go. What always matters is doing God’s will here and now. That means ensuring that the moral law God engraved in our nature is respected and reflected in particular laws.

We return to each of the four visions of the Kingdom. All are realised in Jesus, and we are meant to keep them in a healthy tension or balance: the cosmic vision, the inward vision, the social vision and the future vision.

Jesus reigns as the Word through whom the whole cosmos was created.
He reigns within us, through the grace of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
He reigns in society, wherever justice is done in his name.
He reigns in the future hope of the coming Kingdom, when ultimately all will be handed over to the Father and everything will find its purpose.

For now, our eyes return to earth, to the world around us, to the tension of the “now” but “not yet” that runs through our experiences of life. “Reign! Jesus, reign!” We hear the song of praise soaring to the rafters of a great cathedral – a prayer of love and gratitude. Yet within it is the hope and the plea of the words he taught us: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.


© Published by permission of Msgr. Peter Elliott 2000