King of All the Ages
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
22 November 2020
Solemnity of Christ the King
Sunday Next Before Advent
Homily preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
The Rev. Fr. Tony Hutchinson, SCP, Ph.D.
10:00 a.m. Sung Morning Prayer Live-Streamed from the Chancel
God, take away our hearts of stone, and give us hearts of flesh. Amen
In 1925, the world was in turmoil. The so-called Christian kingdoms of Europe were at an end, or collapsing. America had thrown out monarchy 150 years before; France had guillotined its King and Queen and hundreds of priests and bishops 125 years before. The great failed socialist revolutions of the mid-1800s had been quelled, only to see a corrupt and bitterly unfair return to the rule of the wealthy few. One victim of the turmoil of the mid-1800s had been the secular realm of the Bishop of Rome, the Papal States that had the Pope as King, that were abolished in 1870 with Italian national unification under a King. After a few decades of seeming prosperity, the powers of Europe—the few crowned heads remaining, the governments, and the Church—had failed to prevent the world from sliding accidentally into the Great War of 1914-18. The ironically named “war to end all wars” killed Christendom, the union of faith and governmental power that had reigned there for 1,500 years. A whole generation, traumatized, left the churches never to regularly return. The Bolsheviks had taken over Russia and killed the Tsar and his family.
As the post war economic depression set in, Italy’s King, Victor Immanuel III, watched on helplessly as a young former socialist and wounded WWI veteran named Benito Mussolini rose to head the government through vicious street fighting and appeals to return Italy to the glories of the Roman Empire. In Germany, a young failed artist who was also a wounded WWI veteran, named Adolf Hitler, had just gotten out of jail for staging an attempted violent coup in Bavaria, and was clearly on his way to becoming Germany’s leader through even more brutal and violent bullying tactics joined with appeals to make Germany great again.
Looking on this scene of turmoil, Pope Pius XI did some serious theological reflection on the failure of the monarchial system and the future of Christianity. He issued a circular letter on the subject, Quas primas (In the first). In it, he encouraged Christians to celebrate a feast near the end of the liturgical year celebrating Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. The Feast is now celebrated by not only Roman Catholics. All churches that use the Revised Common Lectionary now observe Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of their liturgical years. These include most Anglican and Episcopal churches, as well as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ, and the Moravian Church.
This is not because all the motives and reasons of Pius are accepted. He was arguing not only for the independence of the Church from the state, but also for its immunity to secular law. Just 4 years after the feast was initiated, Mussolini ingratiated himself with Pius by granting the Vatican independent sovereignty as a city state, a status it enjoys to this day.
The reason we have all seen fit to celebrate this feast is found in an idea that is indisputable: human governments—whether they are monarchical, despotic, socialist, nationalist, republican, or democratic—all fail, in greater or lesser degree, in standards of supporting justice, mercy, security, and prosperity.
The idea is similar to the idea discussed by Augustine of Hippo in The City of God: human politics, even when they are as good as human politics can get, fall short of the ideal. This is because they are all based in human self-interest. And where there is self-interest, there is rivalry. And where there is rivalry, sooner or later, there is favoritism for some and alienation or abuse of others.
For the ideal, we need the reign of God.
This is not to argue for a theocracy, whether expressed in monarchial or republican institutions. It is to argue for transcendence and not losing our vision of the ideal of justice and fairness.
I think all of us have had the experience of being led by a charismatic and convincing political leader who knew how to play the right chords of our hearts, and how to inspire our hope. And then we had the experience of that leader failing us, of disappointing our hope, and sometimes, even disgusting or frightening us. One of my mentors in the ordination process told me his wakening as an adult Christian came when some of the religious socialists (including priests) he had supported in Nicaragua as a young man in a hope that they would help usher in the Reign of God, in some small way, turned out in office to be petty tyrants and corrupt officials.
I am not saying that all political systems and leaders are equally corrupt or problematic. I am saying that they all fall short of the mark. In a democracy, we are responsible to seek out good leaders, honest leaders, who will serve the common good. As Christians, we pray that they serve the common good in the fear of God, or at least, in fear of popular approbation. But as the meme puts it, “No matter who President is, Christ is King.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.