Feast of Christ the King

  1. The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
  2. Reflection & Dialogue
  3. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings).

Introduction to the Feast of Christ the King

Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King in his 1925 in response to growing nationalism and secularism. It was first celebrated on the last Sunday of October. In his 1969 Pope Paul VI gave the celebration a new title: (The Solemnity of) “Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe”. He also gave it a new date: the last Sunday in the liturgical year, a time for reflection on the kingdom of God and of Christ on earth and the fulfilment of God’s plan for humanity at the end of time. The feast is also a fitting preparation for the new liturgical year with Advent.

  1. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

First Reading (Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17). As for you, my sheep, I will judge between sheep and sheep. This reading is based on the metaphor of Israel as a flock and the leaders as shepherds. The image of the god, king or other leaders as shepherds, was common throughout the ancient Near East. The same imagery is also found in the Old Testament (for instance Psalm 22[23]; today’s Responsorial Psalm; Psalm 94[95]:7) with reference to the Lord, the God of Israel, and in the New Testament (parable of the lost sheep, Mat 18:12-14; Jesus the good shepherd, John 10). The imagery is very expressive; the flocks of sheep would be small, the shepherd would lead them to new grazing grounds when required; he would ward off wolves, dogs or other predators; he would “know” them personally; the sheep would recognize his voice. Transferred to the social and political sphere, the flock is the people of Israel or Judah, shepherds of Israel are the kings, the princes, the rulers, and by extension the priests and the prophets. Due to their neglect, the sheep, the people of Judah were scattered and brought into exile in Babylonia. (Ezekiel preached to the exiles in Babylon.) God says that he himself will now become directly shepherd of his people, take them home (to Palestine) and tenderly care for the weak. He goes further. He will see that there is a reign of peace and justice between the members of the new community (“between sheep and sheep”), and attend to it that the weaker members of the community (the “sheep”) are not oppressed by the stronger (the rams and he-goats). The text goes on to say (34:23-24) that God’s servant David (that is a descendent of David) shall feed them and be their shepherd and be prince among them.

In this text God is presented as shepherd, and clearly also king, of his people, even if David is also presented as shepherd and prince in the future.

Second Reading (1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28). He will hand over the kingdom to God the Father; so that God will be all in all. This reading speaks of the completion of God’s kingdom at the end of time. In this letter to the Corinthians the reading is in the context of the resurrection of the body which some members of the Corinthian church had difficulty in accepting, a difficulty known to Paul, their apostle. Paul makes clear the centrality of the resurrection of Christ for Christian belief. Without belief in this, Christian faith is in vain. From the resurrection of Christ there follows belief in the resurrection of all believers. Christ was the first-fruits of all who have died, the first of many brothers and sisters to rise from the dead. Death has come in through Adam’s sin; all are brought to life in Christ spiritually here on earth and in their bodies at the end of time. This final resurrection, when history has ended, will mean the completion of Christ’s kingdom, the kingdom of God.

            In his letters Paul rarely speaks of the kingdom of God. In exhorting the Roman Christian community to live in harmony, he remarks: “The kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteous and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17). To the Corinthian community, given to debates and personality cult, he writes that the kingdom of God does not consist in talk, but in the transforming power of the Gospel (1 Cor 4:2). The author of the letter to the Colossians prays that the Christian community there “may be strengthened with all power, according to God’s glorious might, for all endurance, patience and joy, giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to share in the inheritance on the saints in light. He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption and forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:11-14). For Paul, then, the kingdom of God is a present reality as well as an otherworld eternal one.

The kingdom of God was central to the teaching of Jesus. He proclaimed it coming in his teaching and miracles. He was destroying the power of Satan. Without mention of the kingdom he also made himself central to his mission. “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; he who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it and he who loses his life for me sake will find it” (Matthew 10:37-39). Without mention of the kingdom, the apostle Paul stresses the centrality of Christ for believers and all creation. “God has highly exalted him, … that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11). The kingdom of God is centered on obedience, the obedience of Christ and the obedience of faith of believers. Christ was obedient to the Father, obedient even to death (Philippians 2:8); he learned obedience through what he suffered (Hebrews 5:8). Acceptance of the Christian faith meant obedience of heart and mind to Christ and his saving work. Paul had been given the mission to “bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his (i.e. Christ’s) name among all the nations … who are called to belong to Christ” (Romans 1:5-6; see also Romans 15:18)). The mystery of the Father’s saving plan, kept secret for long ages, revealed through Christ, the Church and Paul, was made know to all nations, “according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith” (Romans 16:25-26). Believers are sanctified through obedience to Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:2, 22). The life of Christians is successful against all obstacles when their obedience is complete (2 Corinthians 10:5-6).

With regard to today’s second reading, it is good to recall that Paul is thinking against the background of two forces at work in the world, one that of (the first) Adam with whom sin and death (physical and moral) entered the world, the second force, power, was that of Christ (the second Adam) and his kingdom, from his resurrection to the final judgment and the resurrection of all believers in Christ. Christ and his kingdom are fighting and destroying sin, and will continue to do so in the church throughout history. Christ will be king during this period, destroying his enemies of every sort (all form of sin and evil powers, every sovereignty, authority and power), the last of them being sin (personified). All this is still the kingdom of God (the Father). Christ is not an end in himself; he is the Son, who on completion of his work will hand over the kingdom to his Father. Christian obedience, and God’s work in creation, will then be complete.

Gospel (Matthew 25:31-46). He will take his seat on his throne of glory, and he will separate persons one from another. This reading in Matthew’s gospel is the final section of a long discourse by Jesus on the end of time. It takes it imagery of sheep and goats from contemporary Jewish pastoral life. Both these were valued animals. They grazed together, but were separated before marketing. Jesus does not set one in value against the other. In the reading Jesus, the Son of Man, is presented both as king and shepherd. While the reading concerns the final judgment, it is also a sermon for all members of the Church on Christian living. The final examination will be on how we have served Christ in our neighbours. The six acts of charity listed are the first six of the seven corporal works of mercy of Catholic tradition: feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked; shelter the homeless; visit the sick; visit those in prison; the seventh added in Christian tradition: bury the dead. These acts of charity were part of Jewish tradition.

 This Gospel Judgment scene has been very popular in art, including the early Irish high crosses (for instance Muiredach’s Cross at Monasterboice), and in illuminated manuscripts.

            A message of the Judgment scene in the Gospel reading is that the kingdom of heaven is not just about the life to come. The kingdom of Christ very much belongs to this world as well, and entry to the heavenly kingdom will be related to how its values are lived in this world.

  1. Reflection and Dialogue with Questions of the Day

Reflection. The readings can be taken in conjunction with part of the Preface for this day’s Mass: “You (holy Father) anointed Jesus Christ, your only Son, with the oil of gladness, as eternal priest and universal King. … As King he claims dominion over all creation, that he may present to you, his almighty Father, an eternal and universal kingdom: a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace”. On earth, the Church works to have the initial stages of this kingdom become a reality here on earth. All her members are called to pray that through their lives they may be witnesses that this kingdom is a living reality.

Dialogue with Questions of the Day. This celebration invites us to make a connection between Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe and present-day society, and to establish a dialogue with it. The feast was first established in response to growing nationalism and secularism, particularly in Italy and Germany. In our own day secularism and secularization are ever more on the increase, not to speak of the advance of a militant atheism, attempting to lead to a denial of the very existence of God. A very early formula of faith was that Jesus Christ is Lord. The very term “lord” had far-reaching implications. With “lord” go lordship, dominion. In Paul’s day there were many who were designated as lord. One of them was the Roman emperor who was honoured as a god, and who demanded such honour. Writing to the Corinthians on a related matter Paul said (1 Corinthians 8:5-6): “Even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth – as in fact there are many gods and many lords – yet for us there is one God, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist”.

            Today, with a growing desire to separate the state from the Church, and to introduce a secular society, some may be heard to assert that they are politicians, or citizens, or artists, first and then Christians or Catholics. The fidelity to his person required by Christ would not permit this. Christ does not permit anyone to put him in the second place. This question of the prior allegiance to Christ or the state goes back to the early history of the Church, and the principles to governing the matter are the same today as then.

            The kingdom of God and of Christ will of necessity come into collision with the pressure that comes from a militant atheism wishing to convince people that God does not exist. Today’s feast reminds believers to be on the alert for forces at work in our world today. There is no limit to the ways in which reflection can be made on the possible forms of dialogue with the world of our own day, arising from belief in Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.

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