Today, the last Sunday of our liturgical year, is Christ the King or the Reign of Christ. It’s a recent addition to the church’s calendar, authorized by Pope Pius XI in 1925, only eight years after the end of World War I. It was a time when the church was on the defensive from the forces of modernity and secularism and coincided with the rise of Fascism in Italy. Whatever political or theological statement was originally intended, The Reign of Christ invites us to pause and reflect on all of the themes that emerge as we make our way from Advent, through Lent and Easter, and now as the season after Pentecost draws to an end. We are asked to reflect on what it means to follow Jesus, to proclaim our faith in him, to confess that he is King of King and Lord of Lords.
Some images to reflect on. First of all today’s cover photo: detail from the apse mosaic in S. Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy. Ravenna was the capital in Italy of the Byzantine Empire, and its churches with their beautiful mosaics from the sixth and seventh centuries bear witness to the faith, the power, and wealth of the Byzantine emperors. There is a great deal that could be said about such imagery but I will offer only a few comments—Christ is depicted as emperor, clad in imperial purple, with crown and scepter. He is seated on the globe, depicting his kingship over earth. It’s not a leap of imagination to draw parallels between the depiction of Christ here, and the depiction of Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora in other mosaics.
Another image. The title sequence from the miniseries the Crown currently available on Netflix. We’re currently in season 3, the story picks up in the mid 60s but what is most interesting to me is the title sequence. You don’t really know what you’re looking at until the very end. The screen shows swirls of gold against black, moving around to offer different perspectives, and finally pans out. In at least one episode, you realize you’re looking at the crown on Elizabeth’s head as she is about to go to some official state occasion. The beauty and majesty of it offer a stark contrast to the gritty reality of the story that is being told, whether it’s the Profumo scandal or LBJ’s salty conversations.
A third image or set of images: Although the US claims not to be a monarchy, I encourage you to reflect on all of the ways our nation uses imperial and royal imagery to project its power and dominance, and to inspire allegiance.
A fourth image. This time from our second reading, the letter to the Colossians. In majestic, hymnic language we hear:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers– all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15-17)
I say hymnic because this seems to be a quotation from an early hymn that Christians used in worship: a hymn in praise of the transcendent majesty of Christ. It’s language that is quoted in our Eucharistic prayers: “the firstborn of all creation,” … expressing the belief that Christ was present at creation, indeed, it might better read “firstborn before all creation;” that Christ’s power extends over all the universe, and transcends all other powers: thrones, dominions, rulers, or powers.” But it is power that doesn’t only dominate or oppress, it is a power that creates, preserves, and maintains: “in him all things hold together.”
But then we learn more. Christ may be all of that, the firstborn of all creation, transcendent, majestic, but Christ is also present among us: “He is the head of the church, and in parallel to what has come before, he is “the firstborn from the dead.” Whatever distance we might be from God, in spite of human sin and all the ways that creation has fallen short of God’s original intent, in Christ, God is reconciling all things to God, breaking down the barriers between heaven and earth.
That language brings us to our final image as we explore the meaning of the reign of Christ. The author of Colossians, or the early Christians he is quoting, understand that reconciliation to come through the blood of the cross. We come, then, to the gospel reading, Luke’s version of the crucifixion.
Here is what the Reign of Christ means. Here is Christ the King. Whatever else we might think the idea of Christ ruling in majesty might mean, whatever imagery from history, or tradition, or political power, here we see Christ’s reign. Executed by empire, executed on the charge of sedition—“King of the Jews” Christ’s death was ignominious, folly to Greeks, and a stumbling to Jews. He was arrested, tried, and sentenced as a revolutionary, as someone who challenged Rome’s imperial power.
Crucifixion was a public performance. The crosses stood near roads so that passers-by could see and watch the executions. Usually the bodies remained on the cross for days or even weeks as a reminder to all of Rome’s power, and the shame incurred by challenging it. Crucifixion was an act of humiliation. We see that throughout the trial, with Jesus mocked, clad in purple, given a crown of thorns.
The tradition, piety, devotion, has tended to emphasize the extent of Christ’s suffering. There’s often a focus on how much Christ suffered. In our theological and devotion reflection, we are inclined to focus on the evidence of that suffering—on Jesus’ wounds, on his blood, as even Colossians does. Luke has a very different focus. He passes over the act of crucifixion with little more than an observation. Instead, he emphasizes Christ’s humiliation. Every possible group present at the event humiliated Jesus. The leaders scoffed; the soldiers mocked; even one of the criminals by his side mocked him. Finally, Luke mentions the inscription, full of ironic power: the King of the Jews. King, indeed. Jesus dies powerless, humiliated, mocked by bystanders.
Here in this scene we see the nature of Christ’s reign. Even as he makes his way to the place of execution, as his body is nailed to the cross, as he hangs for all to see and mock, Christ proclaims his reign, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” On the cross, he reconciles his enemies to himself, on the cross, he reconciles the world to God.
On the cross, he reconciles those with whom he dies, the criminal, the bandit, very likely, like Jesus someone who was charged with sedition, with violence challenging Rome’s power.
As he dies, Rome watches, and a Roman bears witness. The centurion, the man in charge of the execution watches and says, “Truly this man was innocent.”
Hearing this story, this week, raises all manner of challenging questions. What does it mean for us, here at this moment, to proclaim Christ the King, or the reign of Christ? What does that proclamation say about our political allegiances and about our relationship with nation?
We reflect on this scene, on the unjust execution of an innocent man and we may think of all those suffering in prison unjustly, or serving sentences that far outweigh the severity of their crimes, while others go free. We should think of the way our criminal justice system is rigged against people of color and against the poor. Christ the King is with them as they suffer the humiliation and pain of prison and probation.
We may think of asylum seekers and refugees, separated families, people torn from their lives, loved ones and their homes because they lack documentation. Christ the King is with them as they suffer.
We may think of all those people in our society who suffer humiliation day by day, who are mocked …
Then, we may think of the church, that wonderful and sacred mystery. Christ the King is head of the church. How do we embody and proclaim the ministry of reconciliation among ourselves and in the world? Do we forgive our enemies, even as they persecute us; do we forgive when we are unjustly accused or condemned? And do we invite others to experience reconciliation through Christ?
To confess the reign of Christ is to confess a reign utterly unlike political power as it is expressed and experienced in the world. To confess the reign of Christ is no mere set of words, but a way of life, being reconciled to Christ as we experience the forgiveness of his love. It is to seek to reconcile humans to each other, to break down all the barriers that divide us, but also to address all of the ways we hurt each other and have been hurt by others. Living in Christ’s reign means as well to reconcile others to Christ, to invite others to experience the newness of life and the forgiveness of sins. May the reign of Christ live in us and through us, today and always.