By: Dr. Anthony Coleman
Director of MAM/MTS Degree Programs
Saint John’s Seminary
If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you already know that I often draw inspiration from the liturgical calendar; which is a great gift to us and a way for us to remember that our faith makes real historical claims. We don’t believe, for example, in a death and resurrection myth, but that Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, actually died and rose from the dead in time, space, and history.
On the one hand, a calendar commemorating God’s action with His people is an inheritance from our Jewish ancestors. On the other hand, the distinctively Christian liturgical calendar begins with the commemoration of the Lord’s resurrection every Sunday. The earliest evidence we have of Christian practice, both within and outside of the NT, tells us that for as long as there have been Christians, they’ve celebrated the resurrection of Jesus every Sunday. Hence every Sunday is often called ‘little Easter.’
So, beginning with the Sunday celebration of the resurrection, the liturgical calendar itself grew organically over time. A martyr is added to the calendar here, a saint is added to the calendar there, so on and so forth down through the centuries. And this leads me to the solemnity which is the occasion for this meditation, because one might be tempted to think that all of the commemorations on the liturgical calendar related to the person of Christ have a more ancient foundation. In many cases that’s true, but in some cases it’s not.
Take, for example, the solemnity of Christ the King, which we celebrate on Nov. 20th this year. This commemoration was added to the liturgical calendar by, the now venerable, Pope Pius XI in 1925; so it’s rather recent. And as one might guess from the year it was established, Pius XI instituted this solemnity in the wake of World War I and just as various secular, nationalistic political parties were emerging in Western Europe. So, this celebration is a great reminder to Christians, not only in Western Europe but all over the world, that “Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil 2:11). Moreso than any earthly power, be it political or otherwise, Jesus Christ is the one whom governs – not just a nation or the nations – but the entire universe.
In the first reading for Mass on this day we see this reflected in St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians. “For in him were created all things,” the Apostle to the Gentiles writes, “in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, […] all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1: 16-17). We believe that in the person of Jesus Christ God himself, the Creator and Lord of the universe, was made flesh. And it’s by virtue of this union, between God and man in the person of Jesus Christ, that he is King. As St. Cyril of Alexandria wrote: “Christ has dominion over all creatures, a dominion not seized by violence nor usurped, but his by essence and by nature” (In huc. x.). If Jesus Christ is the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity made flesh, then he is the source – with the Father and the Holy Spirt - of all that exists. The governor of all, the ruler of all, the king of all.
In thinking about this piece, I was struck by the fact that, while the solemnity of Christ the King is a newer commemoration on the liturgical calendar, what it affirms, the substance of this feast, is quite ancient. As we saw in the reading from St. Paul, the statement that “Jesus Christ is Lord,” not Caesar nor cosmic forces, is probably the earliest Christian confession of faith contained in the New Testament, and one which we still profess. And it was for this profession of faith that the early Christian martyrs offered their lives rather deny. In one of the more famous scenes from the Acts of the Martyrs , St. Polycarp († c. 155) – a bishop who, according to tradition, was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist – is brought before the local governor and threatened. The governor demands that Polycarp “‘swear by the Genius of the Emperor’ ‘Swear and I will let you go. Curse Christ!’ But Polycarp answered: ‘For eighty-six years I have been his servant and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme against my king and savior?’” (MartPol 9). In a way, then, the solemnity of Christ the King is both “ever ancient, and ever new” (Conf. X.38).