“So you are a king?’ inquired Pontius Pilate, the haughty Roman governor of Palestine, of the bound and bruised Jesus brought before him. ‘You say that I am king’, answered the Messiah. ‘For this was I born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth’. An awesome but ambiguous reply. What kind of kingship exactly was Jesus claiming? The theme of the Feast of Christ the King, observed by Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran Churches on November 22nd, is that of Jesus’ sovereignty and dominion over the whole of creation. It is noteworthy that in 1925 Pope Pius XI instituted this liturgical celebration in reaction to ‘the growing secularism and atheism of his time’, as the New Catholic Encyclopaedia states. Since then, alas, both those evils have expanded to cancerous and monstrous proportions. All the more crucial, therefore, to reflect over the meaning and relevance of the Feast for us all. The Old Testament Book of Daniel announces a supernatural, divine envoy in exalted prophetic terms: ‘To him was given dominion and glory and kingdom…His rule is an everlasting one, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.’ The New Testament goes on to identify that cosmic figure with Jesus, the Messiah. When the Magi, the Wise Men from Persia, came to Jerusalem, St Matthew’s Gospel relates, they asked this question: ‘Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? We have seen his star in the East and we have come to worship him.’ Although Zoroastrians, the Magi recognised something universally significant in the new-born Messiah contrariwise, the cruel Jewish tyrant, King Herod, felt so frightened and threatened that he sought to murder the holy babe.
But why was Herod so afraid? It was hardly likely that a tiny, defenceless scrap of humanity, bereft of bands of armed followers, could overthrow his powerful regime, supported by the mighty Romans. That puzzle also cries out for explanation concerning the strange title in three languages that Pilate put on the cross: ‘The King of the Jews’. Probably it was intended as mere sadistic mockery. Or was it a case, unbeknownst to Pilate and the Jews, of divine cunning at work? Was God operating through the derision and the shame of the apparent, ignominious defeat of Christ? Some writers piously opine that Jesus reigns above all in the hearts of Christians. That is incontrovertible. Unless wouldbe followers of the Nazarene are prepared to accept and love him in all sincerity as Lord and Saviour inwardly, in their souls, the title of Christ the King is mere metaphor, rhetoric and empty pomp. However, if that means confining the idea of Jesus’ rule to an exclusively private dimension, it would not do at all. Herod and scores of other dictators and evildoers after him have never been afraid of that type of exclusively spiritual Messiah. There has to be more to it. (‘I would like to be Queen of Hearts’ Princess Diana once confided in an interview. Whatever she meant, it was not the kind of dominion at issue here!) Moreover, a Messiah who is also, as the Scriptures and the Church teach, a ‘Cosmocrator’, a ruler of the Cosmos, is too big to be restricted to the personal, inner realm. Memorably, in the Book of Revelation Christ appears at the end of time as ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords’. Satan and his minions will be ‘killed with the sword that proceeds from his mouth.’ Again, this apocalyptic battle is real, all too real. Some theologians have adopted a devious strategy to empty the idea of Christ’s kingship of any real content. For example, the Swiss Thomas Erastus (1524-83) held that the civil authorities have both the right and the duty to exercise supremacy over the Church. What that means is that the State is ascendant over religion and can legislate over faith. The Church of England in many ways could be regarded as a typical ‘Erastian’ body, because the monarch is also supreme governor of the national Church. Whatever the hypothetical merits of such a concept in the past – the State being obliged to uphold religion – it has none today. The British State is completely, obstinately and perversely secular and godless. It tries in all possible ways to depress, attack or ignore any Christian principles and laws in public life.
The Old Testament Book of Daniel announces a supernatural, divine envoy in exalted prophetic terms: ‘To him was given dominion and glory and kingdom…His rule is an everlasting one, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.’
In this scheme, Christ’s kingship resembles that of a ‘King Log’, a totally ineffectual, lax and toothless leader, something wholly unacceptable to any serious Christian. In actual fact, the universal Church has always maintained that Christ’s kingly rule has strong social, political and ethical implications. That often meant even excommunicating or even deposing sinful kings or emperors. St Ambrose, the great bishop of Milan, barred Emperor Theodosius the Great from entering his cathedral because he had grievously sinned by massacring the people of Thessalonica. Pope Innocent III placed King John under an interdict because he would not allow Archbishop Langdon to occupy the See of Canterbury. In a more modest but tremendously symbolic fashion, the Anglican bishop of Chichester, George Bell, during WWII spoke in the House of Lords against the disgusting and criminal British strategy of obliterating whole German cities, like Dresden, along with their innocent civilian inhabitants. All cases that go to show how Christ’s dominion cannot be restricted to the private, inward sphere. Closer to us, the South American and South African schools of liberation theology have asserted a Christian duty to uphold a preferential option for the poor, sometimes to the point of taking up arms against an unjust and oppressive regime. The famous Colombian priest Camilo Torres indeed was killed in a shootout with government forces. ‘If Christ was alive today, he would be a guerrilla fighter’, he said. I have recently come across a provocative sermon online by Fr Anthony Kadavil, a Catholic priest. He advances the intriguing idea of contemporary enemies of Christ’s rule, whom he calls ‘Satan’s terrorists’. These are not those whom we usually describe so, such as the ISIS brigade and the like but, in our culture, the tireless propagandists for abortion, fornication, cohabitation and so on.
…in 1925 Pope Pius XI instituted this liturgical celebration in reaction to ‘the growing secularism and atheism of his time’, as the New Catholic Encyclopaedia states. Since then, alas, both those evils have expanded to cancerous and monstrous proportions.
In TV shows, the Internet, the media, advertising, fashion magazines and popular entertainment a relentless campaign is waged by these demonic terrorists to denigrate, destroy and besmirch any hint of the presence of Jesus as Lord, not only in the souls of Christians but also in society at large. I fear Fr Kadavil’s fiery thesis has the ring of truth… Back to Pilate’s mocking question to Jesus long ago: ‘So you are king?’ It is clear, as I have sought to show, that both the Bible and the Christian tradition have not dismissed that disparaging request but have taken it with the utmost seriousness. At the same time I feel that something of a mystery still hangs around the figure of Christ the King, who is also the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep, as St John declares. What do I mean? I like to think of God as God of surprises. It is blasphemous to think that we can fully comprehend God and his plans for humanity. God is bigger, infinitely bigger than that. God is ‘that than which no greater can be conceived’, as St Anselm has it. It follows that God will always surprise us. It is of course a key Christian doctrine that at Christ’s Second Coming evil will be crushed for good and a kingdom, a realm of justice and peace will be inaugurated on earth. Well, who is to say that Christ may not surprise us – immeasurably and joyfully so – when he comes?