In case we had forgotten and needed to be reminded, the world has recently gotten yet another reminder in Paris and elsewhere of what a dangerous and unpredictable place this world is - and how strong the power of evil is in the world. But the presence of evil in our world and the evil misuse of human power – political power, military power, economic power, all kinds of human power – are not new and should not surprise us.
Exactly 88 years ago tomorrow, a 36-year old Mexican Jesuit, Miguel Agustin Pro, was executed by the Mexican government. Educated abroad because of the Mexican revolutionary government’s persecution of the Church, Father Pro had returned after his ordination in 1926 to serve in the underground Church. On November 23, 1927, as the firing squad pointed their rifles at him, Pro extended his arms in the form of a cross, proclaiming, “Viva el Cristo Rey!” (“Long live Christ the King!”).
With those powerful words, Pro (who was beatified as a martyr in 1988) reminded the world that there is a king greater than any human power, a king who testifies to the truth. Two years prior to Pro’s martyrdom, Pope Pius XI had proposed the same point to the world with his encyclical letter on the kingship of Christ, which first established this feast of Christ the King, which we are celebrating today.
To the proverbial alien observer from Mars, this week’s Thanksgiving and Christmas-themed parades perhaps might seem like royal processions heralding the arrival of Santa Claus as king. But today’s celebration has something more like the real thing in mind.
The fundamental function of a king is to unite a community by a powerful personal bond – a bond so powerful precisely because it is personal, a bond so personal that through all of human history no civic symbol has served so successfully at building and bonding and unifying communities. And so today, at this pivotal turning-point in the Church’s annual cycle, we celebrate the powerful personal bond we share with Jesus Christ, our king – and not just our king but “king of the universe.”
Christ the King reigns in human hearts, Pius XI wrote, “because he is very truth, and it is from him that truth must be obediently received by all.” But truth can be an incredibly inconvenient and even threatening concept in a world which sees no need for it, a world which has no desire for it, a world which wants to construct its own reality. It was clearly so for Pilate in today’s gospel [John 18:33b-37], who responded to Jesus’ claim about his kingship by dismissively asking, “What is truth?” Pilate clearly could not imagine that such a question could actually have a real answer. Nor should we pretend that the world has made much progress on this score since Pilate’s time. Hence Pope Francis’s reminder last September, speaking to the United Nations General Assembly, demanding “that we recognize a moral law written into human nature itself.”
Christ the King scandalized Pilate’s sophisticated Roman sensibilities – as he similarly scandalizes our own sophisticated sensibilities – precisely by proposing the truth, not as something socially constructed by us, but as something given by God, not as something we choose as one option among many, but as something we learn, something that in effect chooses us and challenges us in ways we would not necessarily have chosen for ourselves.
When today’s reading [Revelation 1:5-8] from the Book of Revelation refers to us – to the whole Church - as a kingdom of priests, that’s a reference back to the people of Israel, to whom God had said at Mount Sinai: You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. What that meant was that, as God’s Chosen People, the People of Israel would be the special link between God and the world, through whom (as promised to Abraham long ago) the whole world would find blessing. So, when the New Testament refers to the whole Church as a kingdom of priests, it’s telling us that all of us, together as his Church, have been put into a new relationship with God, which makes us the special vehicle through which the whole world will experience that blessing. As subjects of Christ the King, as citizens of his kingdom, we have become Christ’s word and voice in a world full of false and lying words, full of shrill and demagogic voices. In such a world, we may perhaps (as has been said so often) be the only word and voice of Christ that many will ever hear.
As subjects of Christ the King, as citizens of his kingdom, therefore, we too must testify to the truth in all aspects of life - witnessing to the truth in our relationships with one another and the wider world. To celebrate Christ’s kingship and to pray (as we do every day at Mass) for the coming of his kingdom, is to commit ourselves to the fullest extension of that kingdom to this world – so that this yearly celebration of Christ the King becomes not just an annual ritual marking the passing of the seasons, but the deepest expression of what we believe and who we hope to be and what we hope for our world.
Homily for the Solemnity of Christ the King, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN,
November 22, 2015.