The year is 1925. World War I is over, and the United States is enjoying an unprecedented economic boom, but Europe is still devastated from the war (a war that will continue to be called in Europe, “The Great War”). In Italy, Benito Mussolini has seized power as dictator, and Adolf Hitler has just been released from prison and has published his autobiography. The greatest cultural storm to hit the world in modern times – the Second World War and all the changes it will unleash – is brewing. It is in this context that the great Pope Pius XI established today’s feast, the Feast of Christ the King. In doing so, he wrote:
“The rebellion of individuals and states against the authority of Christ has produced deplorable consequences … : the seeds of discord sown far and wide; bitter enmities and rivalries between nations, insatiable greed, a blind and immoderate selfishness, making men seek nothing but their own comfort and advantage; no peace in the home, because men have forgotten or neglect their duty; the unity and stability of the family undermined; society in a word, shaken to its foundations and on the way to ruin” (Quas Primas 24).
In response to the many evils Pius XI saw all around – and that plague our own day as well – the Pope’s solution was that all the Church throughout the world with one voice ought to declare the Kingship of Christ. Pope Pius originally placed this feast on the last Sunday of October in order to be close to All Saints Day. He wanted to emphasize that Christ’s kingdom that will fully be realized only at the end of time, when the glory of Christ and all the saints is made known in Heaven should also be established here and now. The modern Roman rite moves this feast to the last Sunday after Pentecost before the beginning of Advent in order to end the liturgical year in a “going out with a bang” sort of way that at the same time points us to Christ’s second coming in glory, when His kingship will be most perfectly manifested.
So we celebrate Christ as king right before entering the sacred season of Advent as we prepare for the celebration of Christ’s first coming at Christmas. That is not an accident either. The theme of today’s feast points us to Christ’s reigning in glory; the Gospel of the Mass points to Him reigning from the Cross, the ironic victor over sin and death; and the proximity to the feasts to come recalls to our mind Christ ruling as King from the manger, even more vulnerable than the weak and wounded man using His last breaths to pardon the repentant thief.
For centuries, people have drawn a connection between the wood of the crib and the wood of the Cross. Christ’s humble beginnings suggest the humble end of His earthly life – executed as a common criminal. And yet, in all three ways, Christ really does reign, our merciful victor King – from the crib as the Christchild, from the Cross as Savior, and in the end as Judge.
Pope Pius XI established this feast of Christ the King to move us to establish a society in which Christ really does reign as the King. We should think, then, about the faces in which we see Christ the King. To whom should we give honor in our society in order to set Christ at the forefront? Who will reveal His face to us?
In the Gospels, Christ gives priority to the most surprising of people. The first to receive the joyous announcement of His birth from the angels are the shepherds. For those of us whose understanding of the Christmas story comes more from Charlie Brown than an historical awareness of the ancient near east, we can lose sight of how this is so surprising. Being a shepherd was an occupation for the outcasts of society. They reeked of their unkempt flocks and would not have been able to gain admittance to any house. Likewise, the most common occupation of the Apostles was that of the fisherman. This is above the level of shepherds in prestige but not by a lot. The Lord sought out some people of lofty status, but they were public sinners and despised by the people.
Thus, in the Gospel of St. Matthew, Christ identifies Himself with some surprising people. “I was hungry,” he says, “and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink … I was in prison and you visited me … Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:35,40).
Who then are the least of Christ’s brethren today? And how can we make them a higher priority in our world so that Christ will truly be seen to reign? The Gospel calls us to a preferential option for the poor. Thus the Catechism explains, “Those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church which, since her origin and in spite of the failings of many of her members, has not ceased to work for their relief, defense, and liberation through numerous works of charity which remain indispensable always and everywhere” (CCC 2448).
There are two terms that we need to clarify here. First, the poor. When Christ talks about the poor, He is not just talking about those who struggle to pay the bills. He is talking about all those who are undervalued by society – the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the prisoner. The second is this “preferential option.” Christ desires that our first thought be for the most vulnerable among us. How does this particular trend affect those vulnerable populations? How will this new law affect those already suffering?
This is not the way our society tends to view things. We operate on the presumption that a rising tide lifts all boats. In many ways, this is true. The general economic advancement of the last 200 years has done more to lift people out of material poverty than any particular social relief program. However, the Gospel is not about statistics – it is about people. The preferential option for the poor means looking at the people in front of us rather than simply numbers on a page. Who, then, are these poor who give us the chance to put Christ first in our society by giving a priority to those with whom our Lord so closely identifies?
First, even “poor” has more than a literal meaning, it also has the literal meaning of the economically disadvantaged. When we speak about our Lord’s particular love for and identification with the poor, those who are literally poor are not left out. This does not mean that we are obligated to give money to each and every person who asks it of us. But it does mean that we should seek to have hearts motivated by love for others and love for Christ in others, rather than hearts motivated by selfishness and greed.
Next, Christ invites us to see Him in the spiritually poor, those struggling to believe in Him, people struggling with addiction, even people who choose to follow lifestyles not in accord with the Gospel. Such examples of spiritual poverty ought also to provoke compassion and a preferential option that informs the way that we speak about difficult subjects – not writing off whole segments of the brotherhood of humanity as an ambiguous “them” or “those people.” We rarely realize the depths of suffering experienced by those close to us. This does not mean that we acquiesce on the Gospel’s call to holiness, or that we cease defending the Gospel in its fullness on difficult teachings like human sexuality, but it does mean that we see the suffering face of Christ even in those who have not yet come to understand Christ’s call to holiness.
Christ identifies Himself with the sick. How do we honor and give preferential treatment to the sick and the elderly? Our society places the greatest value on a person’s economic output. Do we see the sick and elderly as honored members of our society, or as a burden? Many Western societies seek to reduce the burden of caring for the sick and elderly by promoting euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide. They have come up with polite terms to re-negotiate their position, such as “Physician-assisted dying.” We should not give in to this re-framing of the conversation. Physician-assisted suicide, barriers to medical care, and health systems that prioritize the pursuit of profit do not recognize Christ in the sick and elderly.
The first guarantee of salvation was made by Christ on the Cross to the repentant thief. Christ says in Matthew 25 that He is present in the prisoner. How, then, does our society treat Christ in the prisoner? The United States has developed a one-of-a-kind, for-profit prison system that encourages repeat offenses that trap people in the system and make millions of dollars for corporate America. Many prisoners are effectively treated as slave laborers, or are paid literally pennies per hour for grueling labor. Knowing that strong bonds with relatives and friends are the key to successful re-integration into society, they raise the prices on the limited means of communication available in order to bring people back in months later. Society has the right and even the duty to punish criminal offenders. It does not have the right to economically profit off their weakness.
Some of the most vulnerable people in our own country are those who have fled violence and extreme poverty elsewhere to attempt a more humane life here. Many were brought here as children and know no other home. To others, we respond that they “should have done it legally,” forgetting that this frequently takes over twenty years. Waiting twenty years is not a good option when your children run the risk of getting caught in the stray bullets of gang violence while walking to school. Regardless of what each one of us thinks is the best solution to this political crisis, when we look upon people desperately in need of our help, do we see the face of Christ? It is such as these that – if we are to put Christ first as King in our world – we must include in that preferential option for the poor and vulnerable.
Finally, no one in this world is more vulnerable, more exposed to danger, than the unborn child in her mother’s womb. The legal structure of our country says that this is not even a human life at all. The Gospel, the teachings of the Church, and even secular documents like the Declaration of Independence, make clear that the right to life is the most fundamental of all rights, upon which depends every other aspect of human dignity. A society that does not protect the most vulnerable of all, who attempts to disregard even the personhood of someone based on the mere fact that she has yet to be born, can never be a society that has Christ as its King. The vulnerability of the unborn child to the most grievous attack known to man must remain the preeminent priority of all those who seek to establish the Kingdom of Christ among us.
A society with Christ as its king is a society that places those who reveal the face of Christ as its first concern. We live in a society that values economic productivity – that sees the human person as a “consumer” of economic goods, and that believes that men and women have the right to determine their own best way of life, their own truth. In the middle of all this, Christ wants to come to be our King. He comes in meekness and lowliness, but also in majesty and might. Nowhere do we see this better than in the Most Holy Eucharist, celebrated in the beauty and splendor of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, in which the Lord who reigned from the Crib and the Cross gives His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity to us. Today we are invited to receive Him into our hearts as our King, asking Him to transform our hearts to see Him in the poor and vulnerable around us, so that making them the first priority of our society, our Church, and our families, we might set about building His Kingdom on earth.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen