Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King in his 1925 encyclical letter Quas Primas, in response to growing nationalism and secularism. The title of the feast was “D. N. Jesu Christi Regis” (Our Lord Jesus Christ the King), and the date was “the last Sunday of the month of October – the Sunday, that is, which immediately precedes the Feast of All Saints“. In Pope John XXIII‘s 1960 revision of the Calendar, the date and title remained the same and, in the new simpler ranking of feasts, it was classified as a feast of the first class.
In his 1969 motu proprio Mysterii Paschalis, Pope Paul VI gave the celebration a new title: “D. N. Iesu Christi universorum Regis” (Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe). He also gave it a new date: the last Sunday in the liturgical year, before a new year begins with the First Sunday in Advent, the earliest date for which is 27 November. Through this choice of date “the eschatological importance of this Sunday is made clearer”. He assigned to it the highest rank, that of “Solemnity”. (Wikipedia)
Almost 100 years later, the Church is still jousting with secularism. Constantine co-opted Christianity and the witness of Christians has never been quite the same as it was before. Thinking of Christ as King is actually counterproductive and, in my opinion, distorts the Gospel message.
Look at how today’s scripture readings portray the Christ. For Ezekiel, the Christ is a shepherd who will judge between the fat and lean sheep with justice. “He shall feed them and be their shepherd.” “Paul” (Ephesians was not written by Paul.) tells us that the Christ will have dominion but we know that it is supposed to be a dominion of Kin-dom justice. Matthew describes the Christ as the Son of Man (found primarily in Ezekiel and Daniel) who again will sit in judgment based on justice—how have we treated others especially the least among us? Yes, the Christ will sit on his throne of glory, not as regal king, but as the Son of Man—ben-‘adam or humanity personified.
Bishop Spong makes a convincing case that the first Christians were followers of the way within Judaism. The followers of Christ searched the Jewish scriptures which they used in synagogue worship for passages which would describe the Christ and make the Christ experience viable for Jews and Gentiles.
Taking the lead from Spong, my reading of the scriptures, does not support the Christ portrayed as King. In fact, the Christ is everything but King. The Jews wanted a Messiah King to deliver them from Roman captivity but Jesus told them that the Son of Man must be crucified. Jesus did not strike a very kingly pose hanging naked on a cross.
He Christ is shepherd. Remember that shepherds were not held in high esteem. The Christ that emerges from Isaiah is first and foremost Suffering Servant—spit upon and buffeted with blows and mockery. The Christ is not the triumphant military messiah. The Christ enters Jerusalem on Zephaniah’s donkey in a street theater spoof of kingly stuff. The Christ reminds us to wash one another’s feet as servant leaders.
[I cannot resist noting that the image of the fat and lean sheep has something to say about the 99% and the 1%. Is Ezekiel commenting on the growing disparity between the haves and have not?
Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
It is fitting on the last Sunday of the liturgical year to honor Jesus who became the Christ; however, we should carefully choose our images of the Christ based on scriptural norms and not church politics. The biblical images for the Christ effectively counter nationalism and secularism. The biblical images—shepherd, Suffering Servant, Son of Man—are counter-cultural.