Today is the Feast of Christ the King, established by Pope Pius XI of happy memory to remind us that, in all the vicissitudes of history, Jesus Christ is ruler of all. Considering that Pope Pius reigned during the rise of the modern totalitarian states of Italy, Germany, Spain, and Russia, no doubt he also wished to remind the faithful suffering under dictatorships that Jesus Christ, the King of kings, was their true master to whom their first allegiance was owed.
We in the twenty-first century don’t have a lot if experience with kingship, especially we Americans. It’s an idea out of storybooks and history (which, for most of us, means basically the same thing), not something we have ever really felt. That’s a shame, because I don’t think we can really understand Christianity without understanding the idea of Christ the King.
The King is a personal ruler; he is the father of his people, with all that implies. He is meant to dedicate his life to their welfare, to see that they are fed, clothed, educated, happy, and safe. Traditionally, kings led their armies in war, stood in judgement over wrongdoers, and presided at religious observances. In return, the people gave him their unflinching loyalty. A good king was a king the people were happy to obey, whom they loved dearly, and admired with a reverent awe.
There are, of course, many historical examples of good kings (St. Louis the IX of France, Alfred the Great of England, John III of Poland, etc). But I find the most emotionally resonant images of kingship are in fiction, particularly the scene in The Lord of the Rings where Faramir awakens to find Aragorn at his bedside:
Suddenly Faramir stirred, and he opened his eyes and he looked on Aragorn who bent over him; and a light of knowledge and love was kindled in his eyes, and he spoke softly. “My lord, you called me. I come. What does the king command?”
Faramir, a man of nobility, recognizes the king at once, loves him, and instantly places himself at his service, “For who would lie idle when the king has returned?” Service to the king, not out of fear, but out of love, is such a strong instinct in him that it draws him back even from the point of death. The scene makes allusion to another passage, this one in the Gospel of Matthew:
For I also am a man subject to authority, having under me soldiers; and I say to this, Go, and he goeth, and to another, Come, and he cometh, and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it.
The centurion’s position as a man within a hierarchy of authority gave him greater insight into Christ’s position as king than the Jews could have. At the moment, their image of kingship was either the foreign Emperor who had conquered them or his tyrannical puppet rulers. The centurion understood kingship and authority and it gave him faith that made even Jesus marvel.
C.S. Lewis’s book The Four Loves is an excellent and brilliant work, but I think it may be incomplete. I think there’s a fifth love which he missed; what we might call imperial love, or love of one’s superior. The love of a subject for his king, the soldier for the general, the student for his teacher, and so on (if I could write to him and ask, he probably would have said that it would go under affection, but I think it’s a distinct enough state to warrant its own essay). It is this love that came into Faramir’s eyes when he beheld his lord and this love that drives men to follow their commanders into hell. It is the love proper to the king. It is the one that says “My lord, you have but to command and it shall be done.” This love we should have for Our Lord, Christ the King in abundance.
During the American Revolution, of the rallying cries of the Patriot forces was “We have no king but Jesus!” The Feast of Christ the King is, I think, especially important in an election year. It reminds us that, whether we voted for the winner or the loser (and whatever we think of the winner), he is not really the one in charge. His authority is not his own, but is merely delegated, conditionally, from the one who guides the course of history according to His sovereign will.
For have but one King, our true King, who holds our fate in His hands, and to whom we owe absolute allegiance. We have no king but Jesus Christ.
Viva Christo Rey!