When it comes to Church, and indeed most things that matter to me in life, I have a penchant for the historical. I believe that history can be a wonderful teacher, offering insights to our present context, allowing us to understand more deeply who we are in the world, how we came to be here in this moment, and so helps us to identify paths into our future that are not unmoored from our realities.
In anticipation of this Feast of Christ the King, I found myself reading the encyclical of Pope Pius XI (Quas Primas , lit. “In the first”) which established this feast on the universal calendar of the Church. It was written in 1925. I was taken by the challenges identified by the Holy Father of the time which were facing people then. I was also struck with how some of the challenges we face today are so similar. Pius XI was greatly concerned with the rise of secularism and the demise of tolerance and respect for faith in the public arena. While his perspective was profoundly shaped by the political and social realities of his time, his insights might still have value for us. He feared what might happen in a world where faith in Jesus Christ would be minimized and equated with philosophies and ways of understanding the world that were entirely centered on the individual. In today’s world-view, where human experience is “king,” it is increasingly acceptable to think of Salvation History as but a nice idea among many, to be valued no more (and perhaps no less) than other realities of human experience. Pius XI’s concerns were not the musings of some distant historical figure removed from the realities of ordinary men and women. His concern with the gradual sidelining of God in society and his fears for what happens when Christianity is domesticated by the state, were borne out within a matter of a few years. The Second World War soon engulfed the globe, and the experience of the Holocaust forever marred human history.
We can tell ourselves that that was then, and this is now. The nationalism that was prevalent in the world of the early 1900s is all but forgotten, as are its consequences. Today we find ourselves wondering, once more, about how best to understand ourselves and what the proper place for our faith might be in the world. Pius XI was of the mind that Christ has dominion over the whole world. In our time, we hold that gospel values are not to be discarded in the living of our lives, and that all the affairs that concern decent people everywhere, social, economic, religious, etc., are not exempt from being understood in light of the gospel of Jesus. In our own times it can seem like war somewhere is a constant, and dehumanizing governmental policies in different parts of the world, and even within our own borders, are easily identifiable. Suicide rates among our youth are astonishingly high, and exposés about how poorly we care for the service men and women returning from war are a scandal. Still, I often hear people lament that the Church should be silent about matters of politics, and that our faith has nothing to say to the social struggles of our days. It’s curious to me that gospel values seem to be like a switch that can be turned on and off, depending on the circumstances. Perhaps this is something that bears reflection, particularly in light of today’s feast.
If, indeed, Jesus Christ is the King of the Universe, then we might want to consider what authority Jesus has in our lives? We might want to reflect on the nature of the values of Jesus as they are articulated in the gospels, and what role those values have (or don’t have) for us in our lives today? What values do we hold, or toward what future do we work or anticipate in the choices we make for ourselves in the present? In addition to the gospel values of Jesus, what other values shape and inform us? Can we name the different authorities to which we give meaning or significance in our lives? And how do we navigate the challenges presented by those authorities when they are in conflict, one with another?
It’s entirely possible that the language of this feast sounds more than a little odd to us. There are few among us who have any real experience of “Kings” or “Queens,” or even “Lords” or “Masters.” We live in a nation and at a time when such titles can seem irrelevant and meaningless. Nonetheless, this Feast which we celebrate today affords us an opportunity to consider the true nature of our relationship with Jesus, and the difference his gospel makes (or doesn’t) in our day-to-day living.
On a different note, and on behalf of the priests and lay leadership of our parish, allow me to wish you all a wonderful Thanksgiving Holiday, filled with the warmth of family, friends, and every grace and blessing.