the king, with the crown…of thorns.
It’s the last Sunday of the Church year today. In recent weeks the readings of the liturgy have been preparing us for the end times (eschaton) with reminders that there will come a time when all that we can see and touch on earth is no more. Even secular science tells us that life on earth will not last forever. As I write this I am aware that the earth may expire before you get to read it. And even if the world continues for a few more months (or a few million years) there is no guarantee that I (or you) will be around at Christmas.
I don’t write this to frighten us, although you could say that the thought of death rightly puts the “fear of God” into us – but not in a heavy and negative way. More on this kind of “fear” in a moment. The fact of our limited time on earth brings a clarity to our vision helping us to keep the struggles of earthly existence in a broader, deeper, eternal and loving divine perspective. The invitation is to live every moment with the quality that we would like to see in our last hours on earth.
In years’ past today’s feast of Christ the King, and the associated last-judgement scriptures provided food for fearsome preachers who seemed to delight in methods we called “fire and brimstone.” Tragically such preachers had themselves been mislead into thinking that fear of hell is a more effective communicator than beauty of life with God.
Teachers in the church have used fear too often in their zealous but misguided attempts to grab attention and convey an eternal message. Fear is the opposite of love and fear is powerless to convey the beauty, depth and power of God who is love.
fear of the lord
Now if you are thinking ahead of me you might wondering about “fear of the Lord” which is listed in the scriptures as one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. This “fear” is well defined in Wikipedia as living in respect, awe and submission to God. CS Lewis (RIP 51 years ago 22 November ’63) in one of his essays puts this very powerfully:
Perfect love, we know, casts out fear [1 John 4:18]. But so do several other things — ignorance, alcohol, passion, presumption, and stupidity.
It is very desirable that we should all advance to that perfection of love in which we shall fear no longer; but it is very undesirable, until we have reached that stage, that we should allow any inferior agent to cast out our fear. (“The World’s Last Night” in C. S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces, 51)
The fire and brimstone preachers of the past (please God they have all gone) too often wrongly interpreted this “fear.” Of course the one who desires nothing but communion with Jesus now and eternally has nothing to fear but will live in respect, awe of God and submission to God. Such a humble, God-centred life is not a down-grading of our human condition, but rather a lively awareness that a human person is not a God. Let me use a poor analogy: is there anything wrong with the new car because it is totally dependant of the driver fuelling it and turning the ignition key? No! It is in the nature of a car to exist in this “submission” to the owner. Without the driver, the car goes nowhere.
a new feast in 1925
In December Pope Pius XI closed the 1925 Holy Year by issuing an encyclical letter announcing a new feast of Christ the King. This letter was a powerful reminder that human persons are not created to rule the earth as dictators as of right, but to serve. Our maker is our true monarch.
The Pope was speaking from the heart of Catholic (and therefore human) truth: it is of the nature of the human person to be subject to God. The problem that Adam and Eve had in the garden was that they grasped at the role of God – they sought to cast out the fear that had surfaced in them by using (as Lewis says) an “inferior agent.” They attempted to dominate and control what did not belong to them. While this sin may have been original at the time it is now the oldest and most common failing of all.
With tragic consequences we reject the beauty of human existence and grasp at the divine role. After all our work we end up like the newborn baby in the pilot’s seat of the 747. The passengers are ready for the journey but there is no way this thing is going to move until the real pilot is found.
Pius XI speaks to this paralysis directly by reminding us of the only method capable of delivering the life we yearn for: “When people recognise, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony.”
“Our Lord’s regal office invests the human authority of princes and rulers with a religious significance; it ennobles the citizen’s duty of obedience. “ (par.19)
Almost ninety years after the first celebration of the feast of Christ the King, it is timely to consider if we have made any progress. I see many signs of hope, even more now than in the latter years of last century. However progress is hindered when worldly glamour and successes continue to be promoted as the default desires for human existence.
In these early years of the third millennium, we who embrace a life of faith, live a life of subjection to Christ, and pray with the Church every Sunday, are considered to be a bit odd. However we are responding to THE truth: religious belief and practice is of the nature of the human person. We are made for God. We cannot live without God.
As we celebrate this feast of faith, we acknowledge that by the generosity of God, we are the subjects of Christ the King. Life in this Kingdom (both eternally and present) frees us from having to make divine decisions: we can let God be God and relax into the natural human position of being loved by God and led by God. We are as helpless and hapless as sheep. But our shepherd will carry us.
Here the teaching of Pius XI is of one voice with Pope Francis. There are no surprises in this since both popes and unknown pilgrims (and everyone between) knows that human health and happiness, liberty, discipline, peace and harmony are ours only when we live as servants and subjects of Christ THE King.