Pilate: Are you a king? Jesus: My kingdom is not from this world. Pilate: So you are a king?Jesus: if you say so.JOHN:18:33-37
There are two kinds of religion; religion as the assertion of power, and religion as the profound recognition of vulnerability. The difference between these two manifestations is the distinction between kingship and kingdom.
In 1925 Pius XI proclaimed the feast of Christ the King as the Catholic Church’s assertion of power against the rival totalitarian movements of Fascism and Communism. This is an old, old story. In 313, when on Hadrian’s Wall at the most northern reaches of the Empire, the Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, he forever changed the developmental course of Christianity.
In the Eastern half of the Roman Empire centered at Constantinople, the Church became incorporated as the spiritual aspect of imperial power. In the Western half centered on Rome, as the political center of imperial power collapsed before the waves of Barbarian invasion, the Church became the only center for both political and spiritual power. In the East, the Church becomes established, the spiritual arm of the State. In the West, the Church becomes the State. Either way, the images and attributes of political and economic power became projected onto the image of Christ. Christ, the Good Shepherd became Christ Pantocrator -ruler of the world. The dying man on the cross shape-shifts into Christus Rex, Christ reigning in glory.
It’s understandable why in 1925, facing the menacing growth of fascism and communism, Pius XI marshals his Catholic legions in an assertion of the old Constantinian power of the Church as the only center of allegiance. Religion as power girds for battle.
Pius’ proclamation also needs to be understood within the Italian context. In 1861, the newly unified Kingdom of Italy proclaimed Rome as its capital. This was greeted by the Vatican as a hostile act amounting to the annexation of Rome and the Papal States by the newly formed Kingdom of Italy – leaving only a small enclave surrounding the Vatican itself as the remnant of the once mighty Papal States. Between 1861 and 1929 the Popes considered themselves prisoners of the Italian State and thus refused to leave the Vatican City. This standoff came to an end when in 1929 the Italian Government and the Papacy concluded the Lateran Agreements, ending Papal self confinement and inaugurating the Vatican City as a sovereign entity independent of the Italian State.
Completing the historical development of the commemoration of Christ the King, in 1994, with the revision of the Common Lectionary, the Anglican Communion along with the mainline Protestant traditions adopted Christ the King as the celebration for the final Sunday of the Church Year.
The question Pilate and Jesus dance around is if Jesus is a king, what kind of king is he?
Robert Capon, in Hunting the Divine Fox confronts us with our typical American notions of divine kingship.
. . . The true paradigm of the ordinary American view of Jesus is Superman: “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. It’s Superman! Strange visitor from another planet, who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American Way.”
If that isn’t popular christology, I’ll eat my hat. Jesus gentle, meek, and mild, but with secret, souped-up, more-than‑human insides bumbles around for thirty-three years, nearly gets himself done in for good by the Kryptonite Kross, but at the last minute, struggles into the phone booth of the Empty Tomb, changes into his Easter suit and, with a single bound, leaps back up to the planet Heaven. It’s got it all — including, just so you shouldn’t miss the lesson, kiddies: He never once touches Lois Lane.
Capon notes [pp. 90-91; reprinted, along with two other books under the title The Romance of the Word: One Man’s Love Affair with Theology] that the human race has: always been deeply unwilling to accept a human messiah. He notes that: we don’t want to be saved in our humanity; we want to be fished out of it. We crucified Jesus, because: he claimed to be God and then failed to come up to our standards for assessing the claim. It’s not that we weren’t looking for the Messiah; it’s just that he wasn’t what we were looking for. Our kind of Messiah would come down from a cross. He would carry a folding phone booth in his back pocket. He wouldn’t do a stupid thing like rising from the dead. He would do a smart thing like never dying.”
Whether as Pius’s Christ the King, or America’s Jesus Christ -Superman, both picture Christ reigning in triumph and glory, avoiding the shame and humiliation of Jesus’ death on the cross. As we struggle in 2019 to clarify the meaning of Christ the King in a religious tradition that long ago forsook religion as power, we have little use for projections of either Christ Pantocrator -omnipotent ruler of the universe, or Jesus Christ Superman -contemporary folk superhero.
Christ the King is the celebration of Jesus as Messiah or liberator. The theology of Jesus’ kingship is the Jewish theology of the Messiah as God’s promised one, who, in his coming confronts the business-as-usual mentality of human political, social, and economic structures. My kingdom is not of this world, does not mean Jesus is a secret king who rejects the pain and mess of the real world in preference to the world of privatized faith accessible only in the inner world of the believer.
Jesus as Messiah and liberator confronts popular notions of a charismatic leader coming to fight fire with fire. Christ as King is not a celebration of king-ship but an announcement of king-dom. The religion of kingdom is made real in those attributes Jesus reveals on the cross; courage, servant-hood, forgiveness, generosity, and inclusion.
As we celebrate the ending of a wonderful year and prepare with anticipation and excitement of what Advent and the new Becoming more and more fit for the God’s purposes can be a blessing or a curse – depending on how we want to look at it.