A sermon on the Feast of Christ the King

by a Dominican friar

The word “king” possesses a strange power over men’s imaginations. This power is seen, for example, in the songs and legends of different countries, which often celebrate some good king of ancient times, or mourn a king who was forced into exiled by his enemies, and perhaps look forward to his return. On the other hand, as far as I know, no country has produced poetry or legends or laments about a president, or a general-secretary, or a prime minister. There are no ballads about “The president over-the-water” as there are ballads about “The king over-the-water”. Why is this? I think it is because it was commonly understood, during the ages of Christendom, that a king represented Christ, and that he ought to model himself on Christ. That is why people who made revolutions in Catholic countries often made them against the Church and the monarchy at the same time. The centuries of Christendom created the ideal of a Christian king, an ideal to which some rulers were faithful and others unfaithful. But this ideal helps us in turn understand what we mean when we acclaim Christ as king.

First of all, then, a king was very often understood to have his right to rule in virtue of his birth.  This is true of Christ in His two-fold birth, eternal and temporal.  By His eternal birth, by which He is one with the Father, it is obvious that He has the right to rule, as God. Thus, the title of “king” is often given to God even before the incarnation, especially in the psalms. But in virtue of His birth in time, from the Virgin, He also has the right to rule. God brought His Son into the world in this unique way, by a miraculous conception and birth, to show that this is the One who possesses unique authority among men. Thus, the prophet Daniel saw the virgin birth foreshadowed by the stone that was cut from the mountain by no human agency, and which destroyed the idol in man’s form that was made of gold, silver, bronze and iron, an idol which represented human states that set themselves against God.

Next, a Christian king was always anointed, with holy chrism, by a pope or archbishop. In this way, the king was constituted as a sacred person, set apart from common life. That is why Catholic kings had certain rights that other lay people did not have, for example, a place in the sanctuary during the celebration of Mass, or the right to enter the cloister of a convent. St Peter tells us that Jesus Christ was anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power. The psalmist had foretold this in a symbolic way by saying to the incarnate Son whose coming he foresaw, God, thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness beyond thy fellows. In other words, the Holy Ghost consecrated the humanity of Jesus, as the sacred chrism consecrated a king; by the power of the third Person of the Trinity, the humanity of Christ was hypostatically united to the Word, “set apart” in a unique way. The Holy Spirit is called the oil of gladness, because He proceeds from the love of the Father and the Son, and mutual love is what produces gladness.

The third mark of a king, at least of a good king, was that he had to maintain justice among his people, never deferring to the great on account of their greatness, or disregarding the poor on account of their poverty. Christian kings did not see it as their duty to try to abolish poverty altogether, as if all power had been given into their hands, but they knew it was their duty to see that the poor received justice. Some of them went further, seeing the poor in their realm as worthy of special honour because of the likeness to Christ which their poverty gave them: St Edward the Confessor, the last king of England before the Norman conquest, used to take great pleasure in feeding poor men who came to his doors, while St Louis of France would serve the sick in the hospitals he had built for them.

Christ our King does not simply maintain justice among His people, as faithful Christian rulers down the centuries have tried to do: He first of all creates justice, that is, true, supernatural justice, which is infused into our souls by baptism or penance. He Himself merited this justice for all His subjects, and only He can restore it to them, if they lose it by their sins. But Jesus does also maintain justice among His people, both great and small, in that He gives to each Christian, whether bishop, priest, or lay-man, what his works deserve. Even in this life, He does not allow heretics within the Church to do all the harm which they wish to do, and He encourages the efforts of the faithful in many ways. But above all, at the moment of death, everyone who has had any place in his kingdom on earth, that is, every Catholic, receives a judgement against which there is no appeal, and in that judgement our Lord does not defer to anyone’s title, but acts as a true king. He will judge his people with justice, says the psalmist, and the poor with right judgement.

A king’s desire to establish justice among his people must include the intention to protect them against injustice from outside. Hence, it was held to be part of the office of a king to fight at the head of his country’s armies. In the Old Testament, David had always performed this function, until one spring, at the time, the sacred writer says, when kings normally go forth to battle, he remained behind in Jerusalem: this led to his sin of adultery, and later to civil war. Because Christ’s kingdom is supernatural, and not of this world, He did not establish it by material warfare. If my kingdom were of this world, He told Pilate, my servants would fight, that I should not be handed over to the Jews. The divine character of the Church was shown by the fact that, unlike human states, it could be set up as a kingdom on earth without physical fighting. Yet, not without warfare of any kind: our Lord, as St Paul says, fought against the principalities and powers, all the evil spirits who work under the prince of this world to control the peoples of the world. At the spring of the year, the time when kings go forth to battle, Jesus the Son of David went forth to this battle and prevailed.

Finally, a good king sees himself, and is seen by his people, as a father to his people. He is not like a chief executive running a company, but more like a parent in charge of his household.   And so also, Christ’s reign over His people has a paternal character. Among the other titles which Isaiah foretold as belonging to the Messiah was this one: father of the world to come.  And St Benedict in his Rule says that that superior in the monastery has the title of Abbot, or Father, because he represents Christ in the midst of the monks. Our Lord was like a father to His apostles whilst He was on earth: He is still like a father to all His people. We shouldn’t be surprised at this, since He is the very image of the eternal Father. So in this respect also, He fulfils the ideal of a king.

Whether the Christian kings that mankind has known in the past will ever return, I do not know.  Only a people with faith would be able to desire them. But whether they do or not, Christ has set up the one kingdom that can never be overthrown, as Daniel foretold. And as St Paul says, the heavens and the earth, that is, all created realms, will be shaken, but we have received an unshakeable kingdom, and grace, so that we may worship (Hebrew 12:28-29).