The feast of Christ the King has a long history in various countries of Europe but only came to its current prominence throughout the universal Church in 1925, when Pope Pius XI established the feast as a counter-witness to the collapse of royal families across Europe in the wake of World War I and the growing secularization of public life. While the image of Christ as King is one that any Catholic can appreciate to some extent given his frequent preaching about the Kingdom of God, the fact that the vast majority of Catholics around the world today have never lived under the authority of a king takes away some of the significance this feast would have had in Europe during Pope Pius’ time.
Nonetheless we can draw an important lesson about true kingship from the scripture readings today, looking to the examples of King David and Christ himself. In the first reading, from the Second Book of Samuel, we see King David about to enter Jerusalem in triumph, having finally vanquished not only his old rival Saul but the Philistines and other enemies of Israel who had hounded his people for years. Before he could take possession of Jerusalem, however, he had to oust the Jebusites who occupied the city. The Jebusites mocked David, saying that even “the blind and the lame” could defeat his army, but David made short work of the Jebusite defenders and then angrily declared in retaliation: “The lame and the blind shall be the personal enemies of David” (2 Sam 5:6, 8).
David was thus rejected by those he was called to serve as king and he took fierce vengeance. To be fair he was following the conventions of royal behavior of his time—crushing any sign of opposition to his authority—but his words against the most vulnerable among the Jebusites remind us that David was both the anointed of the Lord and deeply flawed. Jesus faced rejection as well, and in a far more profound manner than David. Jesus, often called in the Gospels “the Son of David” and “the King of Israel,” was not simply mocked like David was, “The rulers sneered at Jesus and said, ‘He saved others, let him save himself’” (Luke 23:35), he was put to a torturous and unjust death on the cross.
Jesus’ answer to his tormentors is radically different from David’s, and this is where we learn our lesson on this feast of Christ the King. Both kings, David and Jesus, are rejected, David by the Jebusites, Jesus by many of those to whom he preached. David responds according to thin-skinned calculations about power and public humiliation, “The lame and the blind shall be the personal enemies of David,” whereas Jesus’ response is to extend forgiveness even to his executioners: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). In doing so Jesus shows us why he is the only true King, a King who gives his very life for his people and has no need to vaunt his authority but instead brings together strength and gentleness, justice and mercy.
Together with the good thief to whom Jesus promised salvation may we come to recognize real kingship, and conduct ourselves in a manner so as to hasten the coming of the Kingdom of God. Then we will truly be followers of the “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev 19:16; Pius XI, Quas Primas 11), finding in Jesus, the Son of David, the fulfillment of our calling as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own” (1 Pet 2:9).
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Image: Jan van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece, God Almighty