This week we rightly focus on the joy of another Thanksgiving Day with well-deserved time for family and friends. But we also celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King this weekend, marking the close of another Church year. It’s a good time to ask two simple questions: What sort of king is Jesus Christ, and what does his kingship mean for us?
Let’s start with some background.
In his fourth homily on the Book of Exodus, the early Christian scholar Origen of Alexandria wrote that “it is far better to die in the desert than to serve the Egyptians.” Those are strong words. They were Origen’s firm rebuke to those Hebrews in Scripture (Ex 14:12) who longed to go back to slavery in Egypt rather than risk death in the wilderness after their escape. For Origen, like Moses, there is only one God — and anything less than trust in God alone is a form of idolatry.
Origen spoke from direct experience. He lived through fierce periodic persecutions of the Christian community in the late second and early third centuries. And his words echo another great early Christian text, the Letter to Diognetus, written in the second century by an anonymous Christian author facing the same bloody violence from the pagan world.
As with Origen, the Letter shows no sign of compromise or cowardice in its language; quite the opposite. It mocks the foolishness of pagan idolatry. It warns Diognetus, the pagan, that “these things [made of wood, brass, iron and silver] that you call gods, these you serve, these you worship, and [in the end] you become altogether like them.” In other words, idolatry does not ennoble man; it dehumanizes him. The Letter goes on to contrast the emptiness and misery of the pagan world with the mercy and love of the true God, manifested in his son, Jesus Christ.
What’s most striking about the Letter to Diognetus is not its antiquity, but its value for Christian life right now, today, in an unbelieving and indifferent world. Like the Hebrews who longed for the relative comfort of Egyptian slavery, too many of us prefer the noise and material distractions of modern life to the freedom of the Gospel.
The First Commandment says, “I am the Lord your God, you shall not have foreign gods before me.” It doesn’t say, “I am your chief adviser” or “I am your life coach” or “I am your elected official.” It says, I am your God, your only God, and you will not ignore me and disgrace the dignity I’ve given you by whoring after false gods. Yet we moderns often do exactly that with our addictions to politics, power, technology, entertainment, personal health, and a hundred other little godlings.
My point here is not that things like technology and personal health are “bad.” Obviously technology serves human dignity in many ways. And personal health is a great blessing. Rather, my point is that anything that confuses our priorities, steals our attention, and dethrones God from the center of our lives becomes an idol.
The late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, in his wonderful little book The Promise, writes that idolatry has always been – and remains – one of humanity’s deepest temptations. In his words, “paganism always remains a temptation, in its archaic as well as its most developed forms. The power that man has given himself is the most subtle and most modern of these temptations.”
Power over the natural world feeds human vanity and man’s illusions of security; it leads us to offer God pious words, but not humble hearts. But God cannot be fooled. For Lustiger, a church cannot be invented by hanging a cross on the wall of a pagan temple, nor is a Christian nation created merely by drawing a cross on a flag. Christian faith demands radical conversion and a deep commitment to the one true God. And as a result, “unless the water of baptism has … penetrated to their hearts,” self-described Christians — from the highest bishop to the simplest believer — can be among the very worst frauds and idolaters, “disfiguring [Christ]” by their actions, “and then [making] this distortion into their god.”
We live in a democratic age, and democracy, for all of its strengths, can also make people deaf to the language of faith. Alexis de Tocqueville described the difference between democratic man, and all of human history before the democratic age, as the difference between “two distinct humanities.” Democratic man instinctively distrusts any form of inequality, privilege or hierarchy. All legitimacy in a democracy flows from the sovereign individual and the state he helps create. But the Church is a very different kind of community with very different premises, starting with the premise of a sovereign Creator and Author of life.
The content of biblical faith, and especially the language of “lordship” or “kingship,” can seem outdated or alien to many of us. The Solemnity of Christ the King is a good moment to help us see our own mortality and the temporary nature of all created things; but also to rejoice in the love that God has for each of us – the God who is our deliverer and the lord of the real “real world,” which is so much larger than everyday life.
The nature of Christ’s kingly power is revealed throughout Scripture. Jesus came first as an expression of God’s humility and mercy in the poverty of Bethlehem. But the Solemnity of Christ the King reminds us that at the end of time, he will return on a throne in glory, the executor of God’s justice. Jesus alone rules. He alone judges. There will be no opinion polling, no rebuttal from defense attorneys, and no court of appeal. The same standards of a righteous life will apply to judging all equally, and the ranks of the nations will be divided for joy or loss. This is the Christ of sober grandeur and truth. This is the Jesus who demands an accounting for all idolatries, great and small; and who will reward all faithfulness with eternal life.
As a bitterly difficult Church year closes, and we wait on the threshold of another beginning – a new Advent season – we need to remember three simple realities. God loves us infinitely and with a Father’s tenderness. God’s ways will be done, with or without our approval. And our choices and actions matter, not just in this life, but forever.
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