For many churches, the year begins with the First Sunday in Advent, the season that prepares for Christmas. That’s usually at the very end of November or the beginning of December, so about a month, give or take, before the beginning of the calendar year. The last Sunday of the old year – New Year’s Eve, if you like – is known in many churches as Reign of Christ Sunday or Christ the King Sunday.
It may seem like that’s an image from antiquity – because it is – but the Sunday celebration was only established in 1925. The Pope at the time, Pius XI, was concerned about the post-war world that had achieved a military peace, but not a real one. He saw the rise of secular nationalism and groups like the nazi party and wanted to encourage something very different: the idea that true peace will come when Jesus rules in our hearts and lives. That’s a pretty solid idea, if you ask me, as long as people understand that the point of Jesus was to show us what we’re capable of when it comes to living lives of love, grace, compassion, caring, understanding, patience – the list goes on. The life of Jesus is our example, whatever language we us, religious, royal or otherwise.
For many, the language of religion is already going to require explanation. And now we’ve added the challenge of understanding the language of kingship in a meaningful way. In a modern era where hierarchy, structure and power are challenging issues, wouldn’t it be easier to find a simpler metaphor and more readily understood language, straight forward and to the point? Maybe. Or maybe struggling with this image could help us better understand our relationship with Jesus. Wherever we get our understanding of kingship, from history, culture or Disney, Jesus is going to challenge it, now as then, because Jesus challenges power over others, Jesus challenges unequitable and unjust structures. From the beginning, Jesus challenged our understanding.
Having a pretty clear idea of what kind of king they wanted didn’t help the first century Hebrews understand Jesus. He didn’t give them that kind of king. They wanted a warrior, he gave them peace. They wanted someone who would hate the enemy, he told them to love everyone. They wanted someone to restore their glory and riches, he told them to give it all up. They wanted someone who was powerful, as they understood power, and he gave them vulnerability. They wanted someone to serve, he was their servant. They wanted someone who would take back what was theirs, he gave them someone who sacrificed for all.
In his last hours, Jesus was arrested and brought to Pilate, a governor appointed by the Roman empire, a man with power and armies, a man who lived in a very structured society that believed their emperor was a God, a man who’s job was literally to keep the peace by force. When Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king, I imagine Jesus replying first with “what do you mean by that? Your kind of king or mine?” Because the kingdom of Jesus isn’t this.
Jesus’ kingdom is a place of true peace, with justice and equity for all, ruled, not by a person, but a spirit of love, grace and compassion. That list I mentioned earlier that’s the life of Jesus, that’s how we build it. It’s not about control or force or strength of arms, it’s not about dominance. Whatever language we use, it’s still just about being Jesus, together.