A humble king for a tumultuous time

Dear colleagues,

Many of the great feasts of the church year can trace their history through centuries of Christian observance and tradition, and act as a way of reminding us of the inherent stability and reassurance through connecting us with the faithful throughout all ages in a sense of eternal worship. The Feast of Christ the King, which we marked yesterday, however, is a much younger member of the calendar of Christian festivals. In December 1925, Pope Pius XI instituted the feast of the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, better known as Christ the King, created against the backdrop of an increasingly fragmenting European and global society. This was an era when politically divisive and destructive ideologies swept across much of the globe, giving rise to absolute dictators and societies where exclusivity, self-serving policies, and even genocide became widely acceptable. In an attempt to stave the tide of fascism and communism, which the Pope felt was eroding away at society and its moral values, Pius XI attempted to provide a new focus for Christians around the world. Rather than concentrating on the various dictatorial leaders that were emerging from many countries, he instead called upon Christians to look at the figure of Jesus in majesty, as king of all nations and all peoples. Rather than focussing on our nationalistic identities, skin colours, or anything else that might separate us, he wanted humanity, instead, to focus on aspects that unite us, and what better way than the figure of Christ, God made human, frail and weak like all of us, who dwelt among some of the most deprived and impoverished people in the world, and yet who is still king and ruler over all.

For Christ was no ordinary king. He spent his life eschewing all the trappings of monarchy, and even those associated with earlier biblical kings. Instead of living it up with the social and political elite, he spent his time with the poor, the lonely, the widowed, the sick, the outcasts. He had no coronation in the conventional sense, and the only time when he was adorned with a crown, the typical moniker of monarchy, was in the passion narrative. He was raised up not on a throne, but on a cross. In many ways, Jesus became king at the moment when he exposed his ultimate vulnerability as a human being. It was only when he spread his arms on the cross to endure one of the most agonising deaths still imaginable that he could be raised in majesty to glory. We exist today as Christians because of his death.

The last decade has seen a disturbing rise of the political right in many countries across the world. We could be forgiven for thinking that this is simply about political inclinations, but it seems to me that there is a much greater problem emerging in global humanity now, one where we are more concerned only with what happens on our own doorstep, with seemingly little care for the implications of our actions for others. This is what is really at the heart of so much of the problem surrounding COVID-19 at the moment. We all think we are an exception, and we all think it’s someone else who is the engine behind this problem. Only yesterday I was reading about a growing clandestine movement in England, currently under full lockdown, where religious groups are meeting, sometimes in the hundreds, feeling that they don’t need to observe the same guidelines as everyone else because there is no evidence that COVID has been spreading in churches, and the spiritual need to meet and worship outweighs the wider need to look after those we don’t know. The feast of Christ the King reminds us that Jesus, while ultimately divine, was human first and king second, and that his leadership was in showing the same courtesy and dignity to all people, no matter who they were. We are about to face a difficult and probably horrible winter. I’m not looking forward to the prospect of continued remote working, the inability to see friends and family, and the wider concern about the long-term effects of continuing to live a life where a lack of meaningful personal interaction becomes normalised. Let’s not even begin to consider what Christmas might be like. Jesus recognised that there was no such thing as a sacrifice too great, and too final that he wasn’t willing to follow through with it. But while I know that Jesus died for me, I don’t like the idea of thinking that someone else might also die because of me.

Faithfully yours,

This message was written by Dr. Jonathan White, Director of Chapel, for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.