“You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37)
Each year, Christians from around the world gather on the last Sunday of the church year to celebrate what is widely referred to as "Christ the King" or "Reign of Christ" Sunday. It is one of the most recent additions to the church calendar, instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 and moved to its current date in 1970. By the late 1970s, the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship adopted an amended version of the Roman lectionary, and it included Christ the King.
Pope Benedict XV, who began his papacy a month into World War I, was horrified at his inability to broker a peace treaty, and at the millions of bodies piling up all across Europe. In his first encyclical, Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, Benedict declared, "There is no limit to the measure of ruin and of slaughter; day by day the earth is drenched with newly shed blood and is covered with the bodies of the wounded and of the slain."
When Benedict died in 1922, he was replaced by Pope Pius XI, who declared the aim of his papacy to be "The re-establishment of the Kingdom of Christ by peace in Christ." It was in the service of this mission that he introduced Christ the King Sunday as a challenge to the church to refocus its energies on their true ruler and away from unquestioning fidelity to earthly powers.
As we step into Reign of Christ Sunday in 2021, it's not difficult to imagine how Christians might have felt that Sunday in 1925. Nearly two years in, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage around the globe, with over 1500 still dying daily in the U.S. alone. 174 countries are currently involved in wars, and the effects of climate change are resulting in the deaths of people and animals on every continent. If we're trusting in our own abilities and merits to set us free from this suffering, the outlook is pretty bleak.
But if we shift our efforts toward enacting the will of the one was sent to rule over us, we can begin to see the dawn of a new age peeking over the horizon. Orienting our lives towards the commands of Christ can help us move with a laser focus towards those who Christ held most closely: widows, orphans, disabled people, gender and sexual minorities, those in prison—all those that the world casts as unworthy.
With their innate focus on fairness, the young people in our midst often are the lenses through which church communities can see the world most clearly. This Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday, I invite you to let the young people among you lead the way—what do they think the kingdom/kin-dom of God looks like? How is the world we're in now different than that? How might we use our power and privilege as Christians to help make Christ manifest in our lives as our regent and the one to whom we bow? Their answers are likely to surprise, inspire, and challenge us as we lean into the liminal realities of this life lived in an eternal kingdom that is both on the horizon and already here.