Probably the best known royal leader in the world today is Queen Elizabeth of England. Although her leadership role is in many ways more ceremonial than administrative, her official title is still quite impressive. She is Queen Elizabeth II by the Grace of God, Queen of this Realm and of Her Other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.
Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, a feast established by Pope Pius XI in 1925, because the people of the day had “thrust Jesus Christ and his holy law out of their lives” and “these had no place in public affairs or in politics.” The pope went on to claim “that as long as individuals and states refused to submit to the rule of our Savior, there would be no really hopeful prospect of a lasting peace among nations.” This critique of the situation of the world could have been written today, almost 80 years later. One has to wonder how believing people could have failed so miserably to make a change in the world. Have we really accepted Christ as our king?
Just how did the carpenter from Nazareth come to be regarded as a king? During Jesus’ public life, the title King of the Jews belonged to Herod, the puppet king set up by the Roman occupiers (Lk 23:6-12). Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus claim this title for himself. In fact, it was used to mock him while he was hanging on the cross. It was probably not until several years after his resurrection that Christians began to apply that title to him. But why?
One of the tasks of the early Christian teachers was to show that Jesus was indeed the fulfillment of the religious expectations of the Jewish people. They did this by placing him squarely at the heart of some of Israel’s major religious traditions. By means of a genealogy, his ancestry is traced back to David, regarded as the ideal king. Today’s first reading reminds us of this. Since the ancient king was thought to be the shepherd or protector of the people and the commander of its forces, these characterizations would also be passed on to the rightful heir of this tradition. Thus we can say that Jesus is King by the Grace of God, Shepherd of the People and Commander of Israel.
In the Gospel we see that some of the rulers, the soldiers and even one of the criminals crucified with Jesus threw royal titles in his face. If he was “the chosen one,” “the King of the Jews,” he should have been able to save himself. In response, Jesus promised salvation to the criminal who did recognize his royal nature with the words, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” In this way Jesus shows that he is indeed a king, though he reigns from a bloody cross rather than from a majestic throne.
When we turn to the Letter to the Colossians, we find that Paul adds several divine appellations to Jesus’ royal title. He is God’s beloved son, the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. What do these tell us about our king? First and foremost, as God’s beloved son, our king has direct and immediate access to God. He does not have to work through any parliament or congress. Second, in the ancient world the image of a god was a kind of symbol identifying the place of that god’s sovereign rule. As image of the invisible God, Jesus marks where God rules. In other words, our king is the symbol of divine sovereignty. Finally, as the firstborn of creation, he is the promise of all the good things that will follow.
One further set of appellations characterizes Christ as our king. Just as the previously mentioned titles flow from his union with God, these mark his relationship with us. As risen Lord he is the head of the church and the firstborn of the dead. As head of the church, he is intimately joined to us, his members. As firstborn from the dead, he is the promise of our own resurrection. If we were to bring together all of the honorific titles found in today’s readings, the listing would be unparalleled in the annals of royalty.
Jesus is King by the Grace of God, Shepherd of the People and Commander of Israel, God’s Beloved Son, the Image of the Invisible God, the Firstborn of all Creation, Head of the Church, and Firstborn of the Dead. “As individuals and as states [we have] refused to submit to the rule of our Savior.” On this last Sunday of the liturgical year, we are given an opportunity to recommit ourselves to him, for we know so well that without him there can be “no really hopeful prospect of a lasting peace among nations.”