Between Christmas and Lent: The Season of Christ the King
In what may seem a lull between Christmas and Lent, Blessed John Henry Newman helps us see the glories of this Ordinary Time.
In one of his Parochial and Plain Sermons, written and delivered while he was the Anglican Vicar of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford, Blessed John Henry Newman highlighted the special purpose of the season between Christmas and Lent, calling it the season of Christ’s Epiphany, the manifestation of His glory:
The Epiphany is a season especially set apart for adoring the glory of Christ. The word may be taken to mean the manifestation of His glory, and leads us to the contemplation of Him as a King upon His throne in the midst of His court, with His servants around Him, and His guards in attendance. . . . Now, if at any time, it is fit to say . . . "O come, let us worship, and fall down, and kneel before the Lord our Maker." "O magnify the Lord our God, and fall down before His footstool, for He is Holy." "O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; bring presents, and come into His courts."
The Magi (Matthew 2:1-12) venerate Him as King in the manger at Bethlehem, as “His throne was His undefiled Mother's arms; His chamber of state was a cottage or a cave; the worshippers were the wise men of the East, and they brought presents, gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
His Presentation (celebrated on Feb. 2) and Finding in the Temple from St. Luke’s Gospel, His Baptism, the miracle at the Marriage Feast of Cana (John 2:1-11)—Newman describes these as continued manifestations of Jesus’s sovereignty and glory. Someone special has come into the world. Simeon and Anna perceive it; the doctors in the Temple are amazed; St. John the Baptist recognizes the Lamb of God, the One he had prepared the way for; the wedding guests and the disciples witness what Newman calls “a miracle not of necessity or urgency, but especially an august and bountiful act—the act of a King, who out of His abundance gave a gift to His own, therewith to make merry with their friends.”
Miracles and Worship
As the season continues, the Gospels tell of how Jesus performs miracles of healing, casting out demons, and calming the sea—astounding witnesses with His power and authority. Then He begins to preach about the Kingdom of God, using parables to illustrate what “it is like”: a field of grain and weeds, awaiting harvest (Matthew 13:24-30); a mustard seed, leaven for dough (Matthew 13:31-35). Newman concludes:
Such is the series of manifestations which the Sundays after the Epiphany bring before us. When He is with the doctors in the temple, He is manifested as a prophet—in turning the water into wine, as a priest—in His miracles of healing, as a bounteous Lord, giving out of His abundance—in His rebuking the sea, as a Sovereign, whose word is law—in the parable of the wheat and tares, as a guardian and ruler—in His second coming, as a lawgiver and judge.
Jesus manifests His Divinity and His Kingship: because He is the Incarnate God, His form and method of monarchy is different from that of sinful men. He does not raise taxes, gather riches, form armies, demand supplies and enslave his subjects—all the things that Samuel warns the people about when they demand he appoint a king in Israel (I Samuel 8:4-7, 10-22a). Instead He demonstrates powers no earthly monarch could ever possess.
Extraordinary and Ordinary
Newman is referring to an older calendar of the Church year which is observed today in communities using the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite and also in the Anglican Ordinariate, established by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. Since most Latin Rite Catholics attend the Ordinary Form, the Gospels for our Sunday Masses in Year B are from the Gospel of Mark at the beginning of this short period of Ordinary Time. After Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, the Gospel of Mark will be supplemented by Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John. (By the way, for daily Masses, we are reading the cycle of Year II from Jan. 9 to Feb. 13, and May 21 to Dec. 1.)
Nevertheless, Jesus manifests Himself as someone special in the Sunday Gospels of St. Mark before Lent: gathering disciples, preaching the Kingdom, casting out demons, curing the sick, and healing lepers. Whatever opposition He faces from the authorities is easily dismissed. Those who witness these wonders are impressed by the authority with which He teaches, and His fame spreads—everyone is looking for Him, Simon tells Him, and they travel throughout Galilee, with huge crowds gathering as Christ the King manifests His power to the people.
A Different Kind of King
But as Blessed John Henry Newman points out, this King is a servant. He emphasizes that after the “Finding in the Temple” Jesus submits to Mary and Joseph’s authority:
He had come in the form of a servant, and now He took on Him a servant's office. How much is contained in the idea of His subjection! and it began, and His time of glory ended, when He was twelve years old.
Newman contrasts the rule of Jesus as Christ the King to the Old Testament kings of Israel:
Solomon, the great type of the Prince of Peace, reigned forty years, and his name and greatness was known far and wide through the East. Joseph, the much-loved son of Jacob, who in an earlier age of the Church, was a type of Christ in His kingdom, was in power and favor eighty years, twice as long as Solomon. But Christ, the true Revealer of secrets, and the Dispenser of the bread of life, the true wisdom and majesty of the Father, manifested His glory but in His early years, and then the Sun of Righteousness was clouded. For He was not to reign really, till He left the world. He has reigned ever since; nay, reigned in the world, though He is not in sensible presence in it—the invisible King of a visible kingdom—for He came on earth but to show what His reign would be, after He had left it, and to submit to suffering and dishonour, that He might reign.
Newman concludes with the observation that, like the Transfiguration, another manifestation of Jesus’s glory, this period before Lent is a respite.
If we live in awareness of the riches of the liturgical year, Newman reminds us, we can see the periods of rest and respite contrasted with those of trial and sorrow in our own lives, rejoice in them, use them to build ourselves up, and prepare for the eternal joy of the life to come:
When then Christ gives us what is pleasant, let us take it as a refreshment by the way . . . Let us rejoice in Epiphany with trembling, that . . . we may sorrow in Lent with thankfulness; let us rejoice now, not as if we have attained, but in hope of attaining.
In what may seem a lull between Christmas and Lent, Newman helps us see the glories of this Ordinary Time.