Christ the King and the Liturgical Year

Homily for the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

“Christ the King,” Goesdorf, Luxembourg
“Christ the King,” Goesdorf, Luxembourg (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Note: Much of this homily was written five years ago for Christ the King in 2016. As I noted at the time, at the last minute a new idea came to me during our family prayers and grew like a mustard seed, ultimately replacing everything I had meant to say. But I hoped and expected that the moment would come for the homily I thought I would preach. Five years later, that day has come. — SDG

Welcome to the crowning of the year: the Solemnity of our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe.

That phrase, “the crowning of the year,” may make some of us think of the coming season of Advent, and the lovely hymn, “People, Look East,” which looks forward toward Christmas, the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord. Christmas, of course, comes at the end of the civil calendar, the Gregorian calendar, so in that sense Christmas is a crowning of the year.

But both Pope Francis and before him Pope Benedict XVI have referred to this day, the Solemnity of Christ the King, as “the crowning of the liturgical year.” The liturgical year ends here, and next Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, is a new year.

So if the Solemnity of Christ the King is the crowning of the liturgical year, then the meaning of this day is inseparable from everything that’s gone before. We can’t talk about this day in isolation, any more than you can talk about the last chapter of a book or the series finale of a TV show, by itself. The finale of anything depends on everything that’s gone before. 

So what has gone before? What is it that comes to a climax today — and what is it that we’ll be starting anew next Sunday? 

We’ve all marched through the church year many times. We see the liturgical colors come and go: Most of the time the vestments and hangings are green; sometimes they’re violet or red. Today they’re white and gold. We see the poinsettias at Christmas and the lilies at Easter. But maybe we aren’t always fully aware of the pattern or the rhythm or the structure of what we’re doing. Let’s take a step back and look at the big picture.


The Story of Salvation

I compared this solemnity, Christ the King, to the last chapter of a book or the finale of a TV show, and like books and TV shows, the church calendar, the liturgical year, has a story to tell, a drama thousands of years in the making, compressed into the 52 weeks of the year. 

A story with God as its author! The story of salvation, of salvation history, beginning, really, with the creation of the universe; and then the creation of humanity in God’s image; the tragedy of sin and death; and the glory of God’s plan to redeem his creation, to set human race and all of creation free from sin and death. That’s the story we retell every year, from Advent to Christmas season, from Ash Wednesday to Holy Week and the great climax of the year, the Easter Triduum, and on into Easter season, and finally from Pentecost to … today’s finale, the Solemnity of Christ the King. 

It’s a story, but isn’t just a story — and I don’t mean only that it’s true. I mean that the retelling of this story in our worship, throughout the year, is more than just a retelling, or a commemoration, or even a celebration of past events. 

Pope Paul VI, who in 1969 moved this feast to the last Sunday of the year, wrote at the time that

the unfolding of the liturgical year is not just a commemoration of the actions by which Jesus Christ … has brought about our salvation … the celebration of the liturgical year “enjoys a sacramental force and a particular efficaciousness [or effective power] to nourish the Christian life.” 

There is effective power in the “unfolding of the liturgical year,” from each season and feast to the next, to “nourish the Christian life.” People miss that if they only come to Mass sporadically: Christmas and Easter, Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday, and so forth. Imagine trying to follow a TV show but skipping most of the episodes — but more so, because we’re not just viewers here at Mass. You aren’t an audience. We are all active participants in this act of worship, and every week our presence matters, or our absence.


Beginnings and Endings

So this story comes to a finale with Christ the King, but where does it start? Next Sunday, the first Sunday in Advent, the story starts again — where? Not at the beginning, actually. I’m sure you’ve seen TV shows and movies that start off in the middle of things and then fill you in later on. Advent is like that.

Actually, next Sunday we find Jesus talking about the end of the world, just like he was last Sunday, and just like today’s first reading from Daniel with the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, receiving kingship and everlasting dominion. In fact, exactly like that. Listen for it next Sunday in the Gospel: the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. You see, even with the turning of the year, the story continues. Advent is about watching and waiting for Christ’s coming at Christmas, but also, especially at first, watching and waiting for his Second Coming at the end of history.

And of course the climax of the story — the crucial turning point; the pivotal, most important chapter — is Holy Week and the Easter Triduum, the celebration of our Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection. In fact, in a way Easter is the true beginning, that is, the origin of the liturgical year. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

Beginning with the Easter Triduum as its source of light, the new age of the Resurrection fills the whole liturgical year with its brilliance. Gradually, on either side of this source, the year is transfigured by the liturgy.

And so, the Catechism continues, “the kingdom of God enters into our time.” Christ’s kingship, which we celebrate today, begins with Easter, which the Catechism says is “not simply one feast among others, but the ‘Feast of feasts,’ the ‘Solemnity of solemnities,” and from there, “The mystery of the Resurrection, in which Christ crushed death, permeates with its powerful energy our old time, until all is subjected to him.” 

This is why the Church unfolds the mysteries of Christ to us in stages and seasons throughout the year: not just because it’s a good story and we need to hear it, but because in this unfolding Christ is present in his body, that is, in his Church, in us — in this solemnity; in this celebration of the Mass; even, please God, in this homily — continuing his work of redemption. Of bringing us freedom and furthering his kingdom — the kingdom of God, of Christ the King — in our lives and in our world. 

That’s what we celebrate and what is accomplished at every Mass in every season throughout the year: God’s ongoing work in us and through us to redeem our souls, to bring us freedom, and to further the kingdom of Christ the King. That’s why we’re here — why we must be here. Because Christ the King is building his kingdom here, in our hearts and our lives, if we let him.


Suffering, Conversion, Joy, and Hope

This kingdom is widely misunderstood. It’s always been misunderstood. We see it today in Jesus’ dialogue with Pilate. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Yeah, that really doesn’t mean what you think it means. 

Christ’s kingship looks like the image over my head — Christ enthroned at the right hand of the Father with the Holy Spirit (along with the Virgin Mary, the Queen of Heaven and Earth, receiving her own crown from the Father and the Son) — but it also looks like the image to my right: Christ crucified, suffering for us and with us, sharing the sufferings of all who suffer in this valley of tears.

The world is a valley of tears because there is another kingdom, the kingdom of darkness, and also the kingdom that Pilate represents, the kingdom of Caesar, of man. We see their works all around us every day: poverty, illness, division, violence, injustice, exploitation, abuse, addiction, death, grief.

Christ has come to bring us freedom from all these evils, but for now we suffer and he suffers with us. But he triumphed also over suffering and death and we who believe, believe he will triumph also in us, in our sufferings. 

The kingdom calls us to faith and trust — the faith we will affirm moments from now in the Creed. 

The kingdom calls us to repentance and conversion, especially during the violet seasons of the year, the coming Advent season and especially Lent, when we remember the words of John the Baptist and our Lord, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” We remember that we must work to realize the kingdom in our lives and in our world.

The kingdom calls us to joy and gratitude, especially during the festal seasons of the year, the Christmas season and especially the Easter season, as well as on feasts and solemnities like today. We rejoice because Christ reigns in heaven, and because he reigns, if we let him, in our hearts, our lives, our homes.

We rejoice in hope, especially today, at this crowning of the year, as we look forward to the true culmination of history when Christ’s reign will be established for all time in the new heavens and the new earth. 

Thy kingdom come. Amen. 

Hans von Kulmbach (1480-1522), “Christ the King”

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