Christmas and the Kingship of Christ

Christ came to unseat the kings, so that true hearts might find their sanctuary in him, the true and lasting king.

Hans Memling, “Polyptych of Earthly Vanities and Heavenly Redemption”, ca. 1485
Hans Memling, “Polyptych of Earthly Vanities and Heavenly Redemption”, ca. 1485 (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

While I am not a bean counter, at least not on matters biblical, I know of several Scripture scholars who most definitely are, one of whom tells me that the phrase “Kingdom of God,” which is among the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary, shows up exactly 122 times in the New Testament. He apparently forgot to mention, however, that not fewer than 90 of those references may be ascribed to Jesus himself. Someone else needed to tell me that.

It’s a big deal, in other words. So, what does it mean and why does it matter? In his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI, who has cornered many a theological market, including Holy Scripture, plainly tells us: “The Kingdom is not a thing, it is not a geographical dominion like worldly kingdoms. It is a person; it is he.”

The identification of the one with the other, therefore, remains at the heart of the Church’s Christological faith. Which is why, in Christ’s proclamation of the Kingdom, he points precisely to himself, not to some external thing outside of or beyond the human being Jesus, the very one in whom the eternal Word of God became flesh. Thus, it matters profoundly that we not reduce the Kingdom to the status of a thing, an ideological or political construct separate and distinct from the Person of Jesus Christ. The world is awash in countless projects of human uplift, after all, which appear to have done very little to lift anyone’s spirit. Only a person can truly save. And when it is the Second Person of the eternal Trinity himself, what miracles might then be wrought!

Why, even when God was a child, freshly found amid the sheep and the cows of Bethlehem, the trappings of kingship apply. In that lovely hymn by Charles Wesley, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” so often sung at Mass on the Sundays of Advent, the note of kingship is unmistakably struck: 

Born thy people to deliver, Born a child and yet a king,
Born to reign in us forever, Now thy gracious kingdom bring.

Or, to sound another Wesley hymn, one which is yet more famous, and whose very title is carried in the first line: “Hark! The herald angels sing…” And what is the song that they sing? Nothing less than a seraphic outburst of full-throated praise to the “Glory of the newborn King…” Followed at once by, “Peace on earth, and mercy mild, / God and sinners reconciled!”

So, yes, it is a very big deal that divine kingship be predicated of Christ, extending even unto the womb whence the miracle of his conception took place. “Immensity,” exclaimed the poet Donne in high tribute to the young virgin who, “cloistered (him) in thy dear womb.” No end of meditation awaits us upon such sublime paradoxes of faith. If theology is nothing other than the attempt made by faith to understand, what is it that theology is to understand? Surely, among other mysteries, the fact that the kingship of Jesus Christ is not a mere honorific title conferred after the fact; but fundamental to the very Logos of God who, from the very first moment of his taking on human existence, asserted a kingship both unique and indestructible. Indeed, with the most gracious and far reaching implications for those who believe it.

“The Christ Child lay on Mary’s breast,” Chesterton tells us,

His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)

And why is that? Because Christ came to unseat the kings, disabusing them of their cunning, so that true hearts might find their sanctuary in him, the true and lasting king. But in order for that to happen, Christ must actually stake his claim, of which there are several defining features at work, features which, even in utero, apply. 

To begin with, kings assume power by the exercise of the sword, resulting in the overthrow of an existing order that has grown corrupt and thus incapable of protecting or saving anyone. Which is why, when Christ came to vanquish sin and death, he did so upon a cross whose very shape, which is that of a sword, suggests something of the scale of violence needed to overthrow those thrones and dominions. The conquest of the world comes at considerable cost, you see, and, as the Scriptures remind us, it is for “the violent to bear it away.” The sword becomes, as it were, a cross: Ave cruz, spec unica (Hail the cross, our only hope). And if, from the very start, that was the trajectory set, then certainly Christ’s kingship begins in the crib and, yes, even before the crib.

Second, kingship belongs by dint of the wisdom and justice of those who exercise it, which, in the case of Christ, is infinite and absolute. Not only does he possess truth: he is truth. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” he tells us in the Gospel of St. John (14:6). From which it follows that none may go to the Father apart from Christ, who is the perfect expression of the Father’s wisdom. 

And, finally, there is this: the kingship of Christ is one of strict inheritance, which means that the crown he wears is the rightful property of the Son, given to him from all eternity by his Father in heaven. It is the ultimate source of legitimacy, which is to say, his right to rule and ours to obey.

In the circumstance, therefore, Christ wears the crown of kingship (a) because he won it against the forces arrayed on the side of Satan and his minions; (b) because he merited it on the strength of the wisdom of which he is himself the embodiment; and (c) because he inherited it from his Father, for whom no throne of kingship is too great to be given over to his Son. 

Let us, then, this Christmas Day, be especially mindful that the Child in the manger we salute, has come among us as king, not only of the universe, but of every human heart. And that he has come to restore us to a kingdom we long ago lost; one which he is determined to resurrect, moreover, not in his body alone, but in the body of believers everywhere.