Some say carpe diem (YOLO for short), others, ubi caritas et amour, Deus ibi est, where charity and love are, God is there; and then others, following St. John Chrysostom, combine the two if not literally then in their sentiment: ubi caritas gaudet, ibi est festivitas, where love rejoices, there is festivity.
One of the greatest sources of festivity is the Church herself, her liturgical calendar filled with feasts: almost-daily memorials, the weekly observance of the Sabbath, and even whole seasons. Even during Lent do we get drink from the springs of a feast: Solemnities such as one for St. Joseph or the honored Feast of St. Patrick have precedence, enough so that canon law allows us to eat meat on a Lenten Friday if a solemnity falls on that day, or when a generous bishop recognizing the Irish Catholic population of Notre Dame dispenses us from keeping the fast. The Solemnity of Christ the King is no exception.
Instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI as a counter to anti-clericalism, or secularism, the Feast of Christ the King was addressing a politically and socially disturbed world order: Both nations and governments, the Church proclaimed in the encyclical Quas Primas, “had thrust Jesus Christ and his holy law out of their lives; that these had no place either in private affairs or in politics.” And while the encyclical goes into more detail about the relationship between religion and the public sphere, the feast is not established primarily as a political solution; far from it: The feast is the affirmation of the mysteries of the faith, a consolation in a present world that does not seem to be filled with peace, and a just orientation for the Church in its worship and joy in a risen, regal Rex.
To proclaim Jesus as King is first biblical: Our Lord comes and fulfills the testimonies of the prophets; he is “the child born to us and a son given to us, and the government is upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called . . . the Prince of Peace,”(Isaiah 9:6-7) to sit on the throne of David. And fittingly, we read the anointment of David as this year’s first reading in the liturgy. Prophesized by Zechariah, Jesus is that King of Peace who rides upon an ass—instead of a horse—as he enters Jerusalem, marking the beginning of his Passion (Zechariah 9:9). But Jesus is not only the King of Peace: He is also the Just King of Judgment. As we shall see in the proclamation of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus “will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,” some to enter into eternal life with the Father, others into eternal damnation.
The foundation of Jesus’ kingship is not just biblical but natural: Fast forward a few hundred years to the Council of Nicea (its sixteenth centenary being celebrated the year of the institution of the Feast of Christ the King and when the dogmata of Christ’s consubstantiality with the Father and his humanity and divinity in one person, the hypostatic union) were articulated. This is why we hear St. Paul in our second reading on this day, who tells us that “the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all.” Jesus, too, acquires his kingship in that greatest gift we have received: Christ as our Redeemer, who even subjected death unto Himself so that we may have everlasting life.
Today we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King on the last Sunday of Ordinary time, amongst eschatological readings that orient us to the Kingdom to come. But this was not always the case: Before the reform of the Roman Calendar in 1969, the Feast of Christ the King was to be celebrated on the last Sunday in October, the intention being that it closely preceded the Solemnity of All Saints. It was also encouraged to have a procession of the Eucharist on this day, in addition to praying a dedication of mankind to the Sacred Heart of Jesus (which we still do today).
Why right before the Solemnity of All Saints? The beginning lines of the Epistle in the now Extraordinary Form of the Mass gives us a hint: “Brethren: We give thanks with joy to the Father who has made us fit to share in the inheritance of the saints in his light. He has rescued us from the domain of darkness and set us instead in the kingdom of his beloved Son.” (Colossians 1:12-20) These words of St. Paul, and the upcoming celebration of the Solemnity of the Saints, were to remind and console us in that we can share in the Kingdom of Christ, his kingdom of peace and justice, now: “When once men recognize, both
in private and public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well- ordered discipline, peace, and harmony.” (Quas Primas, 19) The encyclical elaborates: The King of Peace, who came to reconcile all things and not to be ministered but to minister, united law with charity and told us, “‘My yoke is sweet and my burden light.’ Oh, what happiness would be Ours if all men, individuals, families, and nations would but let themselves be governed by Christ!”
In his series of essays “What is a Feast?” Josef Pieper admits while using Augustine’s words the essence of festivity is difficult to articulate yet known and experienced by many: It is not just “having a good time” or in the “bustle” of the gathering. And so Pieper turns to that succinct quote of Chrysostom to summarize the internal structure of festivity: Ubi caritas gaudet, ibi est festivitas, “where love rejoices, there is festivity.” Why is love rejoicing? In what does love rejoice? Why can we rejoice over Christ the King?
Feasting, Pieper continues, “lives on affirmation. Even celebrations for the dead . . . [celebrate] on the basis of faith that all is well with the world and life as a whole.” (“What is a Feast?” found in Josef Pieper: An Anthology) In feasting, not just this feast but all feasts, we essentially affirm the whole of creation and its goodness, and thus at the same time, affirm that divine ground of the universe, the Creator, Our King. The highest act of homage and joy we can give in this assent and to that highest being is the liturgy, which is the beauty of this gift of a feast, as well as feasts we receive and celebrate as Church.
The Feast of Christ the King? You had me at “Feast.”