Christ the King, 2016

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Christian calendar. Next week we begin a new year in our cycle of readings and observations of holidays. Christ the King, also known as Reign of Christ, is a feast day and a relatively new addition to the western liturgical calendar. It was first declared in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. The original date was the last Sunday of October - the Sunday immediately preceding All Saints day. In 1970 the observance was moved to the final Sunday of Ordinary Time, which means it falls between November 20 and November 26. Thus today is the earliest the observance can fall (which also means that Christmas Day falls on a Sunday).

The holiday, along with many other days traditionally observed primarily in the Roman Catholic Tradition, became a part of Protestant Christianity with the adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary, assembled in 1983. The Lectionary, which grew out of the 1974 Consultation on Church Union, was a combination of various Protestant Lectionaries with the 1969 Roman Catholic Lectionary produced following the Second Vatican Council.

That is quite a bit of church history trivia, but the point I want to make about the feast day is that its observance is something that became official in the corner of the church where I serve after my ordination. I began my career serving churches without observing the holiday in any particular fashion and then, when I was serving in my second call after graduating from seminary, began to delve deeply into the then new Revised Common Lectionary, upon which I have based worship planning and preaching since.

As I have adjusted to the new calendar and its related holidays, my attitude toward the feast of Christ the King and its observance has shifted. Like many of my colleagues, I carried a slightly negative attitude toward the triumphalism inherent in the observance. For many years, I preferred the term “Reign of Christ,” though I’m not sure that it is much less triumphal than “Christ the King.” The basic though behind the observance is to remind faithful people that the resurrected Christ is sovereign not only over the church and its believers, but over all of the world. We believe that the grace of God in Christ is offered not only to those who follow our traditions and ways, but to all people. We also believe that there is a power higher than that of worldly governments and, on occasion, people of conscience are called to follow God’s command even when it means standing defiant of the rules of the government.

This latter calling has been evident at certain points in the history of the church. In the first centuries of the Christian Church, before Christianity became an officially recognized religion of the Roman Empire, Christians were persecuted and at times killed for their faith. The faith persisted and was handed down despite harsh punishment for some of its observers. They based their actions on the belief that God’s calling was higher and more authoritative than the rules and commands of earthly leaders. This stood in direct contrast to the theology of the empire which asserted that the emperor was a representative of God and therefore spoke with the authority of God in all things.

Throughout the centuries there have been many other times when people of faith have stood up to secular authorities. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor who became an anti-Nazi dissident during the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler. He was especially outspoken against Hitler’s program of genocide of Jews. He was arrested and, after two years executed by hanging as the Nazi regime was collapsing. Bonhoeffer was an instrumental member of what came to be known as the Confessing Church movement. The tenants of the movement were simple. The members confessed allegiance to Christ and only to Christ.

In the span of my career there has been a part of Christianity in America that stands somewhat in contrast to the Confessing Church movement. Known as American civil religion, it has been identified by sociologists since the 1960’s and refers to a quasi-religious faith with sacred symbols drawn from national history. You can observe civil religion in the emotional tone of programs at certain national monuments, in the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and the singing of the national anthem. The emotional stirrings of patriotism are perceived by many to be very similar to the experience of religious faith. The observance of public rituals, symbols and ceremonies on sacred days and at sacred places stands outside of the traditional framework of the church, but are also incorporated into church observances. An example would be the fourth of July. A national holiday, it is also frequently observed within the church with special decorations and activities.

Although I am persuaded of the value of the official separation of church and state from the point of view of civil government, I also know that it is impossible, and not desirable to establish firm lines between civil and church observances. Our church is made up of citizens. We do all of our activities within the context of the country where we live and in which our church is located. Furthermore, our particular faith tradition, Congregationalism, literally grew up with our national government. The principles on which our democracy are based arise from religious documents, including the Mayflower Compact. The people who formed our government, including 17 signers of the Declaration of Independence, were leaders in our church. Trying to make an absolute distinction between civil and religious doesn’t make sense.

So our observance of Christ the King Sunday is always a bit muted. We have mixed feelings about the holiday. It is easily lost in the observances of Thanksgiving and other occasions that are a part of the season. Nonetheless there are aspects of the holiday that are genuine reflections of our deepest beliefs.

Few of us will ever be faced with the terrible decisions of early Christian martyrs or of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but I’d like to believe that if we were placed in such a situation we would find the courage to confess our faith in Christ as our only allegiance. It is a thought worthy of our consideration each year.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!