November marks the end of the year, at least as the Christian tradition reckons it, with a new year starting on the first Sunday in Advent (2nd December, this year). The practice of celebrating the last Sunday of the year is a relatively new innovation, introduced about a century ago, in 1925, by the Roman Catholic Church as a response to social and economic turmoil in Europe. In the encyclical that established the celebration, Pope Pius XI strongly lamented the nationalism, selfishness, loss of family values, etc., etc. and concluded the hope that the new feast “may hasten the return of society to our loving Saviour,” a lofty missional purpose.
One hundred years later, and we may shake our heads at his naivety. With all the changes in society and the role of the churches, it is unlikely that worship on a single Sunday, even annually repeated, will bring reformation of our culture and return the Christian faith to central status. Nor would many of us want the dominant denominations to regain the sort of power to coerce behaviour that they had a century ago.
Nevertheless, other denominations got on the bandwagon and adopted the celebration of “Christ the King” or “Reign of Christ” as the last Sunday of the liturgical year.
The names trouble me. Take the term “king.” While Harry is doing an excellent job to restore confidence in “our” purely titular (British) monarchy, others, such as Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, may be demonstrating royal behaviour all too familiar to the people of the Bible (recall the death of John the Baptist, Mark 6). Neither truly represent God’s reign. As I have mentioned before, considerations such as these have led me to attempt to avoid the term “Kingdom of God” as much as possible, and to substitute “community of divine love” in its place. This plays on the ambiguity of “divine love” – is it love from God towards us, or our love for God, our imitation (in the most positive sense of following an example) of God’s love for the world. And while heaven is certainly not a democracy, the word “community” brings out the interrelationships between the members of God’s “kingdom.”
What then might we celebrate on “Christ the King” Sunday? Is it that Christ will eventually return to rule over the world, and all peoples will live in harmony, worshipping God. I hope that this is not the purpose of the feast. It smacks too much of a flight from the present, a retreat into some indeterminate future point and a reason to not take action to overcome the injustices of the present. If Christ’s return is a certainty, why should we bother caring for the environment or speaking out against trafficking?
We bother about those things, and many others, because they are the injustices of the present and we live in the present. The reminder to imitate God’s love and live in line with the example of the “Kingdom” is not something that should be limited to one Sunday a year, but should be a constant motif in our worship and our lives. The imitation of divine love forms the model of how we should live in the present, regardless of the future coming kingdom.
What then might we celebrate on this last Sunday of the year? Perhaps it should be this: the certainty of the ultimate presence of the community of divine love. Not that it will come and fix everything in judgement or comfort, but merely that it will come, regardless of what we do. To put this another way, we live in the present in imitation of the divine love, but what we do is never perfect, we never get it completely right. This, however, is not a reason for guilt or inaction. It is not our job to create the “kingdom of God” by our lives, but rather to learn from its ways and live them. The certainty of the “kingdom” frees us to live in this way, and to make mistakes along the way as we learn God’s ways. Not “I have to get this right, else there will be everlasting consequences” but “I am able to experiment in living in love, because God’s love will win out in the end.”
The end is not our responsibility. The present is.
Remembering the certainty of the end is probably worth one Sunday a year. Living in the present in love is an everyday task.
Once again this year, I won’t be at Scots for “Christ the King” Sunday as I will be in the USA at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting which is held at this time every year. What is more, I will be living in the present, in particular, focussing on how the interpretation of the Bible intersects care for God’s creation.
Rev Dr Peter Trudinger
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