Sermon by Prof Graham Holderness on Christ the King, 2015

I’ve often preached on Christ the King, and this year I thought it would be interesting to see what other preachers in other churches have to say about it. So I read some sermons posted in the internet, and very quickly found a pervasive sense of embarrassment and awkwardness about the idea of Christ as a King.

This seems to have two sources. One is political. Many Christians are naturally on the left politically: and the left in this country has become increasingly republican and anti-monarchical. The new leader of the Labour Party, the Right Hon Jeremy Corbyn, refuses to sing the National Anthem, or to kneel before the sovereign. There are plenty of people in the Anglican church who share these views. In a sermon delivered in King’s College Cambridge, the preacher admitted that he disliked royalty so much he would leave the country to avoid a Royal Wedding. An American Anglican preacher thought that we should celebrate ‘Christ the democratically-elected President’ rather than ‘Christ the King’.

The other source is theological. Although the gospels emphatically hail Christ as a king, heir to the throne of David, as well as the King of Heaven – ‘The Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David’, says the Angel Gabriel: ‘and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end’ – Jesus in every possible  way declines to accept worldly sovereignty.

In the gospels the life of Jesus is framed by kingship. At his Nativity three kings are seeing the new-born King of the Jews. And at the Crucifixion, the notice hammered onto the top of his cross ironically echoes the same unfulfilled promise – ‘This is Jesus, King of the Jews.’ What kind of king begins his earthly life in a stable and ends it as the victim of a cruel public execution? His own reaction to the question as to whether he was a king, is, at least to Pilate, elusive. ‘Art thou the King of the Jews?’ demands Pilate in John’s Gospel.  ‘My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence’.

It’s easy to see how the political antipathy to monarchy connects with Jesus’s rejection of kingly authority.  Here Jesus is the friend of the poor; the democrat who proclaimed every human being equal in God’s sight; the rebel who defied authority and overthrew the money-changers’ tables in the temple.  The Jesus who was born in stable, and entered Jerusalem on a donkey, and died the death of a common criminal for the common good.

We’re accustomed in the Catholic tradition to magnificent images and representations of Christ as a king or emperor, like the one on the rood-screen above me: richly dressed in robes of gold, bearing the crown that symbolises authority and power in earth and in heaven. But Christ has not always been thought of as a king. In the first century you wouldn’t find any representations of Christ in physical form at all, but only in signs – groups of letters like the Trigram. Or the sign of the fish. Other early representations are of Christ as the paschal lamb; as the true vine; as the Good Shepherd.

To the early Christians the king was the Emperor of Rome, a figure of worldly power who persecuted them, martyred them, forced them to worship false gods. It would have been strange for them to think of Jesus as resembling their greatest enemy. So instead they imagined Jesus as more like themselves: the suffering servant who was obedient even unto death; or in terms of the homely things that surrounded them and supported their lives, the lamb, the vine, the fish, the shepherd.

It was not until the 4th century, when the Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity, that the image of the king and the image of Christ really merged. Most of the great pictures we can think of representing Christ in majesty are Byzantine in origin. The head of the church, Christ, and the head of the state, the Emperor, shared in a common ‘maiestas’, majesty. The figure of worldly power, the Emperor, and the figure of Christ the King merged into one.

Now this is a very interesting moment in the history of the Christian church. Our founder made it clear that he wasn’t a king and never sought worldly authority. But in the 4th century the most powerful king on earth, the Emperor Constantine, not only legalised Christianity but became himself a Christian. The spread of Christianity between the time of Constantine and 600 AD is astonishing. By 600 the map of the Christian world begins to resemble the map of modern-day Europe (though it included what is now Turkey, and Egypt of course).That expansion of the church was effected by power. Though Christ Himself refused to be a King, his gospel became protected and disseminated by kings, acting on His behalf. The religion of the powerless became the religion of the powerful.

I recently spent some time in southern Spain, and especially in the wonderful city of Granada. There in the Alcazaba fortress and the Alhambra Palace you can visit the remnant of a great culture, when the African Moors conquered and held Spain for centuries. All the strength and beauty of Islamic civilization is visible in those stern towers and graceful halls.

If you go to the Capilla Real in Granada, a beautiful baroque mausoleum, you can see the modest coffins of Ferdinand and Isabella, the monarchs responsible for expelling the Moors from Spain in the 15th century. Ferdinand and Isabella are unique in the history of the Spanish monarchy since they are called ‘Los Rejes Catolicos’: the Catholic monarchs. You walk along a street called ‘Calle del Rejes Catolicos’ to a square called ‘Isabella la Catolica’. Which seems odd: what else would they be? surely all Spanish monarchs have been Catholic?

Ferdinand and Isabella are uniquely honoured and venerated in this way by the church in Spain because they are the kings who consolidated the power of the church, expelled the Muslim inhabitants of Granada, and began the process of uniting Spain into a nation. Spain is Christian, because of them. Europe is a Christian continent, because of Ferdinand and Isabella.

In the Plaza Isabella there’s a statue of the queen with Christopher Columbus. Ferdinand and Isabella sponsored his voyage to the New World. Conquest and colonization was followed by Christian mission. These kings were also the reason why South America is Christian and Catholic.

This is a fascinating but difficult history. What Ferdinand and Isabella stood for was what we would now call religious intolerance. They forced the Muslims out of Spain, together with the Jews. Any who wanted to remain had to undergo conversion, They introduced the Inquisition to Spain to ensure this process wasn’t compromised. Christ the King is proclaimed throughput Spain, and Latin America, because these kings used power – fairly, but ruthlessly – to promote the religion of powerlessness. Kings of this world, they protected our faith in the king whose kingdom is not from hence.

Although the idea of Christ as a king is in fact of course of very early origin, the Festival of Christ the King is not of ancient date. It’s not Byzantine, it’s not from the Counter-Reformation. It was established as recently as 1925, by Pope Pius XI. So it comes out of a Europe in which fascism was very much the ascendant political force. It’s the time of Hitler’s ‘Campaign in Berlin’, and Mussolini’s ‘March on Rome’. The Pope who followed Pius XI, Pius XII, has been denounced as ‘Hitler’s Pope’, and both their papacies accused of collaboration with Nazism, silence on the persecution of the Jews, failure to speak out against fascism in Italy. So the annual feast of Christ the King emerged along with the cult of the great fascist leader, Das Fuehrer, il Duce.

Pius XI, who introduced the Feast of Christ the King, has also been accused, along with his successor, of being soft on Nazism, silent on the Holocaust, friendly with Mussolini. Nothing could be further from the truth. Pius XI was a brave and outspoken anti-fascist. He denounced Nazism, spoke out against racism and opposed Mussolini. In 1933 he issued an encyclical entitled Mit Brennende Sorge (With Burning Concern), the only papal encyclical ever written in German, not Latin.

It was smuggled into Germany and read from every Catholic pulpit. ‘None but superficial minds could stumble into concepts of a national God, of a national religion; or attempt to lock within the frontiers of a single people within the narrow limits of a single race, God, the Creator of the Universe.’ The encyclical attacked the paganism of Nazism, and its mythology of race and blood. Later, in 1938  when Mussolini began to introduce anti-Semitic legislation into Italy via the Manifesto della Razza, Pius XI again denounced such racism as fundamentally unchristian. ‘We Christians are all the children of Abraham’, he said in a sermon. ‘Spiritually we are all Semites’.

The encyclical that established the Feast of Christ the King is just as firm in its denunciation of Nazism, racism and the power-politics of violence. There is no hope for peace among nations, it says, until men look for the peace of Christ in the kingdom of Christ. ‘Christ has dominion over all creatures, a dominion seized not by violence or usurped, but by nature’. The only political authority that has any value is that which embraces the love and the peace of Christ.

So Christ the King was not introduced to promote or support worldly authority, but precisely to challenge it, where it is unjust, and divisive, and discriminatory. The supreme dominion of Christ was promoted against the fascist cult of the leader, against Nazism, against racism. The image of Christ in majesty is an image of authority, but an authority of love and peace and justice. It stands as a condemnation and reproach against any leadership that is less universal, less inclusive, less merciful and loving than that of Christ the King.

In the crypt of St Peter’s in Rome, among the papal tombs lies a marble effigy of Pope Pius XI. His sleeping form is watched over by a beautiful Byzantine image, in gold mosaic, of Christ in Majesty. Pius XI was a true father to his people; a true friend to the poor and oppressed; a true opponent of all the racist and fascist creeds of hate and violence. May Christ the King have mercy on him; may he rest in peace.