Although I did not preside at Mass today, and therefore did not have to prepare a homily, several thoughts occurred to me as I prayed the Liturgy of the Hours this morning. I’d like to share some reflections with you as this great feast day, Christ the King, progresses.
It all begins with one word: universe. This word was added to the title of the feast in the more or less recent revision of the Roman Missal and General Calendar, the Third Typical Edition of 2002, upon which our English translation of 2011 is based. Previously it was just “Christ the King.” Now the official title of this day is “The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.” (A solemnity of the Lord is the highest ranking, and it pretty much tramples everything in its path. For example, today is the memorial of St. Cecilia, the much beloved patroness of musicians, an ancient virgin-martyr who has been venerated since the earliest days of the Church. Not even a nod* to her today, in the official liturgy anyway.)
Our concept of “universe” has changed so much in recent years, and continues to grow exponentially with every new discovery about both the macro and micro universe. I first got a sense of “macro” and “micro” watching the 1977 classic “Powers of Ten.”
You can find a some updated revisions with a simple search, if you’re interested, but this remains the classic. Today, the range would probably be from the Higgs Boson (sometimes called the “God Particle” because, if it actually exists, it is most basic to all matter) to the most distant object observable in the universe, 45.6 billion light years away, at which point we reach the limit that light can travel since the creation of the universe (the Big Bang, first theorized, by the way, by a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître, in 1927) 13.8 billion years ago (give or take a few).
There are those, of course, who use all this to deny the existence of God. Well, the old limited concepts of God, recognized by St. Augustine and St. Thomas as inadequate, are eminently deniable. The god of the fundamentalist, Biblical literalist, creationist view is simply not big enough to encompass what we know of the universe, that was not known in past ages. The Bible is made up of metaphor, allegory, poetry, epic narrative, not history nor science in a clearly defined, literal sense. Atheists and fundamentalists are in the same narrow box.
The Latin text of the Third Typical Edition is interesting. The title of the feast is Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Universorum Regis Solemnitas. The word universorum is plural. Universum (singular) means “universe.” or “all that is.” The plural doesn’t mean “many universes” – anything beyond what we have the power discover is still “the universe” – but serves as an intensifier, like adding the words “without exception” to “all that is.”
Why is the addition of the word universorum meaningful and important? No matter how distant our discoveries take us, no matter what further “giga” or “nano” stuff we discover, God is still infinitely beyond it, and, most importantly, the Risen Jesus Christ is Lord of it.
The words “king” and “lord” are conditioned by the limitations of our understanding. We know our experience of kings and lords, and we project that knowledge onto Jesus. But in using these words, we have to remember they can only be used by analogy, using the human understanding and experience of kings and lords to say something about God’s and Jesus’ relationship to us.
When we look at the past, the expression “Christ the King” meant something relevant to our own experience. Often we could get an idea of an ideal king by looking at the lousy job most kings were doing, and imagining what a really good king would be like, and projecting that image on Christ. Now, for most of us, kings are at best symbolic figureheads, and we call those with real power (sometimes of life and death) by other titles. How do we understand king today?
Christ the King is a relatively new feast on our Church calendar, instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. That was a significant moment in human history. The emerging nationalism in nineteenth-century Europe, coupled with colonialism and attitudes of superiority and domination toward the rest of the world, had resulted in the First World War – the “War to End All Wars,” which in turn spawned the “Peace to End All Peace.” While political leaders gave lip-service to God and Christianity and moral values, a secularism heedless of accountability to any authority beyond their own is what ruled the day.
The recently deceased Pope Benedict XV had unsuccessfully given his all to prevent the war and chart a course of a just peace in its aftermath. However, the victorious allied powers, principally England and France, were bent upon punishing Germany and carving up the Ottoman Empire into subservient Arab states. With their foot on Germany’s neck, the rise of someone like Hitler, who could bring an unfulfillable and false hope to a defeated and humiliated people, was almost inevitable. Post-war instability in weaker allied or neutral nations opened the door to the Fascism in Italy and Spain, and Communism in Russia. At the same time, a false sense of prosperity and security was beginning to totter on the brink of world-wide economic collapse of the Great Depression.
All this, of course, led inevitably to World War II, the Cold War, and now, tragically, to what Pope Francis is rightly calling the “piecemeal World War III.”
The time was right, 1925, for Pope Pius XI to call humanity back to accountability in the Jubilee Year encyclical, Quas Primas, by which he instituted this feast, calling all humanity to allegiance to Jesus Christ as King.
Today, while our knowledge of the universe has expanded exponentially, our understanding of humanity has fragmented into a jumble of fragments that no longer seem to fit into any coherent whole.
While acknowledging Christ as King of the whole universe – all reality without exception – we are being called by Pope Francis to apply, liberally and generously, the only glue that can reunite a fragmented world.
The glue of mercy.
* Let’s give our own little nod to St. Cecilia, however. Enjoy: