Things sometimes come full circle. Many years ago, more or less by accident, I, a rather English Englishman, was ordained deacon in, of all places, Lexington. And now, on the last Sunday when we are using the familiar missal, I find myself preaching in another place with rich American revolutionary associations: Bunker Hill. Moreover, I have to speak about kingship, about Christ as King.
The coincidences remind me of the last time I was in the same room as royalty, about 10 years ago. The college in London where I was working at the time received a formal visit from the Chancellor of the University, Her Royal Highness the Princess Anne. I found myself in a corner of the room in company with a colleague, a feisty feminist from these United States. We both had to be there, because it was a command performance for the faculty; I at least was in fact sneakingly curious about what the princess looked like in the flesh. But neither of us wanted to have to talk to the august royal personage. In my case, this was because of an unease with polite conversation about nothing, of the kind that is expected when you meet the royal family. But my friend and colleague was far more forthright and definite: ‘Americans curtsey to no-one,’ she roundly declared.
‘Americans curtsey to no-one.’ If we celebrate this feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King here in the US, we need to recognise that so much of what is valuable and precious in this country arises from a rejection of the idea of kingship, a recognition that the political power of this world can often be dysfunctional and abusive, that human freedom and dignity need to be safeguarded. These United States are founded on a belief that all are created equal. Most US citizens are descended from immigrants who came to this country because the monarchies of Europe could not provide them with a decent living. The Pilgrim Fathers stand as a symbol for millions who came to this land, found here the blessings of prosperity and liberty, and were thereupon moved to give thanks. It’s no coincidence that when I walked into the sacristy this morning I was wished not, ‘happy feast of Christ the King’, but ‘happy Thanksgiving’—and surely, however great our devotion to this Sunday’s feast, preparations for Thanksgiving will be taking up a large part of our energies this weekend.
I am actually a mildly monarchist Englishman, I suspect because all my lived experience is of an unusual monarch who is a woman. Queen Elizabeth’s behaviour has been exemplary over nearly sixty years; in particular, she has never used her position to further her personal interests and preferences, and she has always respected the prerogatives of her duly elected government. Not many monarchs in history have been like her. When the gospels speak of Christ as King—which they don’t very often—they are always concerned to bring out that his kingship is not like that of the great ones of this world who lord it over others. He is not a King before whom we bow and scrape and curtsey. This king is hidden from us; we don’t recognise him. He is in the poor, those in need, the naked, the sick, those in prison. St Paul tells us that Christ is raised on high by his Father, and given the name above all other names, precisely because he emptied himself into the human condition, and then went further, even to death on a cross. It is on Calvary, over the abused, executed, broken body of Jesus that we find the proclamation in Hebrew, Latin and Greek: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.
The Gospel is anything but an endorsement of the established political order, anything but a simple affirmation of power as we experience it. The Gospel is about liberation. The title of Christ the King only makes sense if we see it in the context of this world’s powers and authorities being transformed, of a promise that all of us will be given a royal dignity, all of us will be given the exclusive privileges of a first-born son and heir.
Next week, the language of our Mass will change. One difference—perhaps the most striking—will be that metaphors of the Roman imperial court, frequent in the original Latin but downplayed by the first translators, will be restored. I have heard a respected theologian (pick up the video about 2 minutes in) in the last weeks state that it’s right for us, in our dealings with God, to use the formal, stately language of the court, language fit for a king. Now, there are, I think, some reasonable arguments for the impending change in tone: we do need to be reminded that our dealings with God utterly transcend our dealings with each other, and we Anglophone Catholics, we members of a universal Church from the most powerful culture and language group in the world, do need to be taught that we find salvation only in fellowship with people who don’t think and speak as we do. If a more formal liturgical language helps us in these ways, well and good. But our God is one who has no favorites, one who seeks out the lost, on who embraces death so as to rescue us and lead us to eternal life, one who identifies with the least of his sisters and brothers. This God needs to be addressed in the language of closeness, of warmth, of noble simplicity.
Even if we may be gaining in some respects with our new texts, we will be losing what has become familiar to us over some forty years. We will no longer hear expressions that, whatever their shortcomings, have helped many of us recognise the closeness of God to us, the unfailing intimacy of divine kingship and lordship. Our liturgy is about to become more remote in its expression. We must trust in the providence of God that good will somehow come of the change. We are regularly being encouraged to embrace the new translation and make its introduction a moment of growth in our relationship with God. Such calls obviously have their place. But precisely in order for that growth to happen, we may need also to recognise the losses involved, and give ourselves permission to grieve for something that has become dear and precious.
At any rate, the shift in register and tone next week must not weaken our grasp of the central truth about Christ’s kingship: such talk makes sense only because the language of kingship is being used in a quite distinctive, strange, quirky way. This kingship takes the form of Christ’s identifying himself with the poorest among us. The world of the court is evoked, certainly, but only so that it can be subverted.
All that said, we may, if this sort of thing appeals to us, take the image of a European monarch as a means of contemplating who Christ is. The ideal, if not always the reality, provides us with a rich symbol. But the feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King, is rightly understood only when we see that there is also authentic Christianity in those who, at least when it’s a matter of this world’s royalty, have a grounded sense of their own God-given dignity, an evangelical dignity on the basis of which they rightly curtsey to no-one.