Christ the King 2011: an Englishman preaches in Bunker Hill

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.

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16 comments

  1. Philip, I couldn’t follow the link, but I presume the “respected theologian” you are talking about is Robert Barron.
    I saw his video & felt he argued the case for the revised translation very well.
    Having said that I thought your homily was very well balanced.
    Here in England we have been using the new texts since September & I have to say, and have done so in this very place already, that I have no problem with them!
    As I said to my congregation last Sunday, maybe by the time we celebrate Christ the King next year we will be used to them & who knows in 40 years time we might like them as well as the ones they are replacing!!
    Thank for you thoughtful comments on the kingship of Christ. May he be with you all (and with your spirit!) from the beginning of Advent!

  2. Yesterday I was treated to the “immensity of His majesty” in the sung preface for the feast. Of course, on my way out I could not help but gently poke the pastor that it had helped me to recognize his “anticipated” use of the New Missal.

    Of course the Gospel’s vision of the divine reign completely overwhelms the passing “glory of the world” which has infatuated our church management so often and has gotten expressed in our liturgy all too much.

  3. Brilliant homily, Philip! Thank you for your gracious comments about our American heritage while making a greater point about God and our relationship with him.

  4. “Hmmm. It’s true that scholars called for revision of 1974. You wouldn’t know it from this video, but that already happened, from 1981 till 1998. 1998 Sacramentary? Never happened, apparently. Scholars’ appeals led to this translation, apparently. As I’ve already tried to make clear, that’s not quite true. Most scholars favored 1998, few of them favor the new missal. Don’t you wonder whether Bob knows that?

    As for the claim that only English missed “and with your spirit”: just go to Brazil, or Portugal, or Japan, or parts of India.

    As for poetic beauty: Fr. Longenecker thinks the new missal sounds like “eighth grader trying to write Shakespeare.” Bishop Rowthorn thinks it lacks “intelligibility, euphony, and proclaimability.” Rev. Daw thinks that the “rather baroque idiom of courtly etiquette” is “precious wording” that “ultimately calls more attention to the petitioner’s effort to be correct than to the generosity or providence of God.”

    1. Will, I believe you are quoting Fr. Anthony’s post about the Barron video. I’m afraid it will be mysterious to our readers, appearing here without any attribution or context. Did you mean to add a comment?

      1. “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”

        The translation is illegitimate and this is not the relationship between us and God who cares for us intimately.

  5. “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”

    Wonderful homily-the above quote leapt out at me as horribly ironic!
    We used Dolores Dufner’s excellent text “A Different Kind of King” which echos the thrust of your homily beautifully and decries the “Imperial court” imagery!

  6. This is an excellent blending of two cultures in a reflection that makes one ponder not just this feast but how we approach the RM3. It brought to mind a memory of my father who just passed away a week ago. He was 91 and full of life.
    Several years ago I went with my parents to England and Ireland for a two week vacation. Whenever we entered an ancient castle or church, I was immediately dumbfounded by the beauty, majesty, and yes, the spirits of the past. I would stand in the center of the space and try to absorb the history it embodied. My father, at first, would come over to me and try to shake me out of my “moment” because we have to move on… (Hmmm). My response was, “But dad, don’t you feel it?” Once, a docent came up to me after my father had tried to bring me back to reality, “You get it… don’t you?”
    I have always loved this feast because it calls us to view Christ in an almost counter cultural way as Americans. We seem to have an aversion to the concept of bowing to royalty. We love to know Him as friend and brother but what about the majesty and kingly priesthood. What about the lamb upon the throne? I believe the shakers expressed it best when they sang, “to bow and to bend, we shant be ashamed.”
    When next Sunday rolls around, I am going to do my level best to stand in the center and absorb all that I can.

  7. 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.

    Two brief questions, Fr. Endean:
    1. Do you recognize a rather inescapable dichotomy in your chosen terms within the above two sequential sentences? Having clarified the nature of the Lord’s royal status prior, yet and still you have to “name” our intimate relationship to His “kingship.” The words of our liturgy cannot effect a change in that intimacy through your contention that its language places it more remotely away. I think that Barron convincingly argues for the opposite effect.
    2. How should we regard the names and titles foretold by Isaiah as to how the Messia was to be called? Is it always clear cut crystal between figuarative and literal for God’s Chosen People prior to the first coming?

    1. “This God needs to be addressed in the language of closeness, of warmth, of noble simplicity.”

      Which certainly is not what the new translations are encouraging.

    2. thanks for this. I’m not sure I quite get the points, but here goes:

      to 1: obviously our liturgy makes no difference to God, or the truth that God is with us. But it does make a difference to our ability to participate actively in that reality.

      to 2: I suspect that the literal/metaphorical distinction is just too crude here. Moreover, the entire monarchical strand in the OT is set alongside a tradition whereby the wish for a king is a sign of Israel’s infidelity to the covenant. The bible’s writings on kingship amount to a sustained argument and questioning about the proper nature of authority, and about how the truth of God’s reliable sovereignty is glimpsed amid our varying experiences of human kingship.

  8. A very nice homily, Fr. Philip. Though tangential, and it probably couldn’t have worked in the tenor of your homily, perhaps some mention of your martyred companion, Miquel Pro, who stated seconds before his death, “Vivo Christo Rey!” might have been in order. Contemporaneously, the Vatican was signing concordats with fascist Italy. Nonetheless, shortly thereafter the feast was instituted. Again, in fairness, it would have added too much freight to your fine homily. In the penultimate paragraph, you were able to posit the important point–that divine irony about what it means to be royal as expressed by our Savior in yesterday’s Gospel text.(Mt 25,31-46) As St. John of the Cross wrote, “In the evening of life, we will be judged on how well we loved.”

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