It is the end of the church year and, as is always the case, we bring these liturgical 365 days to a close with the Feast of Christ the King. Now, what is unusual about this particular Feast Day, about this particular “always,” is that in this case “always” doesn’t actually mean that all that long. Christ the King is a Feast that was created by Pope Pius XI in 1925. Originally the Pope had Roman Catholics celebrating Christ the King on the final Sunday in October and then, in 1969 or 1970, depending on which part of the internet you ask, the Feast got moved to the last day of the church year.
It is not clear when the Episcopal Church started keeping the Feast of Christ the King. Indeed, if Scott Gunn, the editor of Forward Day by Day and one of the creators of Lenten Madness is to believed, the answer to that question is “never.” Gunn says that the Episcopal Church has never officially adopted this Feast at all and, therefore, what all real Episcopalians know is that what we are actually celebrating today is the Last Day of the Season of Pentecost.
Now maybe that is a lot of insider baseball. But I am bringing it up because I want to suggest the history of this Feast and the intention behind it may have some things to teach us.
Cast your mind back to 1925. Most of us here this morning had not yet finished college by then. But see if you can remember what was happening in the world at that time and, in particular, what was happening in and around Rome where the Vatican is located.
1925 was the year that Benito Mussolini came to power, that he became Prime Minister of Italy. So it was a time of rising nationalism and, still more specifically, of rising fascism. And one of the things that fascism looked and maybe still looks like is a leader, a human being, having this God-like status. Mussolini was someone who bordered on all-powerful, all-knowing. Whose will it was wrong to question, whose will it was maybe even impious to question. To question or to challenge Mussolini was very nearly to question or to challenge God.
Mussolini was Lord of Lords and King of Kings.
And it is in response to this understanding of the world, to this theocracy, to the model in which the leader overlaps with God, that Pope Pius says No. There is one King, there is one Lord, and he ain’t somebody goose stepping around Italy in brown pants.
This Feast, in other words, is explicitly political in nature. It declares that our faith as a Christians, as followers of Jesus, places profound demands on how we engage with the world of politics.
And if we want, we can regard Pius’ decision cynically. We can conclude that Pope Pius was lamenting the erosion of power by the Vatican and by the Pope in particular, that he was longing for centuries gone by in which the Pope was something pretty close to a monarch or a god himself.
And maybe that cynicism would be fair. But here is one of the things that I trust about God: God can and does take things human actions that maybe did not have the best motivations and find a way of making them holy. And no matter how pure or impure the intention behind this Feast may be, it has something important to say.
I think I have told you before about my late friend, Barbara. Barbara was well into her nineties by the time that I met her. She was full of years and full of wisdom. And Barbara said something to me that I think about often. She said:
We need to be careful about what we worship.
Because we will worship something.
To put Barbara’s thought another way, notwithstanding the hand-wringing that sometimes goes on in churches about a perceived decline in religious participation, in fact there has been no decline in religiosity whatsoever. To this day, 100% of human beings are religious, 100% of us our giving our lives, our attention, our hearts to something that is irrational or, if you prefer, transrational.
Virtually all of us, for instance – including virtually all of us here in church this morning – are worshipping early and often in the religion called consumerism. Consumerism is the promise that we will find healing, belonging, and meaning in stuff, that we will find transformation, in the accumulation of stuff. This is a religion that we keep on worshipping in even though it lets us down every single time. As Jeanne shared with us a couple of weeks ago, no matter how many shoes you accumulate, you will not satisfy your deep longings.
Some of us worship in the religion that is booze. It is our own Gary Tuck who pointed out to me that many bars feature row upon row of beautifully arranged and beautifully lit hard liquor, a setup that Gary calls An altar to alcohol. Some of us worship in the religion that is called work, boasting to our friends about how many hours we work and how little sleep we get, answering the question How are you? with the words I’m so busy. And some of us, as in the days of Mussolini, worship a public figure, a celebrity or a politician.
There are way, way more examples that we could find. And so our question is not, Am I religious? but rather it is something more like:
Have I chosen my religion critically and wisely and lovingly? and
Does my religion give life to me, life to my neighbour, life to God’s creation?
Maybe we could use the language of the Bible here and phrase those questions a different way:
Am I worshipping that which is joyous and true? Or am I worshipping a false idol?
Now, I want to stop here and emphasise that when I speak of idolatry, when I speak of bad religion, I am not speaking of other expressions of what we typically call faith. I am not the least bit troubled that someone is a Hindu or a Muslim or Buddhist or whatever. To the contrary, I am glad that those folks have a practice that invites them into conversation with the divine, I trust that, at some level beyond human understanding, those folks and you and I are talking about the same ultimate reality, about the same God.
No. When I speak of idolatry or bad religion, I am talking about that stuff that promises to fill the God-shaped hole that all of us have in our hearts and that fails spectacularly over and over again.
It is in response to this bad religion that comes the Feast of Christ the King. In response to the promises of Mussolini and his contemporary descendants, in response to the promise that you will find your salvation in iPhones and shoes, in response to the promise that you will find freedom in booze, in response to all of these idols, Christ the King says no. Here are religions that invite us into selfishness and apathy and maybe even self-destruction and hatred, and here is title of King, a title that belongs to the patriarchy and to the world of power and violence.
Here is given to a peasant who is murdered for telling too many people that all they really need to do is love God and to love neighbour.
Crown him with many crowns goes the old hymn. And this is the mystery of this Feast day, this is the mystery of our faith. That when all of the false idols gather together, when the bad religion that is empire takes Jesus, takes God, and nails him to a tree, there God reveals the futility and brokenness of empire’s violence once and for all. In God’s suffering on the cross, which God does in solidarity with every human being who suffers and with the suffering of the earth, we discover the staggering truth that Jesus Christ is King.