Sunday, November 20, 2022

For He Must Eventually Reign...

It is no secret that the post-Conciliar liturgical reform, finding the original purpose of the feast of Christ the King, and the doctrine of Christ’s social kingship rather an embarrassment in Modern Man™’s brave new world, completely denuded it of that purpose and transformed it into a celebration of Christ’s eschatological kingship, a kind of Septuagesima of Christmas. Following the lead of the wise Fr Hunwicke, I here share some considerations on this subject from N.T. Wright, one of the best Biblical scholars of our times, from his book “For All the Saints: Remembering the Christian Departed.” Prof. Wright is an Anglican, and formerly served as the bishop of Durham; he is therefore speaking here principally about the adoption of the new version of the feast of Christ the King into the Anglican liturgy, but his observations are just as pertinent to the post-Conciliar Catholic rite.

“The Sunday next before Advent had an old popular name: ‘Stir-up Sunday’. This derived from the old prayer, the Collect set for the day, which began, ‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people… ’, (traditionally also the date when people began preparing cakes and puddings for Christmas.) Its readings gave just a hint of things to come in Advent itself…

The prayers of the last Sunday of the year in the Gellone Sacramentary, ca. 780 AD. (Bibliothèque National de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 12048)
This new festival concludes the implicit storyline at the wrong point and with the wrong point, thereby throwing out of kilter the narrative grammar of the whole story. It implies that Jesus Christ becomes King at the end of the sequence, the end of the story, as the result of a long process.

This is radically misleading … we already have a ‘Feast of Christ the King’. It is called Ascension Day, and occurs forty days after Easter. It celebrates the time when the disciples recognized that the risen Lord Jesus was now the true King of the world. The way Luke tells the story of the Ascension (24, 50-53) invites us to compare Jesus with the Roman emperors who were believed to have ascended to heaven and thereby to have become divine: Jesus, not Caesar, is now the world’s true Lord. His Kingdom has already begun. He has defeated death – and, since death is the final weapon of the tyrant and the bully, he has brought to birth a new sort of kingdom, a kingdom not from this world but emphatically/or this world. Easter and Ascension, taken together, constitute Jesus as Messiah and King, as Lord of the world.
(Editor’s note: one of the contributors to Annibale Bugnini’s report on how to “fix” the liturgical year, which we are currently printing here on NLM, grasped this point better than did the Consilium ad exsequendam when he proposed to move Christ the King to the Sunday within the octave of the Ascension. See part 2 of our ongoing series, the paragraph beginning “Other proposals of lesser importance...”)
The mission of the church presupposes this. Going into the world to declare that Jesus is Lord only makes sense if he is already reigning, not if the church is merely suggesting that he might perhaps reign at some point in the distant future (our emphasis), at the end of the long years of church history (represented, in the church’s year, by the Trinity season). But when we place ‘Christ the King’ on the last Sunday before Advent, this is what we imply. Christ is not fully King, it seems, until the end. …
‘Ah, but,’ people say (as they have from Christianity’s earliest days), ‘look out of the window. Read the newspapers. It’s obvious that Christ is not yet reigning fully. Evil is still rampant. The kingdom has not yet come.’ Well, yes and no. St Paul knew as well as we do how powerful evil still was: half his letters were written from prison; but he doesn’t for a moment modify his claim that Jesus is already the true King, the world’s true Lord. St John, too, knew all this as well as we do: when he described that marvellous scene of Jesus before Pilate – or perhaps we should say of Pilate before Jesus – he was well aware that Caesar, Pilate’s boss, had persecuted the church and would continue to do so. Yet he has Jesus appear as the King of the Jews, the rightful King of the whole world (John 18.33—19.16)
Christ before Pilate, 1881 by the Hungarian painter Mihály Munkácsy (1844–1900). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
(Editor’s note: the original Gospel of Christ the King is John 18, 33-37. In the lectionary of the post-Conciliar rite, it is read in year B; in year A, the Gospel is Matthew 25, 31-46, the separation of the just from the unjust, and in year C, the mocking of Christ on the Cross and the confession of the Good Thief, Luke 23, 35-43.)
The belief that Jesus was already reigning was, then, woven into Christianity from the first. We have come to think that the difficulty about Christianity is believing in God in the teeth of the scientific evidence, but this misses the point. The real problem is giving allegiance to Jesus as Lord in the teeth of the claims of earthly rulers, systems and philosophies. Kyrios Iesous, Jesus is Lord, was the earliest confession of Christian faith, the thing you had to say before you got baptized. Confessing that Jesus was Lord – meaning, among other things, that Caesar wasn’t – was basic, bottom-line Christianity right from the start. … It wasn’t something you had to wait for until the end of time. Being a Christian was always about living by faith in Jesus’ sovereign Lordship in a world which didn’t much look as if he was in charge.
… At Jesus’ final appearing, his second coming, he will put into operation for the entire cosmos that Lordship which is already his by right. … It will be a fresh act of grace, of new creation, completing what was done in the cross, the resurrection and the ascension, but also going way beyond them in the remaking of the entire cosmos. And the church’s year, which remained unaltered in this respect from at least the sixth century until 1970 in Rome and the late 1990s in the Church of England, kept Advent itself … as the preparation not only for Christmas but also for the second coming, the final reappearing, of Jesus. … If the ‘Feast of Christ the King’ refers to the final kingship of Christ, it makes no sense to celebrate it on the Sunday before Advent and then spend the next four weeks preparing for it. That’s like trying to eat the Christmas pudding and stir it afterwards.”
The kingship of Christ and the renewal of creation was a prominent theme in an absolutely magnificent series of lectures which Prof. Wright delivered at the Univ. of Aberdeen in Scotland in February 2018, his contribution to the annual Gifford Lectures, which have been running since 1888. Here is the first of eight; links to the others will be found easily on YouTube. Prof. Wright later published them as a book titled “History and Eschatology: Jesus and the promise of natural theology.”

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