by Cara Holmquist
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14
Christ the King Sunday is probably the youngest feast day in the liturgical year. (I could be wrong.) The Feast of Christ the King was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925, between the World Wars, as secular ideologies swept the globe, and in the thick of sovereignty disputes in Italy. As a modern state took shape around the Vatican, absorbing the last geography of Christendom (which had of course been absorbed by powers before, in Italy and elsewhere), Pius sent an encyclical creating the feast. By the 70’s, it was incorporated into the liturgical practice and lectionaries of denominations around the world.
Christ the King Sunday is one of those teeth-gritting festivals, for me. It so easily skews triumphalist. It so easily skews otherworldly instead of incarnate (looking at you, Pius XI’s encyclical…). It so easily skews theology-of-glory instead of the cross. It so easily skews patriarchal, dominating, and colonial, instead of exposing these sinful tendencies of power.
Yet it’s one of my favorite feasts. It has such… potential. To call us out of so many idolatries that would rule us, and faithless power plays, and paralyzing despair. Celebrating Christ the King Sunday (even deciding what to call the day) is a walk along a razor’s edge. But when we listen to Spirit and one another, when we pay attention to the kind of rule Christ demonstrates, when we craft liturgies with care, the Gospel proclaimed on this day can shake the foundations of the principalities and powers that be. Their days are numbered.
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This week, we contemplate these together: the rule and reign of Christ, and Jeremiah 29.
At this point, chapter 29, we’re well into the book of Jeremiah and the events therein. The king of Judah, Jehoiachin, his immediate family and all his court, along with elites, priests, and skilled workers, have all been taken from their home and off to Babylon. The trauma here cannot be dismissed. Population exchanges and forced migrations disrupt community bonds and identity, by design.
The king’s uncle (Mattaniah, now Zedekiah) has been set up as a puppet king in his place. The trauma here cannot be dismissed. A people plundered, abandoned, and unable to trust their appointed leader. Jeremiah tries to prophesy to and advise Zedekiah and the people of Jerusalem honestly, while butting heads with the politically cunning (false) prophet Hananiah.
Hananiah (who dies at the end of chapter 28) has had an attractive message: this will all blow over soon, God will break the power of the Babylonians, and everyone will come back singing and carrying our treasures. Don’t get too cozy with Nebuchadnezzar, instead, “just keep trusting God…” His platitudes deny reality, and divert the people from the work of healing, which starts with lament.
Jeremiah, the true prophet, bears a very different and difficult word from the Lord: submit to the Babylonians, trust that God has a longer strategy, and oh, if only we had been a just and uncorrupt society… It’s less attractive, but it’s the truth.
And then he does something unprecedented. Jeremiah sends a letter to the people who have been taken to Babylon. There have been so-called prophets among them as well, saying that this captivity is temporary, don’t unpack your stuff.
We don’t know how much communication occurred between those still in Jerusalem and those in Babylon. Official decrees and matters of state, sure. But every party of letter-carriers probably had someone willing to hear, share, carry information less official but not less real. Into the hands of Elasah and Gemariah (v3), young Jews taken into Nebuchadnezzar’s service, Jeremiah entrusts his letter.
It would be reasonable to expect Jeremiah’s letter to foment rebellion, to seed a resistance, to outline civil disobedience strategies. (Elasah and Gemariah may have expected this, even been motivated by desire to bring such a message.) It would be reasonable to expect another diatribe against Babylon and its endless devouring of nations. And there are times and contexts where that is the most faithful thing to do.
But Jeremiah’s letter is an utter shock, then and now. In it, God reasserts Just Who is the King Around Here… you weren’t taken by these Babylonians, I sent you here, and you have something to do. Indeed, I will be with you in this shit. Let’s get to it.
The instructions are both insular - hold onto your holy and distinct cultural identity - and engaged outward: seek this city’s well-being.
As a holy and distinct people, unpack your belongings, and set up households. Plant gardens and eat their produce (yeah independent community food suppliers!). Get married and have children, and help them grow and choose healthy relationships. Dwell here, yes, even here. Build a life. Increase. In the midst of this chaos and void, God is brooding over you here, be fruitful and multiply…Jeremiah’s letter echoes the primordial calling of God’s people.
But also, seek this city’s well-being. It’s fortunes are now your fortunes. This letter is in the heart of the exilic theological revolution, foreshadowing incarnation for the life of the world. God is not bound by borders or bloodlines; other nations are known to, and even cared about, by God; God might be up to something much, much bigger than we’ve previously imagined.
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On Christ the King Sunday, with issues of state and religious power cracked open, with ultimate loyalties pondered, it’s good to have this story in the mix. There are more stories to hold alongside, of civil disobedience and resistance and more (including in Babylon! hello Daniel and Susanna…).
Is it time to build/plant/increase yourselves, to raise consciousness of who you are and who you are called to be? (oh, hey, Decolonize…) Is it time to seek the welfare of the surrounding church and all creation, who might not “get” you and really might not get that you’re for their flourishing, too? (hi again) Is it time to lament, resist, call out, and to tell those who unleash tsunamis of disrespect while hoarding high places to shut the hell up? (hell yes)
Falling as it does at the end of the liturgical year, this Sunday asks us, what time is it, where you are and with your people, and how shall we live faithful to the One who truly reigns?