By Elle Dowd
The Feast of Christ the King is a fairly more recent addition to our liturgical calendar, created between the First and Second World War as a day set apart to resist the rise of fascism, nationalism, and godlessness. If you read the news, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to connect the threat of fascism to our contemporary headlines.
There are warning bells ringing out about the re-emergence of fascism as a powerful force all over the world - in Europe, in Brazil, and here in the United States where white nationalists are given seats of power under an administration that got elected on campaign slogans made of racist dog whistles, and a United States’ president who called the Nazis at Charlottesville “fine people.” The White House continues to back Stephen Miller despite even more evidence of white nationalist ties. The Movement for Black Lives has drawn attention to the Police State, a feature of fascism used to violently repress dissent. And the fascism we are seeing is not just happening on the federal level. At state and local levels, rights to bodily autonomy continue to be undermined as lawmakers in places like Ohio continue to chip away at reproductive healthcare.
Tragically, fascism today is often connected to Christianity and colonialism, so much so that we use terms like “Christo-fascism.” In Bolivia, for example, we see coup leaders with Bible in hand, declaring the Supremacy of Christ while denigrating indigenous peoples and ways of life. Preachers must be careful then, to capture the true original spirit of this feast day. When we read things such as the Colossian texts where we hear things like, “Christ is Supreme,” we must immediately unpack that the Christ we are talking about is not a colonizing force but an anti-violent, anti-Empire, anti-King.
You might notice that I have consistently used the term “King” throughout this commentary. I am not a person afraid to name a gender-bending, gender-queer, feminist God. I have at times preached feminist sermons on Christ the Queen and queer sermons on Christ the Kween (especially because of this day’s nearness to the Transgender Day of Rememberance). I often also refer to this day as Reign of Christ Sunday. There are times that playing with gender in this way are important to a particular context.
And yet, if we remove the King language from the day, something happens to the metaphor at play. The entire point of Christ the King is that these two words are supposed to seem absurd, paradoxical, opposite, and almost impossible next to one another. The play on gender in this case is that Jesus as king obliterates confining gender norms in his vulnerability and gentleness. What kind of King is crucified between insurrectionists?
Christ the King is a parody of kingship. In order to mock earthly kings, in order to criticize them, rhetorically, this patriarchal language must stay in place. Subverting this patriarchal concept of kingship serves to act as part of the inversion of power. What kind of king is this? This king is a king who does not conform to social norms around power. This king fails to perform rigid ideals of “manhood.” Christ the King is theological political theater, inverting expectations of power with intense irony that the Crucified One might somehow be King. Christ’s power is not found in toxic masculinity, but through his blood shed on a cross meant to humiliate him. The irony, then, is that Jesus is a King unlike any other, with power unlike any other, whose kingdom raises up the lowly and casts down tyrants.
This is a day of paradox. A servant king who wears a crown of thorns. A cross which reconciles. A reign of peace brought through state violence.
The sign hung above Jesus on the cross in our Gospel text which said, “This is the King of the Jews,” was also originally meant in this way. The idea of a conquered, occupied people like the Jewish people having a King was meant to sound absurd. After all, the Roman Empire squashed and made an example of any uprising or perceived resistance as a way to reinforce its dominance. And yet, although the Roman soldiers meant to ridicule Jesus, Christ’s resurrection will go on to make Christ’s kingship completely un-ironic. In a way, Jesus reclaims words meant to deride him. Not unlike many marginalized people, these taunts, once reclaimed become a rallying cry and a source of power.
Those of us who use the Revised Common Lectionary observe this day as the last Sunday of the church year, and so while the secular calendar is ramping up towards the end of the year, the church calendar is already ending this week and the new liturgical year begins December 1 with Advent. In other words, Christ enthroned on a cross is the final image we are presented with before we prepare to wait for God to be born into the world.
The positioning of Christ the King as the last Sunday of the year can be fodder for reflection on the past year both for the preacher and for congregations. How has it been clear that Christ is King in our worship gatherings and in our lives this year? In what ways have other idols and false gods - like capitalism and a fear of scarcity, white supremacy, or the cis-hetero patriarchy been seated on the throne instead? What intentions could we set for our year ahead together as a community? What risks may God be calling us to take in order to dethrone the unholy monarchs figuratively placed in seats of power in our church? What have we, people who are supposed to be citizens of the Kingdom of God, treasonously pledged our allegiance to instead of serving the contemporary crucified ones in our midst?
This is the Revised Common Lectionary sermonizing archive.