The Not-So-Ancient Origins of Christ the King Sunday
by Frank C. Senn
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from LF Fall 2007
Christ the King is not a festival of great antiquity, supplying the church year with neat narrative punctuation from time immemorial. In fact, the festival didn’t emerge until the twentieth century, and at first it had nothing to do with the end of the church year at all.
Pope Pius XI established Christ the King Sunday in 1925 to counter what he regarded as the destructive forces of the modern world: secularism in the west and the rise of communism in Russia and fascism in Italy and Spain, harbingers of the Nazism soon to seize Germany. Pope Pius intended to oppose the rule of Christ to the totalitarian claims of these ideologies. By intention or coincidence, the festival of Christ the King also landed on the last Sunday in October, coinciding with the Protestant celebration of the Reformation.
In the reform of the Roman liturgy after the Second Vatican Council, the festival of Christ the King moved to the last Sunday of the church year. Thus, it no longer served as a “Counter-Reformation Day” celebration. But the new location proved to be more than an ecumenical gesture. Placed at the end of the church year, with its traditional eschatological emphasis, the festival now proclaimed Christ as “the goal of human history, the focal point of the desires of history and civilization, the center of humankind, the joy of all hearts, and the fulfillment of all aspirations,”1 in short, a positive reconstruction of the festival’s original polemic against political ideologies. The three gospel readings—for the brand-new three-year lectionary—present Christ as the Son of Man coming in glory, confronting the rulers of this world, and reigning from the cross.
The New Testament texts are an amalgamation of the epistle and gospel readings for the original October celebration of Christ the King and those for the last Sunday after Pentecost in the old Roman lectionary. The reading from the first chapter of Colossians was common to both Sundays; it is now found in Year C. The dialogue between Jesus and Pontius Pilate in John 18:33–37, the only gospel text for the old October Christ the King festival, now appears in Year B. The Lukan crucifixion in Year C is new, probably chosen because of the title “the King of the Jews” affixed to the cross. The Matthean gospel in Year A (the separation of the sheep and the goats) and Revelation 1 in Year B (the coming of Christ even to those who pierced him) announce most emphatically Christ’s return in judgment.
The Old Testament readings were new with Vatican II, since before then only the epistle and gospel were read in the mass; the same was the case in Lutheran churches. Years A and B are distinctly eschatological. Daniel 7 looks forward to the coming rule of the Son of Man. Ezekiel 34, with its imagery of God as Israel’s shepherd, anticipates God’s coming to gather but also to judge the sheep. II Samuel 5’s theme is kingship: David is anointed the king of Israel.
When the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship adopted an emended version of the three-year Roman lectionary in the late 1970s, the Sunday of Christ the King came with it. Hitherto the festival had never been observed by Lutherans; no surprise, given its origin. The new Christ the King was certainly biblical in its themes, though, so the festival was adopted. The LBW lectionary included all of the Roman readings (with some adjustment of verses), with one exception: the Old Testament reading in year C was changed to Jeremiah 23:2–6, the expectation of the righteous branch of David.
After the Revised Common Lectionary went public in the mid-1990s, LBW-using Lutheran church bodies in North America adopted it to replace their own unique lectionary. The principal deviation from the RCL was in the Old Testament readings during the Sundays after Pentecost. The ELCA took a typological approach, relating the first lesson to the gospel of the day. The ELCIC opted for a continuous reading of Old Testament books, more loosely related to the gospel. The effect on Christ the King, in the ELCA version of the RCL, was two outright changes and one proposed alternative reading. Otherwise the lessons were the same as in the Roman lectionary.
The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod has never officially observed Christ the King, though some parishes do individually. Lutheran Worship awards the day the unprecedented name “The Sunday of the Fulfillment,” with the option to observe it as the Last Sunday after Pentecost instead. The new Lutheran Service Book calls it only “The Last Sunday of the Church Year.” However, both suggest the same basic readings for Christ the King as found in the RCL. One lesson is replaced altogether, two others have options for alternate readings, and a few add extra verses to some of the RCL texts.
Whether Christ the King is observed or not, the end of the church year retains a distinct eschatological flavor. The festival’s observance does not displace but in fact affirms this long-standing theme.
The placement of Christ the King Sunday since Vatican II raises the question of why the end of the church year took on its eschatological character in the first place. It’s not because it was the end. The church year began and ended at different times in different local churches. Some, for instance, tied it to the civil calendar. The new year began on January 1 in Rome, on January 6 in Egypt, on March 25 (the feast of the Annunciation) in England. Elsewhere the church year simply began with Lent.
Why then did eschatological readings appear in the calendar in November and December? In Gaul and Spain, Epiphany (like Easter) followed forty days of preparation. The preparatory season began close to November 11, the feast of St. Martin of Tours, earning it the nickname “St. Martin’s Lent.” The season may have been an “ascetical fast,” rather than a “catechetical fast” in preparation for baptism, since the fasting days were only Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. (The Lenten catechetical fast, by contrast, was observed every day of the week except Sunday.) The readings for this season in sixth- and seventh-century lectionaries focused on eschatological judgment and the ministry of St. John the Baptist, particularly on his call to repentance. Unlike the catechetical preparation leading up to Easter with the baptism of catechumens, the readings in St. Martin’s Lent had to do with ascetical self-examination and penance for long-baptized Christians.
Meanwhile in Rome there were public fasts four times a year going back to pre-Christian times, officially called quattuor tempora but more popularly known as “ember days.” Originally tied to agricultural cycles, the days were later adapted by the church to match the seasons and festivals of Advent, Lent, Pentecost, and Holy Cross. The fast during the ember days of December coincided with St. Martin’s Lent in western Europe. Sermons from Pope Leo I (440–61) gather together themes of fasting, eschatological judgment, and thanksgiving for the harvest, reflecting the confluence of Roman and Christian practice. At the end of the autumn ember days, the Roman church observed two weeks in preparation for the Nativity on December 25th. This brief preparatory season focused on the annunciation, a familiar theme in the present-day observance of Advent.
But Advent per se was not a Roman invention, despite the habit of two weeks of preparation before Christmas. It was partly the result of the aforementioned ascetical fast before Epiphany and partly that of the six-week “adventus” preceding December 18 that was observed in Gallican-Visigothic territories. In the tenth century, German emperors forced the merger of the Frankish and Roman liturgies throughout the Holy Roman Empire. One of the outcomes of the merger was a four-week Advent season with themes already standard throughout Europe during that time of year: the second coming of Christ, the ministry of St. John the Baptist, and the annunciation to Mary. The church year was then reckoned to begin on the first Sunday of Advent, as it still is a millennium later. But four weeks of eschatological readings remained in the lectionaries: the three Sundays before Advent and the first Sunday in Advent.
These readings, complete with eschatological emphasis, remained in historic lectionaries through the high Middle Ages. Lutheran Reformation church orders retained them for another five hundred years. In the old one-year lectionary cycle, Lutherans in America heard readings from Matthew 24:15–28 on the emergence of false messiahs in the last days alongside the coming of the Son of Man, Matthew 25:31–46 on the separation of the sheep from the goats at the last judgment, and Matthew 25:1–13, the parable of the wise and foolish maidens. (Lutheran Worship mandates these same three readings for the last three Sundays of the church year, however many weeks the Pentecost season may have.) Epistle lessons from I Thessalonians 4 and 5 and from II Peter 3, all on the coming of the Lord and the day of the Lord, rounded out the eschatological vision.
Lutherans, therefore, have long since been accustomed to dealing with texts about Christ’s second coming, the final judgment, and the end of the age on the last Sundays after Pentecost. The designation of the very last Sunday of the church year as Christ the King doesn’t change this custom. While the festival of the Ascension celebrates the inauguration of Christ’s reign with his departure from this world, Christ the King deals with the judgment that takes place when Christ comes again to gather his faithful into the kingdom. The stress on judgment clarifies the nature of faithfulness. Those who are faithful will welcome the last judgment because it is the vindication of Christ’s suffering saints. Those who fear judgment either do not believe the redemption Christ has won for them in his suffering, death, and resurrection, or they do not put their trust in God’s unmerited grace. Nor is the judgment of Christ welcomed by those who are not suffering at all, but are in fact quite comfortable where they are.
Yet the themes of the original Christ the King promulgated by Pius XI linger on, and these themes are also worth consideration. The last judgment is not just a judgment on individuals; it is also a judgment on human history. The dialogue between Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ in John 18 demonstrates the struggle between the kingdoms and republics of this world, on the one hand, and the kingdom of God and of his Christ, on the other. This gospel reading, though not directly about Christ’s second coming, confronts us with political claims for which we will be answerable at the last judgment. To which kingdom (or republic) do we owe our ultimate allegiance? What do our actions and attitudes say about where we stand?
If we need to scramble to get “in” with the coming administration of Christ the King, we had better come to terms with the king revealed to us. The One on the throne is the Lamb who was slain. Self-giving love is the agenda throughout his dominion. The separation of the sheep from the goats has everything to do with whose agenda we have been implementing.
Frank C. Senn is a retired Lutheran pastor and the author of many books. He blogs at <www.frank-answers.com>.
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1. “The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” ch. iv, §45, in The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Walter M. Abbott, S.J. (New York: Herder and Herder, 1966), 247.