My word is addressed to you, then, whoever your are who renounce your own desires and are going to enter the service of the Lord, Christ the true King, and take up the strongest and distinguished arms of obedience. (The Rule for Monks of St. Benedict: Prologue).
The first title that St. Benedict ascribes to the Lord Jesus in his Rule is that of true King. As we celebrate today the Feast of Christ the King we carry on then a tradition that is sanctioned by the Patriarch of Western monasticism. In his day this liturgical feast did not exist as such. Various liturgical feast, however, already included acknowledging the royalty of Jesus beginning with the Annunciation when the angel Gabriel declared that the child to be born "will reign forever." At the Epiphany the adoration of the Magi and their gifts were understood to represent an honoring of the majesty of his person. The Transfiguration revealed the hidden divine light that was a reflection of his heavenly power. Celebration of the Ascension of the Lord, which inaugurated his reign at the right hand of the Father, paid tribute to the eternal kingship of our Lord. The liturgical celebration of this feast, however, is a very modern institution, having been established in 1925 by Pope Pius XI (cf. Acta Apostolicae Sedis 17 (1925) 593- 610). That was a holy year when many pilgrims came to Rome from numerous countries thus witnessing to the far-flung kingship of Christ. In addition, as he takes care to point out, 1925 was the 16 hundredth anniversary of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea when Christ was officially proclaimed in his divinity to be fully equal to God the Father, which is the basis of his Kingship. Moreover, it was this Council which added to its Creed the phrase "and of his kingdom there shall be no end", thereby implicitly affirming that he is eternally King.
The Holy Father first assigned the feast to the last Sunday of October, shortly before the Feast of all Saints in order to emphasize that it is Christ's glory that shines in those who have attained to union with God in the beatific vision. Later, it was transferred to the last Sunday of the liturgical year, a symbol of the end time in order better to associate it with the last coming of Christ when he will sit as King and judge of all peoples.
Seventy five years have passed since the establishment of this celebration. It is instructive to recall the circumstances that prevailed at that period and which in good part led to Holy Father to institute this memorial of Christ's kingship. For one thing, the Pope himself was still a prisoner of the Vatican. The Church was not recognized officially by the Italian government and so did not enjoy all of its rightful liberties. Pope Pius was able to negotiate the Vatican Treaty some four years after he inaugurated this feast. It is still in effect and has resulted in the freedom of the Church to carry out its mission. Thus it could be considered one of the first fruits of this feast, since the Pope stated explicitly that one of the goals of instituting this feast was to obtain such liberties for the Church through the worship and prayer offered to Christ the King.
He also had in mind the defeat of Communism which at that time had been in power only some eight years and which, only a few years previously, when Stalin took over, had become more virulently oppressive. No less important in his view was the overcoming of the neglect of Christ and his teaching into which so many had already fallen. The secularizing of society was well under way at that time, even if, seen from where we are today, society at that period might strike us as having been more permeated by religion than was appreciated at the time. Communism is certainly moribund, even in China where, however, it still oppresses and threatens the Church. But Western society is more secular than ever, and multitudes have lost their faith yielding to the influences of a dominant materialism, consumerism and the widespread erosion of morality. In this area, then, the evil against which this liturgical celebration was directed is more firmly entrenched than ever so that there remains serious reason to strive to counter such indifference and even hostility to Christ with a whole-hearted devotion to the rightful spiritual ruler of the whole cosmos. That Christ is truly King means that he is the one who redeems us from the power of darkness and sin, that he is our lawgiver and our judge, the Pope affirms. None can escape his judgment even though he leaves all persons free to ignore his commandments and to reject him as savior.
Pope Pius XI understood the close relation between the honoring of the Kingship of Christ and two other important devotions. The worship of the Sacred Heart of Jesus had been given much prominence by Leo XIII in the previous holy year of 1900. This new feast of Christ the King was considered by Pope Pius as a complement to devotion to the Sacred Heart. In fact, the initial impulse to establish it came from the circle based at Paray le Moniale where St. Margaret Mary had received the revelations that initiated the liturgical celebration of the Heart of Jesus. The second devotion closely associated with this feast is the adoration of Christ present in the Eucharist on the other. The practice of Eucharistic adoration and the holding of Eucharistic Congresses, he adds, prepared the way for the establishment of this feast. For these public celebrations, like the holy year pilgrimages, bring peoples of many nations together and thus evidences the de facto acknowledgment of Christ's rule by a broad representation of the human family. The Holy Father considered this feast of Kingship to be the crown of the other liturgical celebrations of the mysteries of our Redeemer. While it is true that certain devotions wax and wane as times and culture change, yet in one form or other it is integral to the Catholic faith to pay honor to Christ as King, just as it is essential for the Church to honor the Eucharist and the Heart of Jesus. The theological basis for these fundamental truths of faith remains solid and valid.
In the fourth Gospel the evangelist makes it a major theme of his theology that Christ is in all truth a king whose kingdom is not of this world. This point of doctrine derives from the fact that he is God, the eternal, pre-existent Word made flesh. In keeping with this conviction, John depicts Jesus as in complete control throughout his passion. Far from being a passive victim he is the one who actively dominates events. He knows he has power to save himself and yet freely chooses to suffer and die in obedience to the Father's will, not from constraint imposed by his enemies. His behavior is royal; from the cross he continues to reign, forgiving, pardoning, arranging for his mother's future and that of his dearest friend. Finally, when he realizes all is completed he willingly yields up the Spirit. He is sovereign of life and death as those can see who have eyes opened by grace.
John, to be sure, is not alone in his presentation of Jesus as true King. The three Synoptics also prominently depict him as possessing kingly status with its powers of ruling, law making and judging.(For the following discussion see The New Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. Kingdom of Christ 8: 188 ff.) In his opening chapter St. Mark identifies Jesus' preaching as the inauguration of the Kingdom of God, which is made present with his active ministry. Matthew and Luke develop the same theme: "If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God has arrived among you (Mt. 12: 28; cf. Luke 11: 20). There is a second phase of the kingdom which they also emphasize, namely the future reign of Christ. He will come in judgment at the end of time and exercise his royal power over all peoples. Jesus himself witnessed in the most formal manner before the Sanhedrin that he will come as a royal potentate, to judge and rule. "You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the power and coming with the clouds of heaven (Mark 14: 62 with parallels at Mt. 26:64 and Luke 22.69). A number of parables of the kingdom also refer to the final stage of God's rule which will be inaugurated by judgment
In this intermediate period between the Ascension and the Second Coming, Christ actively presides as king ruling at God's right hand. St. Paul in the letters to Ephesians and the Colossians dwells on the present activity of Christ as heavenly king who reigns over the Church and of the whole of the cosmos. "The one who descended is the same one who ascended above all the heavens that he might make all complete (Eph. 4: 10)." And in Colossians: "And he is the head of the body of the Church, he who is the beginning, the first born of the dead, that he might be himself the first in all. For in him the whole fullness is pleased to dwell, and through him all things are reconciled in him (1: 18-20)." Moreover, the Apocalypse repeatedly depicts Christ as throned in the presence of God, an object of praise along with God, the Father (cf. 5:15). Here too we are told that the eternal kingdom of God is one with the bride of the Lamb, that is, the perfected Church. There is only one final kingdom, and Christ, together with the Father, rules as its king. Thus, in the end, the kingdom of Christ is taken up into the kingdom of God and the two distinct but related realities are fused in the eternal and transcendent union of all with the Father in the Son.
When St. Benedict refers to Christ as the true King he has in mind the majestic and austere personage that is depicted in the Byzantine iconography of his age. We still have access to a few such figures, preserved at Mt. Sinai monastery, of the transcendent Lord of glory that were created in the early sixth century when Benedict wrote his Rule. As Borias has noted, Benedict always has the risen Christ in mind when he uses the term "Lord" in the Prologue. In general, he makes little distinction between the glorified Lord Jesus and the Father throughout his Rule. It is not surprising then that he stresses humility and obedience as prominent characteristics of the monk who draws near to the Lord. This does not prevent him from expecting the fear of God gradually to be transformed into a loving respect and eventually into a pure love after one climbs the ladder of humility under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
St. Bernard too is aware of Christ as the elevated, glorified King ruling in heaven. Interestingly, he has such confidence in his goodness and mercy that he is not intimidated by the keen sense he had of God's majesty and of the Word's surpassing dignity and purity. The tension between this sense of the Lord's awesome holiness and his own unworthiness due to his sins and lack of love in Bernard's case was a challenge to his faith and trust. We find this tension operative in a number of his writings. It is expressed in moving terms in his Sermons on the Canticle. Surely one of the most affecting and eloquent of these passages occurs towards the end of his life. We see in this text that Bernard remained passionately committed to his search for union with God to the end of his days. There is no cooling of his ardor, no loss of profound emotion as he confronts the issue of sinfulness in the face of the Lord's majestic holiness.
We have taught that every soul, although burdened with sins, snared in vices, gripped by allurements, held captive in exile, imprisoned in the body, clinging to the mud, fixed in the mire, tied to its members, pierced by cares, distracted with business, constrained by fears, afflicted with sorrows, wandering in errors, anxious with cares, restless with suspicions, and finally a stranger in the land of her enemies,... Although, I say, she be thus cursed and hopeless, we have taught that nevertheless she can perceive in herself, not only that which gives her relief through hope of pardon and of mercy, but she can also dare to aspire to the nuptials of the Word, and need not fear to enter into a covenant of association with God; she need not fear to take up the sweet yoke of love with the King of angels (S. In Cantica 83.1 PL 183: 1181 C, D).
May we know something of that same faith and trust in God's merciful love for us. Knowing ourselves in our vast need due to our lack of virtue, our failings and selfish calculations we can be tempted to settle for less. But, as St. Benedict and St. Bernard so steadfastly maintained, we also have the assurance of God's grace and the gift of his Spirit. Bernard insists that being made in the image of God we remain capable of the highest attainments, even of an intimate friendship with the Lord that is comparable to the most loving of marriages. As we celebrate this Feast of Christ the King, which is the patronal feast of this monastery, may we approach our Lord with renewed confidence and with the fervor of desire enter into the deep places of our soul where he awaits us in love, seeking to rule over our whole being that he might make us worthy of the Father until the time comes when he will be our all in us all.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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