For all intents and purposes, this Sunday (Nov. 22) is “Liturgical New Year’s Eve” for the Christian year. The Feast of Christ the King is the last Sunday feast day of the Christian calendar for those faith traditions that follow the three-year cycle of lectionary readings.
The Roman Catholic and many Protestant denominations – Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Methodists – celebrate Christ the King Sunday. Christ the King is also a popular name for parish churches. In Memphis, Christ the King Lutheran Church is located on Park Avenue, and Christ the King Catholic Church is located in Southaven.
The Feast of Christ the King is known by a number of titles: Christ Our Sovereign, The Reign of Christ. The official Roman Catholic title is The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. Pope Pius XI established the feast in 1925. It was originally celebrated on the Sunday before All Saints’ but was moved in 1970 to the last Sunday of the Christian year.
In the aftermath of World War I, Pope Pius noted that, while hostilities had ceased, true peace had not been restored to the world and the different classes of society. His first encyclical after the war was Ubi arcane Dei consillo (“On the Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ”) in December 1922. He deplored class divisions and overt nationalism, and he maintained that true peace may only be found under the Kingship of Christ as the “Prince of Peace.”
In 1925 the Pope formally introduced and established the Feast of Christ the King in his encyclical Quas primas (“In the First”): “When we pay honor to the princely dignity of Christ, men will doubtless be reminded that the Church, founded by Christ as a perfect society, has a natural and inalienable right to perfect freedom and immunity from the power of the state; and that in fulfilling the task committed to her by God of teaching, ruling, and guiding to eternal bliss those who belong to the kingdom of Christ, she cannot be subject to any external power.”
In the service music for this Sunday’s 10:30 liturgy, look for images that point up the kingship of Christ on earth. The anthem text addresses “King of kings, yet born of Mary… Lord of lord, in human vesture.” The congregational hymns are also favorites for Christ the King: All hail the power of Jesus’ Name, The head that once was crown with thorns (is crowned with glory now), Crown him with many crowns. The opening voluntary is also a nod to all things royal.
While the Feast of Christ the King may conjure up images of nationalism, imperialism, lordship and reign over the people, its foundations from Pope Pius XI are actually rooted in his understanding of peace on earth – the peace of Christ.