Reflection for November 21, 2021
The last Sunday after Pentecost and the Feast of Christ the King.
By Larry DiCostanzo
Daniel 7:9 – 10, 13 -14
Revelation 1:4b – 8
John 18:33 – 37
Today is the last Sunday of the season of Pentecost. I think of Pentecost as a time to think about how we live our lives in this everyday world between the Resurrection and Jesus’ Return. It seems appropriate that this Sunday is also designated as the Feast of Christ the King. Let me talk about that.
In Psalm 104, which parallels today’s psalm in its praise of God’s creative lordship, the poet describes Leviathan charmingly and respectfully as the creature who sports in the ocean that God made. (Psalm 104:26) “Sporting” — what a beautiful description of an animal in a state of natural rejoicing. It is not hard to guess who Leviathan is in Psalm 104. Leviathan is a whale.
Recently, I was reading a book about whales, about Leviathan. The title of the book is “Fathom,” and the author is Rebecca Giggs.
I actually stopped reading this book. Although Ms. Giggs had the amazingly reflective eloquence of a good science writer, she also pointed out that humans have not been good stewards of creation. Whales had come back from the slaughters that ended more or less in the 1970s. But climate change had affected the Antarctic ice sheets, and the krill that humpback whales feed on has lost the nooks in the underside of the ice where they love to winter. Hence, their population was going down. So, what were whales to eat now? And so forth. And so forth. Unpretty pictures.
And so I come to the Feast of Christ the King. Many denominations celebrate this day, but it was actually established in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. (Encyclical Quas Primas) He was Pope from 1922 to 1939. I wanted to know what motivated Pius to establish the feast.
Pius wrote about his motivations actually in 1922, three years before the Feast was established in 1925 (Encyclical Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio). They are numerous. We might not agree with all of them, but the following will sound familiar. The belligerents of World War I had laid down their arms, but hostilities were threatening in the Middle East. There were famine and epidemics. The numberless victims included the aged, women, and children. Old national rivalries continued along with political and financial manipulation. I’m going to quote a just a little from what Pius wrote. “Public life is so enveloped . . . by the dense fog of mutual hatreds and grievances that it is almost impossible for . . . people to breathe therein.” Paragraph 11. Moreover, evil results arise because of “the utter impossibility of finding anything like a safe remedy to cure the ills of society.” Id. There are “the contests between political parties, many of which do not originate in a real difference of opinion concerning the public good or in a . . . disinterested search for what would promote the common welfare.” Paragraph 12. The law of violence has become second nature despite the treaties that ended the war. Paragraph 20. And so forth and on and on.
In a sense, the Pope was saying what Rebecca Giggs was saying in her book about whales. We have been and continue to be poor stewards of creation. And there seems to be no end to our behavior. Just say the words Ethiopia, Belarus, Afghanistan, Kenosha.
Pius wanted a world in which Christ was the ruler. The image he picked from his historical context is “king” although I personally find it hard to think of Jesus as a king. Pius wanted us to be transformed by God’s way and God’s goodness.
But if I look at the history, the Feast of Christ the King, was really born out of a mixture of despair and hope.
I’ve listed some of what Pius felt and saw as the despair, what he worried about and grieved over. I’ve hinted at the world’s desperation today. Remember the words, Ethiopia, Belarus, Afghanistan, Kenosha.
But what about the hope? The hope is certainly not as concrete on earth as are the causes of despair. Hope is a more free-ranging attitude. Maybe it is as simple as an expectation. For sure, it does not dwell in institutions though institutions can possibly strengthen it. It does not have a parliament or Congress or Supreme Court or administrative agencies. It is something that makes me keep in mind that, in fact, Jesus was crucified. What a paradox. But Jesus’ crucifixion was a great act of God’s love. And I believe that hope is our awareness that God’s love is in our hearts. Or perhaps it is in fact God’s love in our hearts.
In my view, the Feast of Christ the King exists for no other reason than to keep hope alive. And that’s why I find it so special that it falls on the last Sunday of Pentecost, the long season of the everyday-ness of life.
So, how do we keep hope alive. How do we live in the virtue of hope? Is there something concrete that we can do? In a conclusory way, Pius wrote that when men recognize Christ’s kingship, “society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony.” But, you know, Pius does not provide a policy paper on how to make this so. There is no army or bureaucrats to enforce or establish this Kingdom. (Encyclical Quas primas, paragraph 19). What Pius says is that this kingdom is spiritual. (Id., paragraph 15). This is like our Gospel passage of today. Jesus is facing execution. He seems to admit to Pontius Pilate, for whom I have the greatest sympathy, that he is a king. But he also says that his kingdom is not of this world.
I am sensing here that Christianity is not like a social movement. Don’t unsheathe your swords to establish the Kingdom. And Christianity does not really have a down-to-earth solution for the world’s problems. It is a “different” kind of kingdom. Pius seemed to have this in mind, too. It may be part of the despair or anxiety about the world today. But ultimately Pius did have some conclusive and hard words for us. He said that Christ’s kingdom is a kingdom that we enter through internal regeneration. It demands “a spirit of detachment from riches and earthy things, and a spirit of gentleness. [Its subjects] must hunger and thirst after justice, and more than this they . . . must carry the cross.” (Encyclical Quas primas, paragraph 15)
This is the kingdom in which, as Saint Paul says in the Epistle to the Romans, all Creation is groaning in labor. Romans 8:23. And what we are required to do is what the King in the parable in Matthew 25 tells us to do: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoner. Of course, there are permutations here as in shelter the homeless. Remember that in Matthew it is a King who says this.
Pius XI was a mountain climber as a younger man. And, indeed, there is a climbing club in England named after him. (achille-ratti-climbing-club.co.uk.) So, I like to think that he loved Creation and nature, and that he and Rebecca Giggs would have a lot in common. They would mourn and love together.
And I think they would both love today’s Psalm and Psalm 104 in which the Leviathan sports. Let us hope that Leviathan will continue to dive, to jump high out of the water, to blow out fountains, to roll, to have babies, to sport. For this is a powerful image of goodness and of hope.