Homily from the Solemnity of Jesus Christ King of the Universe - Year B
Perhaps by now, you’ve recovered from all the turkey and stuffing. It’s ironic that today, we celebrate the Solemnity of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe just after having celebrated an annual feast that was begun by pilgrims escaping the rule of a king.
Our modern Thanksgiving holiday is traced back to the year 1621 when a group of puritans from Plymouth, Massachusetts had a feast of thanksgiving in response to a good harvest.
For about the next 150 years, various church and state leaders would issue individual Thanksgiving proclamations. As President, George Washington declared November 26, 1789 “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and single favors of Almighty God.” Thanksgiving in the United States has been observed on various dates throughout history. From the time of George Washington until the time of Abraham Lincoln, the date Thanksgiving was observed varied from state to state.
Then, in the midst of the bloody turmoil of the American Civil War, in an effort to foster American unity between the Northern and Southern States, President Lincoln declared that Thanksgiving should be celebrated in all states on the same day on the final Thursday in November. Later, in 1941, in the midst of the economic turmoil caused by the Second World War, President Roosevelt changed Thanksgiving from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday, reasoning that an earlier celebration would give the country an economic boost. So, we have FDR to thank for Black Friday.
It’s interesting isn’t it? How a day like Thanksgiving is created, modified, and moved according to the needs of particular people at particular times? Likewise, the feasts of the Church year are created, modified, and moved. In the 1300’s, when devotion and reverence for the Blessed Sacrament had grown cold, the Feast of Corpus Christi was established. A few centuries later, there was a widespread heresy called Jansenism which emphasized to an unhealthy level human depravity and Original Sin, and so, in order to combat this movement, the Church established a Feast which focused on Christ’s intense love for mankind: the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Similarly, today’s feast day was created, modified and moved according the the needs of particular people at particular times. You might be surprised to learn however, that today’s feast isn’t one that dates back for several centuries. In fact, it’s less than one-hundred years old. It was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925. And like festivals such as Thanksgiving, or Corpus Christi, or the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, it was instituted in response to the situation in the world at the time.
The feast of Christ the King was created in response to the growth of communism and increased secularism. In the face of a godless political system such as communism, Pope Pius XI recognized “that the majority of men had thrust Jesus Christ and his holy law out of their lives.” (QP 1).
And like Thanksgiving, the feast of Corpus Christi was renamed and moved to serve the needs of the faithful. In 1969, Pope Paul VI gave the celebration a new title “The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe” (a title which has been restored in the new translation of the Roman Missal.) The Holy Father moved the feast day to the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the Sunday before the 1st Sunday of Advent, to emphasize that Jesus Christ is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega.
Now, while the Civil War has been concluded for nearly 150 years and the threat of slavery and a Union broken into separate confederacies of states is gone, we, as Americans, still seek national unity and we still seek opportunities to give thanks to God for our many blessings. Likewise, while the threat of communism has long been swept away, we, as Catholics, are still faced with the threat of increased secularism in our culture and we still seek opportunities to proclaim Jesus Christ as King of the Universe.
Ask yourself if, in a world where the Ten Commandments are more and more removed from courthouse lawns and where political parties fear to mention God in their platforms, if Pope Pius XI’s words in 1925 still ring true today. This is from the Holy Father’s Encyclical Quas Primas which instituted the Solemnity of Jesus Christ King of the Universe:
“The annual and universal celebration of the feast of the Kingship of Christ will draw attention to the evils which anticlericalism has brought upon society in drawing men away from Christ, and will also do much to remedy them. While nations insult the beloved name of our Redeemer by suppressing all mention of it in their conferences and parliaments, we must all the more loudly proclaim his kingly dignity and power, all the more universally affirm his rights.” (QP 25).
I’m certain most people, be they for or against any public religious demonstration, would agree that as the decades have worn on in the United States, the freedom to speak publicly as a person of faith has worn out.
A few years ago, during one of the annual Marches for Life in Washington D.C., a number of us toured the presidential monuments on the National Mall. And I was honestly struck by these words of Thomas Jefferson carved into the granite of his memorial:
“I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
“Almighty God hath created the mind free. All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens... are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion... No man... shall suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.”
“God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.”
And of course, the following: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Can you imagine a memorial being erected in Washington D.C. with so many explicit proclamations of the authority of God? No way. In fact, there is a new memorial in Washington D.C. And as you might fear, there is absolutely no mention of God on it whatsoever. Now I’m not saying that mentioning God is a prerequisite for a memorial on the National Mall. However, it is both ironic and tragic that the most recent memorial erected in our nation’s capital, which has no mention of God is dedicated to a Baptist minister: the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who gave so many of his words on this earth to the authority of God and the Kingship of Christ. The words “God,” “Jesus,” and “Lord” - so prominent, not only in King’s sermons but also in his speeches in the public square are conspicuously absent. (As is his title of “Reverend.”)
I wonder what Rev. King would think of our nation’s attitude about Jesus Christ King of the Universe today? Four days after police arrested Rosa Parks for sitting in the front of the bus, Rev. King said, “I want it to be known throughout Montgomery and throughout this nation that we are a Christian people. We believe in the Christian religion. We believe in the teachings of Jesus. The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest.”
In his letter from a Birmingham jail, Rev. King stated, “A just law is a manmade code that squares with the moral law of the law of God... We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”
The fact of the matter is, we no longer live in a country where we can wait for sculptors and memorial commissions to tell us it’s OK to talk about God. We have to do the talking. And we have to inscribe the names of “God,” “Jesus,” and “Lord” not merely into granite, but first into the flesh of our hearts and the spirit of our conscience. If we are going to proclaim Jesus Christ King of the Universe in our world and nation, we must first honor him as such in our families and our hearts. We must pray to the King of the Universe daily from our family dinner table and before our bed. We must reflect His love in our relationships with our spouses, children and neighbors. And we must recognize His law and commandments as the sole foundation upon which all manmade laws are justly created.
I close with a final passage from Pope Pius XI, as he gave us today’s feast:
“The faithful, moreover, by meditating upon these truths, will gain much strength and courage, enabling them to form their lives after the true Christian ideal. If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls, or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, as instruments of justice unto God. (Rom 6:13). If all these truths are presented to the faithful for their consideration, they will prove a powerful incentive to perfection.” (QP 33).
If we expect the world to recognize Jesus Christ as King of the Universe, then we must do our part to make sure that it recognizes us as his loyal subjects.