Saturday, November 22, 2014

Christ the King

A (Very) Brief History of David's Kingdom

It is interesting that God discouraged Israel from wanting a king like other nations. The power of a dynasty to do ill was at least as great as its power to do good, as history would prove. Yet the rule of the judges was chaotic and bloody. The Book of Judges ends with the depressing observation: "In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes." (21:25)

Saul, the first king of Israel, was every inch the kingly figure. He was also mentally ill and murderous.

In David, the religious element was wedded to the semitic warlord. Yet he was an adulterer and cold-blooded murderer. The Davidic dynasty would last, as a united kingdom, only through his son, Solomon.

Solomon showed great promise at first, unless you count against him a bloody palace coup. But then he took up collecting wives and concubines. Seven hundred wives, and three hundred concubines. He also worshiped their gods. He built a splendid temple to Yahweh, and an even more splendid palace complex to house himself and all those women.

When Solomon died, the people petitioned the new king, Rehoboam, to lighten the heavy taxation and forced labor necessitated by King Solomon's projects. His elderly counselors urged to him to agree. But Rehoboam listened to young hotheads with whom he had surrounded himself and increased the burden. This led to a civil war and split David's and Solomon's kingdom into Judah in the south, and Israel in the north.

So much for the great kingdom of David.

Not a one of the kings of Israel could be called a model. The kingdom of Israel, which we imagine to be this great, historical epoch, lasted through just three kings. They were men, with the flaws of men. Yet they were God's annointed, clothing their mortality with a divine ideal.

The world finally grew tired of kings, and got rid of them. They are a thing of the distant past and one would be thought eccentric to toast "the king over the water," or to declare his political persuasion "Royalist."

And yet...

Royalist To the Bone?

The movie based on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Return of the King was one of the greatest commercial and critical successes of all time, grossing one billion dollars worldwide. It won 11 Academy Awards: tying Ben Hur and Titanic for the record.

Would a movie called The Reelection of the President resonate so strongly? Of course not. A king is clothed in an archetype. A president is just one of us, albeit more remote than most kings of history. A king might be persuaded, or at least change his mind. "Washington" is immovable and implacable.  We ritually cast our ballots and feel more detached from our government than the lowliest peasant under the mightiest king.

We should not romanticize kings, although our romances are full of them. They have hardly ever lived up to the standard of God's annointed. They have been feckless, reckless and cruel, though not, perhaps, to the degree our republican legend must have it. One can find saints among kings. They are not to be found among presidents. One with real Catholic sensibilities feels this.

And now we come to the real point of this little essay. What sense are we good republicans to make of Christ the King? Is the title and feast just an accident of history? Surely it originated in some despotic and unillumined time to prop up a corrupt Catholic dynasty?

The truth is that it was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. That holy pope wanted to remind us that Christ reigned over all. Christ, the Son of David, as His contemporaries called out to Him, the Ruler of the universe, Who can never disappoint, Who sets all things right, Who demands and elicits our willing love, worship and obedience. In Christ the King our aching hearts can find rest in that enduring, if unspoken, relationship of King and subject.

Another year draws to a close in the Church. Advent is mere days away. Christmas will soon follow, where we once again visit our King, this time in a manger.


  1. It’s no accident that the phrase “by the Grace of God” is attached to real royalty (even if the royal personages may disappoint) and not to bogus royalty such as the celebrities we in the U.S. elevate to that status in our poignant gropings toward the authentic. The template of that which we seek comes from Heaven, and the King for Whom our hearts long is not to be found amongst those whose passports bear only the stamp of this broken world.

    Crown Him with many crowns!

    1. Thank you for ornamenting my essay, as always!

  2. Every Christian must be royalist, ultimately.

    I know you meant to say Pius XI.

  3. From "The Spirit of the Liturgy" by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, on why in prayer we press our palms together, fingers poised upwards:

    "A later development was the gesture of praying with hands joined. This comes from the world of feudalism. The recipient of a feudal estate, on taking tenure, placed his joined hands in those of his lord - a wonderful symbolic act. I lay my hands in yours, allow yours to enclose mine. This is an expression of trust as well as fidelity."

    It's a powerful sign that you believe you surrender yourself to no earthly king, no visible hands, but into the hands of Christ the King.

    I've also run across historical references to this gesture used in times of famine in the middle ages. With this gesture, a man could surrender himself to another man who would agree to feed him in return for a claim on his life and labor. At least until the famine was over.


Moderation is On.

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