Christ the King Sunday is new to me, and I’m not quite sure how it fits into the logic of the Christian calendar. Where does it come from? Does it duplicate Ascension Day? What about Christ as prophet or priest?
Christ the King Sunday is a common way to celebrate the final Sunday of the Christian calendar just before the liturgical year starts over with the four Sundays of Advent. In contrast to the ancient origins of the season of Advent and the celebration of Christmas, Christ the King Sunday is less than a hundred years old.
It was added to the Roman Catholic calendar by Pope Pius XI in 1925 and was initially observed in late October. Pius XI had previously written the pastoral encyclical “On the Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ” in response to the trauma of World War I. Building on that encyclical, the mandate to observe Christ the King Sunday ensured that the theology of Christ’s lordship would be emphasized prominently in worship every year. It was only in 1970, as part of post-Vatican II reforms, that the celebration was moved to the last Sunday of the Christian year. Later in the 1970s, the ecumenical Common Lectionary embraced this practice, and it has since been regularly observed in many Protestant contexts.
Whereas Ascension Day focuses on a particular historical narrative, Christ the King Sunday focuses on a theme latent in the entire Christian year, one with strong connections to Christmas, Transfiguration Sunday, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter, and Ascension Day. Royal motifs run through Scripture texts for each of those days, and this choice of a date for Christ the King Sunday at the end of the Christian year conveys the conviction that Jesus’ entire life and ministry—as well as all of history—ultimately points to the reign of Christ, whose rule challenges all human authorities and supersedes all powers and principalities. Attending to the breadth and depth and countercultural nature of Christ’s lordship is a potent spiritual antidote to the travails of our age. Being invited by a large percentage of the worldwide ecumenical church to put this theme at the center of our worship just before Advent is a gift.
Three Approaches to Christ the King Sunday
With this in mind, consider three promising approaches to this day.
First, consider framing the closing weeks of the Christian calendar as an eschatological crescendo that calls attention to the ultimate telos of Jesus’ reign in fullness. Many historical lectionaries feature an implicit emphasis on these eschatological themes, assigning texts about the emergence of false messiahs, the separation of sheep and goats at the last judgment, the parable of the wise and foolish maidens, and the “day of the Lord” to Sundays in November leading up to Advent. Today, most of us worship in Christian communities that are eschatologically undernourished. But ancient sources reveal their wisdom to us, mapping an approach to shaping worship throughout October and November that strengthens our Scriptural diet of these sturdy, gutsy, countercultural texts.
Second, always celebrate Jesus’ lordship as one of several interrelated dimensions of his person and work. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches us to cherish Jesus’ identity as prophet, priest, and king (Q&A 31). While only the third of these identities or offices of Christ is singled out for a named celebration in the ecumenical Christian calendar, ecumenical lectionaries throughout November feature prominent readings from Hebrews about Christ’s high priestly role, and multiple texts throughout Ordinary Time feature Jesus’ role as prophetic teacher. In each case, Jesus’ three offices overlap and mutually reinforce each other. It can be instructive to name this explicitly, correcting false impressions that can too easily distort our understanding of Jesus’ person and work when we focus on one element of Jesus’ identity while ignoring other elements. On Christ the King Sunday, consider adapting this explanation: “We worship Jesus as Lord, knowing that ours is a Lord who expresses power by establishing peace, who receives our worship while offering priestly prayers on our behalf, and who invites us into kingdom work by instructing us in the ways of peace.” This challenges latent, culturally shaped definitions of “lord” or “king” that might otherwise limit or distort our understanding.
Third, explore the more direct historical links between Christ the King Sunday and the violence of war. Here is a sampling of Pius XI’s pastoral reflections:
- “One thing is certain today. Since the close of the Great War, individuals, the different classes of society, the nations of the earth have not as yet found true peace. They do not enjoy, therefore, that active and fruitful tranquility which is the aspiration and the need of mankind. This is a sad truth which forces itself upon us from every side” (par. 7).
- “The inspired words of the Prophets seem to have been written expressly for our own times: ‘We looked for peace and no good came: for a time of healing, and behold fear’ (Jeremiah 8:15), ‘for the time of healing, and behold trouble’ (Jeremiah 8:19), ‘We looked for light, and behold darkness . . . we have looked for judgment, and there is none: for salvation, and it is far from us’ (Isaiah 59:9, 11)” (par. 9).
- “It is possible to sum up all we have said in one word, ‘the Kingdom of Christ.’ For Jesus Christ reigns over the minds of individuals by His teachings, in their hearts by His love, in each one’s life by the living according to His law and the imitating of His example. It is, therefore, a fact which cannot be questioned that the true peace of Christ can only exist in the Kingdom of Christ—‘the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ.’ It is no less unquestionable that, in doing all we can to bring about the re-establishment of Christ’s kingdom, we will be working most effectively toward a lasting world peace” (par. 48–49).
Especially when warfare dominates the headlines, it is instructive and inspiring to see how Christians in earlier generations responded to the heinous violence of war in their preaching and prayer. In the case of Christ the King Sunday, it’s not just that we are invited to take comfort in Jesus’ ultimate reign, but also that we are challenged to see how countercultural this vision of lordship is. Jesus reigns as the Prince of Peace. He is violently executed in order to bring an end to violence. And his rule extends over all of creation, challenging narrow nationalism and reminding us that our citizenship is heaven. What a gift it is to worship a Lord who is the Prince of Peace!
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