Many churches follow a calendar that begins with the First Sunday in Advent. That’s the four weeks before Christmas, so, give or take a few days, about a month before the calendar year begins. The last Sunday of the old year - New Year's Eve for church, if you like - has been known in many denominations as Reign of Christ Sunday or Christ the King since 1925.
It was the Pope’s idea. Pius XI thought it was a good way to encourage people in a secular world to remember that God rules over all creation, including our daily lives. I’m not the Pope, and I wasn’t there, so I don’t really know what was his understanding of “rule” and “king” and the biblical language of kingship, but I imagine many people struggle with the image and don’t find it as familiar and comforting as some other depictions of Jesus. Especially in the 21st century, our understanding of kingship is murky at best, clouded with limited experience, historical figures and fairytale kingdoms.
But having a pretty clear idea of what kind of king they wanted didn't help the first century Hebrews understand Jesus either. Because he didn't give them the kind of king they were expecting. They wanted a warrior, he gave them peace. They wanted someone who would hate the enemy, he told them to love everyone. They wanted someone to restore their glory and riches, he told them to give it all up. They wanted someone who was powerful, as they understood power, and he gave them vulnerability. They wanted someone to serve, he was their servant. They wanted someone who would take back what was theirs, he gave them someone who sacrificed for all.
At the very least, Jesus redefines kingship in a radically different way.
From his birth, which was hardly regal, to his death, he lived a life that challenged people’s understanding of power. In Luke's account of the crucifixion, the sign "This is the King of the Jews" reminds us we once failed to understand what kind of king Jesus is, and perhaps we still do. When we talk about being a great leader, the first things on the list are rarely love, compassion, kindness and service.
But maybe, like one of the criminals crucified with Jesus, we might come to understand Jesus' kingship better if we understood the relationship to the kingdom. "He said to him, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' He replied, 'truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.'"(Luke 23:42-43)
If we want to find paradise, it won't come through war and anger. It won't come through controlling others, crushing our enemies, exercising great power, acquiring enormous wealth or forcing others to serve us. It will come with love and grace.
The first century Hebrews expected a messiah who would return them to their glory days and make them great again. Are we still expecting that kind of king?