Queen Victoria was the last British monarch to have any real power. But it was far from absolute. While sailing to Ireland, her ship was hit by a gigantic wave that made the ship list violently to one side. As soon as she recovered her balance, the Queen told a servant “Go up to the bridge, give the admiral my compliments, and tell him he’s not to let that happen again.”
Small wonder that her son, the future King Edward VII, wondered whether Queen Victoria would be happy in heaven, since she’d have to walk behind the angels.
In the modern age, kings and queens have become largely symbolic figures, with many countries rejecting monarchy altogether. Some smaller countries, like Denmark and Holland, have royals who ride bicycles or take on outside jobs.
But the kingship of Christ, which we celebrate today, cannot be compared to the modern monarchy. His kingship is not symbolic. The waves do obey him, and the angels bow at his feet.
Christ is not a constitutional monarch. We cannot reduce Him to a ribbon-cutting King, to a garden-party King, in other words to anything less than the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Perhaps we make this mistake because no-one actually obeys a modern monarch. Certainly there are people who swiftly bring Her Majesty a cup of tea on command. But obedience—doing what someone tells us to do when it’s not what we want to do—isn’t part of the picture.
Today’s feast tells us many things about Jesus and His kingship. But I would like to focus on obedience, precisely because it has become so unattractive to the modern mind.
“What right have you to tell me what to do?” Have we never said those words or at least thought them—at school, at work, or in the family?
“What right have you to tell me what to do?” I admit it’s pretty hard to say those words directly to God and keep a straight face. Still, actions speak louder than words, and often that’s just what we’re saying with our attitudes. Sometimes we camouflage the question by saying “what right does the Church have to tell me what to do?” when what we’re really questioning is God’s right to rule us.
“What right does Christ have to tell me what to do?” Daniel’s dream answers “the right of the one to whom God has given dominion, and glory and kingship.”
“What right does Christ have to tell me what to do?” John’s vision answers “the right of the ruler of the kings of the earth.”
And Jesus answers by saying simply “everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Notice how little Jesus relies on His right to rule. His claim on our obedience rests not on a mere title, but on His own obedience. Vatican II teaches that we must “follow the example of Christ, who by his obedience unto death opened to all people the blessed way of the freedom of the children of God” (Lumen gentium, 37).
One of the most moving speeches of the Second World War was given by Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother. Responding to rumours that the royal family would flee London, she made the famous reply: “The princesses will not leave without me. I will not leave without the King. And the King will never leave.”
By sharing the dangers and difficulties of the rest of London, the King and Queen taught by example; Jesus taught us obedience in the same way. He says repeatedly that he did not come to do His own will but the will of His Father; towards the end of His life on earth He says “If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love” (Jn. 15:10).
When was the last time we examined ourselves on the virtue of obedience? Most of the time, we follow God’s law and Christ’s teaching because it seems the right thing to do; we don’t so much obey it as agree with it. It’s usually just one “little” area of our life where we can’t quite see the point, so there we do things our way—and yet that’s exactly where obedience to the Lordship of Christ is needed.
Because we are children of this age, sometimes called “the Me generation,” we tend to reject the biblical teaching that every follower of Christ is called both to obey the pastoral authority of the Church and, ultimately, to surrender himself or herself totally to God (The New Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, 712).
But there may be more to our disobedience than just the times we live in. Fear plays a role, too. We’re really not sure where submitting our will to God might lead. What might He ask? What might this all-powerful King command?
Our fears reflect a lack of trust in God. We forget that what He commands He also makes possible. Obedience isn’t achieved through sheer will-power. It’s not something we do just by human effort. Both the will and the ability to obey is a gift from God—a grace made possible because Christ’s sacrificial obedience preceded our own. (The New Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, 712).
So what does it mean, practically speaking, to trust God enough to obey what he commands in all things?
First of all, it almost goes without saying that it means complete obedience to the moral law summarized in the Ten Commandments. Jesus says “be holy, as your heavenly Father is holy,” (Mt. 5:48) which rules out all deliberate sins against the fundamental moral law.
Secondly, obedience to God is obedience to God’s Word revealed in the sacred scripture. The law of love taught by the words and actions of Jesus is just as binding as “thou shalt not steal” or “thou shalt not kill.” It too must be obeyed.
Finally, we are called to obey what the Church teaches in Christ’s name and by His authority. This is the area where disobedience often comes in, partly because we forget that Jesus said to His apostles “He who hears you, hears me” (Lk. 10:16).
Those words of Jesus support the teaching mandate of the Church. Here is how Vatican II explains them: “by divine institution the bishops have succeeded to the place of the apostles as shepherds of the Church: and the one who hears them, hears Christ; but whoever rejects them, rejects Christ, and Him who sent Christ” (Lumen gentium, 20).
It follows, then, that disobedience to the Pope and bishops is disobedience to Christ when they teach authoritatively on matters of faith and morals.
Many good people were confused by a common misunderstanding of the meaning of “conscience” throughout the late sixties and early seventies. Even some priests seemed to think that the conscience operated independently of Church teaching. So long as your actions didn’t bother you, you were acting according to conscience. Indeed, it was more important to follow your conscience than to obey Church teachings you didn’t fully understand. How you felt about your decisions was the crucial factor.
This error is easy to understand. Most of us talk about conscience in terms of feelings. “My conscience is clear” means “nothing’s bothering me about what I have done.” But this is not the traditional Christian idea of conscience.
The Church certainly teaches that we have a right and duty to follow our conscience. But equally it teaches that we have a right and duty to educate our conscience. We don’t distinguish right from wrong on instinct alone. Rather, as the Catechism states, “The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings” (CCC 1783).
Note that word “indispensable.” Obeying our Lord requires finding out what He commands. A king’s subject is not obedient and loyal if he only follows the orders that he hears the king proclaim; he must also seek to know the law of the kingdom, and to follow it.
This feast day marks the end of the liturgical year—a new year’s eve, of a sort. What better time to make a resolution or two? What better time to take a look at ourselves and ask whether we are living as subjects of Christ the King in every area of our life?
Do we have some kind of “dual citizenship,” keeping something from His sovereign oversight? Have we failed to examine more closely a teaching of His Church with which we choose to disagree? Are we settling for lukewarm discipleship, just trying to get by instead of striving for holiness?
Our parish claims this solemnity of Christ the King as our parish feast day, because Christ the King is indeed Christ the Redeemer. We hail this King and we love this King because He first loved us. We obey because we are redeemed—and we obey because we ourselves hope one day to share in the reign of the eternal King.