The annual Interfaith Community Thanksgiving Service will be held this Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. All Saints is the host congregation this year. There are only four participants: All Saints, Temple Ahavat Shalom, Emmanuel Community Church and St. Alfred’s Episcopal Church. This is a prayer service to celebrate the American civil feast of Thanksgiving, but many local churches won’t participate because of the involvement of the synagogue.
As it is an inter-faith prayer service, the Scripture readings and prayers will be inclusive of all the religious traditions present. This only seems appropriate as we are celebrating a civil feast (Thanksgiving), rather than a religious event. There are only four participating congregations because many of the churches in the area refuse to participate in prayer that isn’t addressed explicitly to Jesus as Christ. I’d like to think that their refusal is not so much intolerance as it is a lack of appreciation of the diversity of American society, but maybe those two things are the same.
In mainstream American culture it’s trendy to be against discrimination, though not all participate in the trend. The avoidance of discrimination is just common sense; we are a society built on the premise of equal rights for all citizens. It might be surprising to some people, however, that the Catholic Church’s stance against discrimination is not the result of recent trends. This feast of Christ the King of the Universe was put on the liturgical calendar in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, and is an example of the Church’s long-standing opposition to discrimination.
Pius XI had proclaimed a “holy year” in 1925 to commemorate the sixteenth centenary of the Council of Nicea. You might remember that Pope John Paul II proclaimed a “holy year” in 2000 to commemorate the 20th centenary of Christ’s birth. Associated with that holy year there were pilgrimages, special devotions and special celebrations. The same thing happened in 1925; there were pilgrimages led by hundreds of Bishops who brought people from their dioceses to Rome to observe the holy year.
Pius XI decided to close his holy year with this new feast, and to do so in the spirit of his pontificate. He had chosen as his personal motto, “Pax Christi in Regno Christi,” which means, “The Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ.” This feast that he instituted was in honor of Christ’s reign over all creation, and was an expression of his belief that peace could only be the result of giving appropriate honor to God.
This sounds very obvious to us, but it was not an obvious truth at the time. At the time, Europe was still suffering the ethnic tensions that had precipitated World War I, and was beginning to see the outlines of the xenophobic nationalism that would lead to World War II. Mussolini had taken power in Italy, and there was social unrest in Germany. Communist ideals were being spread throughout Europe and the Slavic countries.
Most people at the time associated peace with armed conquest of enemies or rivals. Pius XI realized how dangerous and unstable the political situation in Europe was becoming. He wanted to offer secular society an alternative to violent conflict. He portrayed peace as the result of obedience to God and respect toward all people. On the Feast of Christ the King, we celebrate that vision of peace, a happy co-existence with one another that results solely from allegiance to God’s Kingdom.
One of the ideas that Pius XI suggested as a path to world peace was “Catholic Action.” This phrase “Catholic Action” referred to the active involvement of faithful Catholics in local and national politics. It was political action, though not in the sense that we use the term today. The goal of “Catholic Action” was to encourage political and civil leaders to embrace ethical, humane and just principles in public decision making. “Catholic Action” wasn’t the sort of strident political ideology that is so popular today; it was more like setting a public example for society, and for social leaders in particular.
A generation ago, the Bishops in the United States offered a similar example to American society. In 1985 the Catholic Bishops of the United States published a pastoral letter on economic justice. They wrote, “What Jesus proclaims by word, he enacts in his ministry. … His mighty works symbolize that the reign of God is more powerful than evil, sickness, and the hardness of the human heart. He offers God’s loving mercy to sinners, takes up the cause of those who suffered religious and social discrimination, and attacks the use of religion to avoid the demands of charity and justice.” (U.S. Bishops, Economic Justice for All. 1986, 42)
The kingship of Christ that we celebrate this Sunday is not the kingship of a conquering hero; it isn’t the triumphalism of the popular or the powerful. The kingship of Christ is the reign of peace, the result of God’s desire that all live together in mutual respect. We have to be realistic about the possibilities for peace in our world; lasting peace is something that will only result when God’s Kingdom comes in its fullness. Until then, however, we believers have important work to do.
It is our mission as disciples to be the ambassadors of Christ’s peace. We are the ones God has called to give good example to the world, and especially to world leaders. As ambassadors of the Kingdom we must be careful to avoid ideology, intolerance, or even complicity in discrimination by our silence. God alone can bring the Peace of Christ, but while we wait for the coming of the Kingdom, there are daily opportunities to prepare people’s hearts for its coming.
The Feast of Christ the King is an offer of a better way to live. It’s an invitation to set aside violence, discord, divisions, prejudice and conflict. It is a reminder that all things, including political power and material wealth, come from God. It is a vision of a better world, and a promise that we can begin to enjoy the peace of God’s Kingdom in this present age while we wait for its fulfillment.