The great wheel of the Christian liturgical year is turning once again.
In the Catholic tradition, we mark the end of the church year—and all the good and bad that occurred therein—by crowning Jesus Christ as King. We go all out on the Feast of Christ the King to name and proclaim that there are no temporal authorities—religious, political, economic, or otherwise—that own us. As Christians, we are owned by one alone—and that is Jesus the Lord.
On this day, we are also a triumphant people. This triumph is not human over human or even religious system over religious system. Instead it is the victory of truth over the dehumanizing illusions spun by powers and principalities of this world. In our Christian freedom, we tear off the masks of the death-dealers and expose their stratagems to the light.
In the liberty of this victory, we proclaim with Paul: “death hath no more dominion” (Romans 6:9)! Death, fear, and scarcity are the reins used by the little gods to control human lives. But as followers of Christ we stake a claim that “death hath no more dominion over us” either.
Secure in this truth, we are respectful of the little gods of the world—governments, economic systems, religious institutions—for the roles they play in the organization of human society at a particular moment in history. But we do not worship them; we do not offer sacrifices to them; we do not place them before the Lord our God.
I spend all this time pontificating on Christ the King because, in an election season, it is easy for us to get confused. It can be exhausting to separate the religious and political rhetoric that’s been flying all around us—somewhat unique to the American context—from deeper foundational truths.
Make no mistake: A new American presidential administration, at this time in history, can lead change of great consequence. By advancing an agenda that promotes human dignity and the common good, a leader committed to integrity and possessing a love for the fundamental ideals of democracy can create a better life for the poor both here in the United States and around the world. For our part, as citizens, we should work to see that this agenda is advanced at every level of governance.
However, Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us that the church has a unique role in a pluralistic society. “There must be a realm of truth beyond political competence,” says Niebuhr. As people of faith, it is essential that our first allegiance be to that “realm of truth.” This year the Feast of Christ the King can clarify and restore for us the proper order of our worship. It is the last Sunday of the church year. Advent awaits.
WITH THE FIRST SUNDAY of Advent, we start anew. In contrast to the pomp of Christ the King, Advent calls us to small humble acts. In the Northern Hemisphere, we gather up a few evergreen boughs and bend them into a circle to remind us that God is sovereign over the circle of time. The pungent sap of fir, cedar, or pine is incense snapping us awake, bringing our total attention to the present moment. We find fresh candles—three in penitential purple and one in joyous pink—to set in the “four corners” of the Advent wreath. In the deep darkness, we husband a flame and touch it to the wick. At dusk, the season of Advent begins.
Advent is sometimes called the “little Lent.” It is a time of joyful penitence, for washing off the sweat and grime of our human endeavors and making ourselves holy and presentable for the Incarnate One. These are the days when we steep ourselves in Niebuhr’s “realm of truth.” We recall the prophets who tore away the pretense of earthly kingdoms and redirected the people toward God. “O that You would tear open the heavens and come down,” Isaiah calls out to God, “so that the nations might tremble at your presence” (64:1-2)!
May you enter into holy Advent with Mississippi poet Charlie R. Braxton’s poem “Word/Life” on your lips:
and on that holy day
when you word you
came down in/to
the valley of
your wide eyes
sippin’ my soul …
and then i felt you and your eyes
drink/in my soul and i knew
everything’s gonna be alright
everything’s gonna be alright.
Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet. Her forthcoming book is Who Killed Donte Manning?(rosemarieberger.com).