There is a song that I have come to really enjoy that asks the question, “How many kings stepped down from their thrones...[and became] the least for me?”* The response at the end of the song is that only one king did that, and that one is Jesus. The song, sung by a Christian pop group, has only been around for a few years, but it really is a good reminder that Jesus is, in fact, a king. We culminate the liturgical year with the Feast of Christ the King to remember who it is we serve: the one who gave up His throne in order to come down to earth to serve us and to live as we do in a broken world. The King of Heaven humbled Himself in order to save us, that we may have life with Him forever. It is quite an amazing concept, and yet, it is our reality.
This last week of the liturgical calendar has a couple of other feasts that also give us a sense of true royalty. The first is the feast day of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. She was a woman of royal birth who was born in 1207 and died 24 short years later in 1231. She married a king, bore him three children, and then was widowed, all by the age of 20. However, she was always known as having a heart for the poor, doing charitable works as she could. This angered many of the members of the court, but it did not deter Elizabeth. After her husband died she was greatly affected by a group of Franciscans who had come to Hungary and she founded a hospital in which she served the sick and dying. Her family was so outraged that one of royal birth would live so ascetically that they drove her from the family castle and even took her children from her. This caused her great pain, but she continued to do works of charity until she died. Not long after her death miracles were attributed to her intercession, especially healing miracles at the hospital at which she labored. Her example is much the same as that of Jesus. The royal one was the servant of all, especially those most in need. He came to serve and not to be served, and Elizabeth followed in His footsteps at great cost to herself.
The next feast of note this week is the Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary which is celebrated on Friday. This feast is about the time when Mary was presented at the Temple as a young girl. While it is not based on Scripture, it is based on the Protoevangelium of James in which her parents, Joachim and Anne, brought Mary to the Temple at the age of three in order to fulfill a promise made by Anne when she was still childless. It reminds us that Mary was fully dedicated to service of the Lord her entire life. She was conceived immaculately, (having no sin), lived dedicated to the Lord as a young girl, and then said a complete ‘yes’ to the Lord when the angel appeared to her at the Annunciation. Her life was always directed to service. After her death, she was made Queen of Heaven by Jesus. This does not mean she is equal to God or that she is to be worshiped. On the contrary, it is a different type of queen-ship. She served God as no other person ever has. She said ‘yes’ all her life, trusting so totally that she was able to risk it all, suffer interiorly as her Son suffered, and continually let go of everything. She is queen because she was the one chosen to bring Christ into the world and yet she lived her earthly life as a servant, not as royalty. Even in Heaven she continues to serve, interceding for us as we pray to her for help. She is queen not in the temporal sense, but in the spiritual sense. This concept is a bit foreign to us, but the Eastern Church has always revered her as such. If we realize that it is not about power, but rather about service, the mystery becomes easier for us to understand. She serves in a unique way, honored for all she did from the moment she was presented in the Temple, living a life totally dedicated to the Lord and serving His people.
Finally, the liturgical year culminates this Sunday with the Feast of Christ the King, which is a relatively new feast. It was established in 1925 by Pope Pius XI as a way to fight secularism. He wanted to remind the Church of who it is we serve: Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, who has always been the King of Creation since He is one with the Father and the Spirit. He is also the Redeemer, giving His life for us. The only crown He wore in life was a crown of thorns, ironically substituted for His real crown in Heaven. When Pontius Pilate questioned Him during the Passion, Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Upon further questioning, He said: “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Therefore, Jesus came with a mission and a message. The king came to serve that we would learn how to serve also. This is what a true king does: He so loves His people that He gives everything for their well-being. As God His reign is about power, indeed, but not a cruel power; it is not the kind that is a “because I can do it” power. Rather, it is about the power of love. It is about a love so great that He gives up His throne, lives in a broken human body, is rejected and killed by His own people in order to give them salvation from sin and death, and undergoes every kind of emotional, spiritual, and physical suffering just to get His message of love to us. And if that is not enough, He offers us His help throughout our lives in order for us to find our way home to Him.
Christ, our King, has taught us that to be a follower of Him we need to imitate Him. We are a royal people because we are His, but this has deeper meaning than it first appears. Through His ministry, Jesus taught His followers that the greatest is the least. The true disciple is the one who serves the rest, just as He, the King, had done. The true disciple does works of charity, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned, welcoming the stranger, outcast, and marginalized. This is what many saints did, including people of wealth like St. Elizabeth of Hungary, and people who were of more humble social status, such as St. Francis of Assisi who Elizabeth chose to imitate in her works. All of us are called to follow this example if we desire to be His disciples.
The most wonderful part of our celebration of Christ the King is that it ushers in Advent. We are reminded of who it is that we are awaiting in the weeks which follow. The feast ties in the themes of November, which are about being prepared for the second coming of Christ by doing the works which He has given us to do as our responsibility in order to build His Kingdom here. In Advent we are also directed toward the Second Coming. We celebrate His birth, but because He has already been born, we are reminded that we need to be ready for His return. In the Scriptures that precede His birth, we are shown the mysteries of Mary’s ‘yes,' her service, her sacrifices, and her continual posture of reflection and prayer. And we will eventually celebrate His recognition as a king by other kings. So in many ways, one could say that liturgically the end of November is an 'advent before Advent.' It is a time of seeing how seamless our liturgical life really is and just how much our celebrations are connected to one another. The mysteries reflected in our celebrations are many, but they are a cause for joy. We have a great King, who loves us beyond understanding, who has taught us how we are to live by demonstrating it Himself, and who wants nothing other than for all of us to be around His banquet table in joy and peace forever. This is Christ, our King.
May we grow in understanding of what it means that we are a royal people! May we live as true disciples, imitating our King in works of mercy, compassion, and charity! May we be inspired to do the work of caring for others, as we have been taught! May we see how gifted we are, so that we may be filled with gratitude, and also be moved to share! And may we give glory to our King by our lives of love! Let us meet in the Heart of Jesus Christ the King! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
*The song to which I referred is How Many Kings by Marc A. Martel and Jason Ronald William Germain, performed by the group Downhere. The song and lyrics can be found at http://www.metrolyrics.com/how-many-kings-lyrics-downhere.html
For more information on the feasts you can go to the following sites:
St. Elizabeth of Hungary: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05389a.htm
The Presentation of Mary: http://www.americancatholic.org/features/saints/saint.aspx?id=1206
The Feast of Christ the King: http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/calendar/day.cfm?date=2013-11-24
Icons and images:
The first icon is Christ the King, the Bridegroom by Fr. William Hart McNichols.
The second is She Who Reigns, also by Fr. William Hart McNichols and it can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/she-who-reigns-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Next is a painting by Giotto. It is part of the Stefaneschi Triptych, Christ Enthroned c. 1330.
The final photograph is one I took a few years ago in Natchidoches, LA during Advent.
Heart Speaks to Heart