Just six miles south of here lie the ancient kings of Mercia. Aethalbard and Wiglaf, now no more than bones, are interred at Repton, capital of a kingdom that no longer exists, a kingdom that’s little more than archeology and dust.
Mercia may have long since been submerged beneath the waves of British history, but new kingdoms have risen in its place. Some of these are geographical, all flags and squiggles on maps, but many exist in less concrete spaces, spaces of business and media and ideology. Zuckerberg’s kingdom is bigger than Mercia ever was, its population larger than that of the Roman Empire at its height.
Different kingdoms still woo us, influence us, own us. Sometimes those kingdoms are even mythical, dreams of a golden age used to turn modern atrocities into acceptable expediencies, political fairytales no more real than Atlantis.
The Feast of Christ the King was introduced in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. World War I had ended only a few years earlier, but the War To End All Wars hadn’t left nationalism and division buried beneath the poppy fields. Just eight years later Hitler became Chancellor of Germany; five years after that would come Kristallacht. Empires rise and fall, and too many of us are eager to dance to their marching songs. To often we embrace empires because we like control, like power and security. Celebrating Christ as King was meant to be an inoculation against that, a liturgical reminder of where a Christian’s true loyalties should lie. Maybe it’s even subversive; after all, the Church has far too often sanctified slavery and antisemitism,
In thinking about empires, Pastor Brian Zahnd has noted that “There’s always some guy on a horse”. Problem is, the guy on a horse is far too often carrying a cross. When Jesus was tested in the wilderness, Satan showed him all the kingdoms of the world in an instant. I wonder if that was literally all of them; Rome, Greece, Byzantium, London, Washington, Facebook… I wonder if the greatest temptation of all these was Christendom. As I type this, a line from the song ‘Hurt’ is buzzing through my head: “You can have it all, my empire of dirt”. As the world stumbles into dark places, that line feels strangely prophetic.
For all the times we’ve turned the Kingdom of God into an Empire of fear and hate, Lord we repent. I repent.
Because the Kingdom of Christ is built on different foundations. It doesn’t come at the point of a sword, although some wish it would; it doesn’t get legislated, although many have tried. It can emerge from cathedrals and megachurches (although sometimes it’s paved over by those very structures), but it just as often appears in soup kitchens and refugee camps and women’s refuges and prisons, in online spaces that stand against the memes and the trolls. It was born at a cross and is represented by a lamb. Christ is King, but his hands are nail-scarred and he knows the streets and doorways as intimately as he knows cathedrals and palaces, and when we praise the beauty of barbed wire, beware, because Jesus is likely on the other side of it, his Kingdom unseen but still a beacon of hope and love and light; a crown of thorns is still a crown.
Last year’s post for Christ the King can be read here.