Third, we must recognize that God's ruler over human affairs will be fully realized only at the Last Day (see 1 Cor. 15:24–28). Until then, the extent of Christ's rule is defined by the number of those who follow his way. Pius envisioned an ever-increasing spread of cheerful Christians happily obedient to earthly authorities whose role was invested with divine significance. But the Roman Catholic Church came to realize the triumphalistic optimism of that view. In order to point to the fullness of Christ's rule at the Last Day, it shifted the observance of the Feast of Christ the King from the last Sunday before All Saints to the final Sunday of the church year. This subtle shift recognizes the New Testament tension between the already and the not yet.
Finally, Pius was disturbed by nationalism, and so are we whenever nationalist impulses trump the good of all people or loyalty to the international fellowship of Christian believers. In his day Italian, Spanish, and German nationalisms were all asserted at the expense of the church. When love of country is infused with a quasi-religious devotion, it threatens both the freedoms of citizens and the security of neighboring countries. The universal kingship of Christ supersedes our nation's claims on our loyalties.
Christ the King at Christmas
The trouble with thinking about Christ the King today, though, is that, lacking contemporary models of kingship, we may picture him as a super-Henry VIII or Louis XIV. He is of course far more powerful than they ever dreamed of being. But listen to how Scripture describes him:
Jesus to two disciples, quoting Zechariah 9:9: "See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey" (Matt. 21:5).
John of Patmos to the church: "The Lamb will triumph over them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings" (Rev. 17:14).
Henry W. Baker, paraphrasing Psalm 23: "The King of love my Shepherd is, / Whose goodness faileth never, / I nothing lack if I am His / And He is mine forever."
When you worship Christ the King on Christmas day, be amazed at this King of kings who is also gentle, a Lamb, the King of love, and a helpless babe in a barn.
David Neff is editorial vice president of Christianity Today Initiative Development.