Sunday, November 20, 2022

The Lamb Will Conquer

It was a chilly December day, 1922. He'd been on the job ten months now, and no man alive could say he hadn't been living through interesting times. Born in Milan, Achille Ratti was four years old when the Kingdom of Italy was unified. Called to a vocation in service to the Church, he was ordained when he was twenty-two, and then spent his early years earning not one, not two, but three doctorates. He dove headfirst into academia, loving Christ with all his mind. And he became prefect of the Vatican Library just as Europe – and all the world with it – was plunged into the most devastating of wars by the fuse lit by an assassin's bullet. During the war's last year, Ratti was sent into diplomatic service in Poland. And it was a mighty rough world he stepped out into.

The previous year had brought down the Russian tsar and swept the Bolsheviks into power, and in the civil war that ensued, July 1918 brought the execution of the tsar and his family in the name of Communism. Four months later, at America's insistence, Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated amidst widespread uprisings, going into exile and leaving Germany to be reconstructed as a republic. Likewise, in the neighboring Austro-Hungarian Empire, Emperor Karl – who'd only come to power during the war and had tried to find peace – was formally dethroned and banished by the Austrian Parliament in April 1919. The world, she was a-changin'.

Then, the 65-year-old Achille Ratti – having been kicked out of newly independent Poland – was, much to his own surprise, elected on the fourteenth ballot. In February 1922, he quite abruptly found himself pope. In keeping with tradition, he gave up his name and adopted a new one: Pius XI. Now sequestered behind the Vatican walls, he watched Joseph Stalin approach power in the Soviet Union; Italy welcome the overthrown king of Greece; and, the very next month, Fascists march on the city of Rome just outside his walls. They foisted upon Italy a new prime minister: Benito Mussolini. It did not portend sunshine for the world's soul.

Pius XI had been watching all these events unfold with dismay, and now Christmas was near. It was time to let the voice of the gospel be heard. He'd been preparing a letter to speak to such sensitive times as these proved to be. He lamented that “since the close of the Great War, individuals, the classes of society, the nations of the earth have not as yet found true peace.”1 “Public life is so enveloped, even at the present hour, by the dense fog of mutual hatreds and grievances that it is almost impossible for the common people so much as freely to breathe therein.”2 “Internal discord... menaces the welfare not only of nations but of human society itself. … To these evils, we must add the contests between political parties... From this course, there often arise robberies of what belongs rightly to the people...”3 “It is most sad to see how this revolutionary spirit has penetrated into that sanctuary of peace and love: the family, the original nucleus of human society. … Frequently we behold sons alienated from their fathers, brothers quarreling with brothers... Too often likewise have we seen... the sanctity of the marriage tie... forgotten.”4 “In the face of our much-praised progress, we behold with sorrow society lapsing back slowly but surely into a state of barbarism.”5 “The sense of man's personal dignity and of the value of human life has been lost in the brutal domination begotten of might...”6

“Because men have forsaken God and Jesus Christ, they have sunk to the depths of evil.”7 They desired “that both our laws and our governments should exist without recognizing God or Jesus Christ, on the theory that all authority comes from men, not God.”8 “Legislation was passed which did not recognize that either God or Jesus Christ had any rights over marriage...”9 “Added to all this, God and Jesus Christ, as well as his doctrines, were banished from the school. … Gone, too, was all possibility of ever laying a solid groundwork for peace, order, and prosperity, either in the family or in social relations.”10 “It is, therefore, a fact which cannot be questioned that the true peace of Christ can only exist in the Kingdom of Christ.”11

That was what Pius XI shouted to a world desperately broken and in need. And yet the next three years see the world continue to spiral into further godlessness. A teenage boy in America is murdered by rich college students chasing the thrill of the kill. Italians are assassinated for speaking out against the Fascists. In Germany, Hitler, released from prison, calls for a racial society with no room for Jews. In the United States, the ACLU challenges Christian influence in the school, while the KKK marches publicly in Washington DC. With his fingers on the world's pulse, Pius XI could feel the quickening secular arrhythmia, and a whole host of disorders along with it. And so, in December 1925, he preached a message into the ears of every nation.

He asked, “Do we not read throughout the Scriptures that Christ is the King? He it is that shall come out of Jacob to rule [Numbers 24:19], who has been set by the Father as king over Zion, his holy mount, and shall have the Gentiles for his inheritance, and the utmost parts of the earth for his possession [Psalm 2].”12 “This same doctrine of the Kingship of Christ which we have found in the Old Testament is even more clearly taught and confirmed in the New.”13 “Christ himself speaks of his own kingly authority.”14 “It would be a grave error,” then, “to say that Christ has no authority whatever in civil affairs, since, by virtue of the absolute empire over all creatures committed to him by the Father, all things are in his power.”15

“Thus, the empire of our Redeemer embraces all men. … Nor is there any difference in this matter between the individual and the family or the state, for all men, whether collectively or individually, are under the dominion of Christ. In him is the salvation of the individual; in him is the salvation of society. … If, therefore, the rulers of nations wish to preserve their authority, to promote and increase the prosperity of their countries, they will not neglect the public duty of reverence and obedience to the rule of Christ.”16

“When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace, and harmony.”17 “That these blessings may be abundant and lasting in Christian society, it is necessary that the kingship of our Savior should be as widely as possible recognized and understood; and, to that end, nothing would serve better than the institution of a special feast in honor of the Kingship of Christ. … Man is composed of body and soul, and he needs these external festivities so that the sacred rites, in all their beauty and variety, may stimulate him to drink more deeply of the fountain of God's teaching, that he may make it a part of himself and use it with profit for his spiritual life.”18

“We firmly hope, however, that the Feast of the Kingship of Christ, which in future will be yearly observed, may hasten the return of our society to our loving Savior. … If the faithful were generally to understand that it behooves them ever to fight courageously under the banner of Christ the King, then, fired with apostolic zeal, they would strive to win over to the Lord those hearts that are bitter and estranged from him...”19 “Therefore..., we institute the Feast of the Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ, to be observed yearly throughout the whole world...”20 “Nations will be reminded by the annual celebration of this feast that not only private individuals but also rulers and princes are bound to give public honor and obedience to Christ. It will call to their minds the thought of the last judgment...”21 So hoped Pius XI. And wouldn't that be a very good thing indeed?

The following year – 1926 – was the first in which Christ the King Sunday was celebrated. In the 1960s, it was relocated to when it is now: the last Sunday before Advent. Today. And although it was originally celebrated only in the Catholic Church, the idea caught on. Over the decades since, it's been wisely adopted by Anglicans, Lutherans, Moravians, Methodists – and who are we to hold ourselves aloof? Officially, our denomination hasn't caught up yet – our calendars just say “Thanksgiving Sunday.” But in spite of ourselves, today we break out the white paraments you see up here on the altar and pulpit, the same ones for Christmas and Easter. Because today is much bigger than just “Thanksgiving Sunday.” It's the Feast of Christ the King.

And as we wind down another Christian year – which runs from Advent to today – we know we have no less need of this holiday today than we did a century ago. Because the way Pius XI described the world around him is hardly foreign to what we see around ourselves. And these things are made clear in the scriptures we read.

For what have we learned from Scripture today? We heard, first of all, that Jesus is first and foremost the Lamb – “a Lamb standing as though it had been slain, with seven horns and seven eyes which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (Revelation 5:6). He was crucified – there the Lamb was slain. He is risen – that's why the Lamb stands! He offered himself as a sacrifice out of perfect love, and his indestructible life is forever grounded in his identity as Supreme Love, as the Love which God eternally is. And because love can't be limited, his vision and power pour forth the perfect sevenfold Holy Spirit of Love to the whole world.

Second, we heard that, as the Lamb who had been slain but now stands in heaven, Jesus is acclaimed as worthy. Worthy of what? “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12) – seven gifts for the seven spirits. He's 'worthy' because the Lamb is the Lord who deserves to reveal secret wisdom from heaven, who deserves to be invested with royal strength and royal authority, who deserves to receive all tax and tribute from creation, who should be respected and heeded, who ought to be celebrated with praise. The Lamb, from any angle, is worthy! For, as the Lamb, Jesus' blood ransomed people from every tribe and every nation, and enrolled them as citizens of a higher kingdom than any earthly empire could boast (Revelation 5:9-10). And, because his kingdom is as indestructible as his resurrection life, and because his kingdom is a heavenly kingdom to which all earthly kingdoms are accountable, Jesus is rightly acclaimed as “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5).

And yet, as both scripture and history bear out, the worldly powers-that-be tend not to want to be ruled – least of all by a Lamb. And so we read cryptically about a beastly force at work (Revelation 17:11), and about many “kings” who briefly receive political authority in the earth (Revelation 17:12-13). And what do they do with this authority they have? “They will make war on the Lamb” (Revelation 17:14). That's what we're told. Now, it's not the Lamb who picks this fight. He doesn't come against them with aggression or with armies. The Lamb's kingship isn't like the kingships of this world, so as to require swords and guns and bombs, political savvy and deep pockets and the serpentine shrewdness of propaganda machines (cf. John 18:36). No, the Lamb took his throne when he perched himself on a cross, when he let thorns crown his brow bloody, when he hurled his lifeblood against the heart of darkness to dissolve it away and let the light shine in.

But, risen, he appears again and again on the world scene with a royal witness and royal claim. His appearance comes in the person of the Church, the Lamb's Body that still bleeds his blood on the earth and its darkness. He appears even by the dignifying image of himself that every human life is made in, from the terminally ill to the unborn, from every creed and from every party, rich and poor, black and white, immigrant and native, prisoner and free. He appears with his royal witness and his royal claim. But often, when the kings of the earth look at human life they deem unworthy, and especially when they behold the Church staking claims for Christ, they choose – with a mind borrowed from a beast – to go on the attack. They react against what they see, what they hear, what they fear. And so whether against human life in general, or human life of a particular kind, or against even the Church itself, the kings of earth have a nasty habit of waging war on the Lamb all over again, wishing to crucify him anew through the hands and feet of everyone they disdain or crushingly neglect.

But what will the result of all this be? The same Scripture has told us. “The Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings!” (Revelation 17:14). Whenever the kings of earth make war on the Lamb, and whenever individuals think themselves kings worthy of making war on the Lamb, we know the outcome. They can be assured that they're in the wrong (for he's unquestionably King of kings), and they can be equally assured that, because they're in the wrong, they're then outmatched (for he unquestionably will conquer)! The Lamb may conquer in the midst of the years, by turning the wheel of the ages, shifting the balances of power. The Lamb may conquer by salting the earth with the blood of his martyrs, so that the aspirations of the beast cannot thrive in the soil that cries out against these new Cains. The Lamb may conquer by the voice of witnesses that can't be silenced by any show of tooth and claw. And the Lamb will conquer, in the end, in ways that “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined” (1 Corinthians 2:9). From start to finish, the Lamb renders his verdict on human history, in all its twists and turns, with all its movements and all its moments.

But then what does that mean for us? Scripture has the answer here, too. “The Lamb will conquer..., and those with him are called and chosen and faithful” (Revelation 17:14). Those three words describe the winning team in the war of the ages. First, those with him are 'called' – they're summoned, they're invited, they're given an audition. That's what happens when we hear the preaching of the gospel, the apostolic call going out into all the earth. Paul addresses himself to “you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:6), and says to us, “You were called to the one hope that belongs to your call” (Ephesians 4:4). You're called – that's 1 out of 3.

But, as Jesus said, “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14). That's the second part. It's passing initial inspection (cf. Matthew 22:1-14), and so being selected after being called. Yet “we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word but also in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:4-5). We didn't just hear the word with our ears; we were baptized into its power, body and soul, and so “have been born again... through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23; cf. Colossians 2:12). That's you, yes? You're called! You're chosen! Two down...

One to go. “Those with him are called and chosen and faithful” (Revelation 17:14). That means vindicating the call and choice of God with our grace-enabled response, day by day. This one, it's up to us, individually and collectively, to determine: With the grace given us, will we be loyal to Christ the King? Will we take his side? Courageous faithfulness is all we need to be assured that we'll find ourselves with the Lamb as he overcomes the rebellious kings of earth, regardless of what madnesses those kings serve in the meantime. Whatever comes out of Moscow or London, Beijing or Washington, if they make war on the Lamb, know the Lamb will conquer. Because the Lamb is Lord of lords and King of kings. In his own heavenly way, he rules over all and will judge all, and will give the final victory, not to those who wield earthly power now, but to those who live and die as called, as chosen, as faithful. Victory is for those who are truly with the Lamb. Cross-bearing is our warfare.

And that's what today is all about. Today is a feast celebrating the truth that Jesus Christ is King of Kings. It's a feast celebrating that the Lamb is certain to conquer. Today, by this holiday, we declare to the world that its politics are provisional and temporary, and so are all the ways in which we try, of our own power, to govern our families and our communities, our bodies, our souls, our lives. Today is a feast of rededication, then, so that we who are called and chosen might prove faithful to the Lamb, to loyally and trustingly and courageously “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Revelation 14:4). For the Lamb – and none other – is King of the Universe.

And to that, we'll let Pius XI have the last word: “If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth – if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion – if this power embraces all men – it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls, or, to use the words of the Apostle Paul, 'as instruments of justice unto God' [Romans 6:13].”22 Now that sounds like faithfulness from the called and chosen. May it be ours! May we be all for Christ the King! Amen.

1  Pope Pius XI, Ubi arcano Dei consilio §7 (23 December 1922)

2  Pope Pius XI, Ubi arcano Dei consilio §11 (23 December 1922)

3  Pope Pius XI, Ubi arcano Dei consilio §12 (23 December 1922)

4  Pope Pius XI, Ubi arcano Dei consilio §13 (23 December 1922)

5  Pope Pius XI, Ubi arcano Dei consilio §15 (23 December 1922)

6  Pope Pius XI, Ubi arcano Dei consilio §21 (23 December 1922)

7  Pope Pius XI, Ubi arcano Dei consilio §28 (23 December 1922)

8  Pope Pius XI, Ubi arcano Dei consilio §28 (23 December 1922)

9  Pope Pius XI, Ubi arcano Dei consilio §29 (23 December 1922)

10  Pope Pius XI, Ubi arcano Dei consilio §30 (23 December 1922)

11  Pope Pius XI, Ubi arcano Dei consilio §49 (23 December 1922)

12  Pope Pius XI, Quas primas §8 (11 December 1925)

13  Pope Pius XI, Quas primas §10 (11 December 1925)

14  Pope Pius XI, Quas primas §11 (11 December 1925)

15  Pope Pius XI, Quas primas §17 (11 December 1925)

16  Pope Pius XI, Quas primas §19 (11 December 1925)

17  Pope Pius XI, Quas primas §19 (11 December 1925)

18  Pope Pius XI, Quas primas §21 (11 December 1925)

19  Pope Pius XI, Quas primas §24 (11 December 1925)

20  Pope Pius XI, Quas primas §28 (11 December 1925)

21  Pope Pius XI, Quas primas §32 (11 December 1925)

22  Pope Pius XI, Quas primas §33 (11 December 1925)

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