If you go to weekday Mass now, towards the end of the Church’s liturgical year leading up to Advent, the Scripture readings day by day focus on particular themes such as the Last Judgment and martyrdom. Those from the Old Testament come from the latest books in that part of the Bible, from the 2nd century BC and the time of the Maccabean revolt of the Jewish people against oppression by the Greeks. Persecution and martyrdom are major themes in these weeks, and this was reiterated last Wednesday by the Big Wednesday events, organised by Aid to the Church in Need, in support of Christians undergoing persecution in different parts of the world (Westminster cathedral lit up is shown here).
For Christians in particular, persecution and martyrdom are about the power and claims of the nation state – national sovereignty. Throughout history Christians who have been persecuted or killed because of their faith have essentially denied the absolute claims often made by rulers – the Roman Emperor, Stalin, ‘ISIS’ or the present rulers of China – over religious belief and a person’s conscience. To their persecutors, such Christians are traitors, atheists, infidels. It boils down to the power which the State claims over our lives, the many ways in which the nation state claims absolute and unthinking loyalty. Quite by chance in November the ways in which we recall those who have lost their lives in war reminds us of where such loyalty leads.
Christian martyrs have always rejected all these claims because the true King whom we adore and serve is Our Lord Jesus Christ, and we bring this month and these weeks to a climax today on the feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the Church’s year – Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the World, Salvator Mundi, depicted in this painting by Leonardo da Vinci which was in the headlines earlier in the month. As often Our Lord is shown holding a globe, symbolising the world of which he is the true King. The feast of Christ the King was only instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925, in reaction to secularism and the growth in the power of the State over people’s lives (particularly at that time in Soviet Russia and Fascist Italy); we also mark the feast (as other churches do) by a Procession of the Host and Benediction at one of our Masses. This reminds us that Catholic belief in the Real Presence, in Transubstantiation, has often been seen as a threat by secular rulers (as in this country at the Reformation): if your King is in the tabernacle, you may not listen as much to the King in the palace.
We are also hearing at the moment a great deal about national sovereignty, here and elsewhere in the world. Much of this is malign and deceptive, at odds with what we celebrate on this feast day. The answer to so much which is disordered in the world, in our own country and elsewhere, can really only be countered by faith in Christ the King, the Saviour of the world. Our faith, if it is strong and authentic, helps us always, as it has helped those being persecuted and martyred, to get our priorities and loyalties right.