This is the edited text of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP for the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe Year A and the Investiture Ceremony for the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 26 November 2023.
In 1792 the baby-faced Louis Saint-Just made his maiden speech in the National Convention, the new-formed parliament of the First French Republic. For the ambitious and idealistic young Saint-Just, addressing the 800-strong assembly was an opportunity to make a name for himself. His topic was the fate of the recently deposed king, Louis XVI. Saint-Just argued that to try him would be a nonsense. Not because it meant the crown trying the crown. No, because a trial assumes the possibility that one could be found not guilty. But Louis, like all monarchs, was a tyrant. “No king can reign innocently!” he thundered. If the revolution was to live, the king must die. The speech was to be a major catalyst for the execution of the king by the National Razor.
Yet the death of the king didn’t bring the peace and stability Saint-Just and co. had hoped. Instead, it accelerated a Reign of Terror. Blood flowed in the streets of Paris, as well as the coastal region of the Vendée, where thousands of Catholics were killed for resisting the revolution. Saint-Just eventually earned the moniker ‘Angel of Death’ for his insatiable appetite for guillotining political rivals.
Regicide rarely brings peace and order. The Old Testament is replete with king killings, and rarely was what followed an improvement. The kings of the Greeks, the Persians and the Romans met a similar fate. The great Julius Caesar, a king in all but name, was assassinated to secure the Roman republic; but this only precipitated a series of civil wars and imperia, each more brutal and tyrannical than the last. In the ninth and tenth centuries popes were assassinated willy-nilly, and the Church fell into a terrible state. The British sport of regicide gave Shakespeare many tragedies to write. In one the king laments:
For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been depos’d, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping kill’d.
All murder’d—for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court…
In Shakespeare’s own lifetime Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded by her cousin Elizabeth. Her grandson, Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland, would suffer the same fate. Thereafter followed a period of military tyranny, then anarchy and, after a brief restoration, a second and more “glorious” revolution, the deposition of another Stuart, and more bloodshed. Despite the talk of kings exercising a sacred office and even ruling by divine right, history suggests their reigns were often precarious.
At His trial before Pilate, Jesus was quizzed about His kingship. “Are you the King of the Jews?” the governor asked (Mt 27:11 et par.). The interrogation is telling. In this Roman’s thinking, the divine auctoritas or mandate of kings was demonstrated by opulent splendour, power of governance, force of armies. This Galilean had nothing of the sort. Yet there was something about Him. It was unsettling.
Jesus’ reply perplexed him further. Yes, I am a king, but my kingdom is a reign of truth, my subjects seekers after truth, their king the witness to truth. Pilate’s famous retort is “What is truth”? (Jn 18:37-38)
Jesus, the truest ever king, would suffer the fate of many before and since. The fickle crowd hailed Him one day with “God save the king” and condemned Him the next with “Crucify him, crucify him” (Mt 21:9; 27:22-23). As God the Father faced open revolt against His authority in Eden, now God the Son did so in Jerusalem. And in a precedent to Saint-Just, Caiaphas would count Jesus’ death a small price to pay for peace and order: “better one man die for the sake of the people” (Mt 27:24; Jn 11:50; 18:14).
But, for once, killing the king did indeed bring peace. For once the king’s murder was not the termination of His reign but its vindication and extension. Christ’s selfless sacrifice was the beginning of the end for the powers of Evil, Tyranny and Death (cf. 1 Cor 15:20-26). It was the rescue of stray sheep foretold in Ezekiel’s prophecy and David’s psalm today (Ezek 34:11-17; Ps 22(23)). Caiaphas, ironically, was right: one man’s death would indeed save the people, if not in the way he’d imagined. The death of the King of the Jews would not fix all the problems in the Holy Land—as is all too evident right now—but it would initiate a new way of thinking and being, a kingdom “not of this world”, a reign of truth, peace and love that makes claims on every human heart, and promises life beyond the grave.
In the Christ the King window of our cathedral, Christ is depicted with a royal orb in his left hand and named Lord of Heaven. Angels carry His sword of judgment and His cross now flowering with new life. Never again will this king be killed. But today’s Gospel tells us He will, in the end, judge His subjects with that sword of justice and lily of redemption. His test will be our charity: whether we cared for the hungry, stranger, sick, imprisoned. Having judged those who care for the needy to be His flock, the citizens of His kingdom of truth and love, He will, according to Paul, transfer the kingdom to His Father (1Cor 15:20-26). Hence our window has Him with orb as true king of the world, but carrying no sceptre or pastoral staff or in His other hand. Instead, with His free hand, He points upwards to heaven. If you live after this pattern, He says, you ready yourself for that kingdom!