The Solemnity of Christ the King
Ezekiel 34.11-12, 15-17
1 Corinthians 15.20-26, 28
This Sunday in the Catholic calendar is the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King, the last Sunday of the Church year. (Next Sunday will be the First Sunday of Advent and the first day of the Church’s calendar.)
This has always been one of my favorite feasts, one to celebrate with great festivity, solemnity and joy. This Sunday’s readings give us pause to reflect on how we relate to God and to one another. The Gospel reveals to us that Jesus will return one day, not as savior, but as judge. That image of Jesus doesn’t always go over very well in our culture. In our tolerant and non-judgmental society, we prefer to think of Jesus as a friend, a counselor, a wise man, a comforter – anything but a judge.
Yet, the fact that He is king brings with it the fact that he is judge. As king, Jesus holds all three branches of government within himself – he is lawmaker, executive and judge. Our American sensibility for the separation of powers is offended – how can anyone make that claim? And Lord Acton’s famous quote, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” comes to mind.
But herein lies the difference – we are talking about God; God who created the universe and who set its rules into place. Some people might object, as I saw one writer complain once about how God treated Job (he claimed that God basically bullied Job into submission rather than answering Job’s questions). But don’t we humans do the same thing? When we invent something, we make it to run according to our rules; when it doesn’t, we say it’s broken. In the same way, the God who created everything out of nothing and for His own purposes has the right and even the duty to set the rules. If there were no rules, then there is no way that it could be said that God brought order out of chaos.
But those rules or commands, as St. John says in one of his letters, are not burdensome. The reason they’re not burdensome is because they are given to us out of love. Look at the works Jesus says the just accomplish – they welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the imprisoned. These are all acts of kindness and mercy, which are both types of love.
When these things are done, we become more like God, who “makes His sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5.45).
And that is really what we are supposed to be doing. The Fathers talk about the kind of kingship we are supposed to exercise in our lives, since at Baptism we are anointed, as Christ was, as a priest, prophet and king. As priests, we offer the daily sacrifice of praise and love; as prophets, we proclaim the never failing truth of the Gospel and of God’s own works in our lives; as kings, we exercise sovereignty over our passions in order to follow God’s commands.
When we have this kind of control over our passions, then the Lord’s own work can be seen more clearly through us. Of course, the control over our passions is something we do under submission to the Lord. We cannot pretend to do this of our own accord. We have to be like the servants who say, “We are but useless servants; we have done no more than we have been commanded.”
One thing should be cleared up on this story – it is not directed towards Christians. Yes, you read that correctly. Notice that Jesus said that when He comes to His glorious throne upon the cherubim, the nations will be assembled before Him. In the Old Testament, the nations refer to those people who are not Israelites – the gentiles. The just and the unjust both ask Jesus the same question, though from different aspects – “Lord, when did we see you....” and His response is, “Whenever you did it (or not) for one of these least brothers, you did it to Me.” We Christians already should know when we are serving the Lord. And doing these corporal works of mercy are only part of the Gospel message. Notice that there is nothing here about prayer, loving our enemies, the Eucharist – nothing of the essentials of what Christians live out in our everyday lives. We know already that we have to do these things because it’s part of the Golden Rule.
Rather, it’s the people of the nations, those outside the faith, who are left wondering when they did this because they had never acknowledged Him before in their lives. They didn’t recognize Him in anyone because they did not know that He is Lord. That’s why they’re stupefied at what He said. And those whom He calls the least brothers are not every other person in the world. Rather, the least brothers are Christians. This is very clear from reading the rest of the New Testament that the term brothers, outside of where it used in reference to a blood relative, is used to refer to the body of believers.
I know this goes against all tolerant sensibilities, but that is what Jesus was saying. Again, for Christians, these are the minimum requirements. If we aren’t at least doing these things on a daily basis, then we have no business calling ourselves followers of Christ. Not only must we do these things, but we who, by His grace and mercy, already recognize the King of Kings, have to submit the totality of our lives to His reign.