The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe is celebrated today, the last Sunday of the liturgical year (next Sunday is the First Sunday of Advent). The celebration reminds us of Christ’s kingship over the entire universe. Since the Father created the world through him (John 1:2-3), since he has conquered sin and death in his passion and resurrection, since humanity was redeemed by him and through union with him we have eternal life, since he ascended to his Father and sits at his right hand and since he will come again to judge the world, we praise him as Christ the King.
The Gospel passage for today’s liturgy comes from the Gospel according to Matthew. Jesus offers the parable of the separation of the goats and sheep. He uses this parable to make an analogy to the Son of Man’s judgment on the nations. The “Son of Man” is biblical expression found in both the Old Testament and applied to Jesus in the New Testament. The Son of Man is the one who acts as the final judge of all humanity.
The parable is wonderfully presented: The separation between the “righteous” (the sheep) and the “accursed.” The basis for the division is critical to understanding the parable. Here Christ the King, the Son of Man, identifies himself with the poor and needy. When he speaks to the righteous extolling their compassion and rewarding them with eternal life, he says: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”
Here Jesus identifies himself with all those who are in need. The “righteous” (sheep) are perplexed and ask the series of questions: “When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?” and so forth. Jesus confirms his union with the poor as he says: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.” The exaltation of the righteous is not shared with the “accursed.” For while the “righteous” lived with compassion and love, sharing in the merciful love of their Lord and King, the “accursed” failed to do so and are punished accordingly.
The teaching highlights Jesus’ role as the Son of Man and as the king. In ancient times and in particular in the life of Israel, the king was the final arbiter of justice. He is the law-giver, the enforcer and the judge. The biblical understanding is that God is the true King of Israel; he allows the establishment of the monarch (Saul) and ordains his successor (David) but he remains the ultimate king. According to the biblical tradition, when Israel kept this in mind and lived accordingly things worked out for them. The opposite was true when they forgot God was their king or failed to act accordingly.
The first reading from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel reminds us of God’s kingship and what his kingship means. The Lord is a shepherd who “tends” his flock personally. He is intimate with his sheep. He knows them. He rescues them when in danger, he protects them, he feeds them, and he heals them. And he judges them.
Psalm 23 provides the response. Here the psalmist praises God as his shepherd. He acknowledges that God gives him everything he needs (“in verdant pastures he gives me repose”), that he is the source of rejuvenation and rest (“He refreshes my soul”), that God leads him to righteousness (“He guides me in right paths”) and that God is the source of goodness, kindness and eternal life.
God’s kingship is fulfilled and fully realized in Jesus Christ. St. Paul speaks of this in the passage from his First Letter to the Corinthians which serves as the second reading for today’s Mass. He speaks of the origins of mankind and the fall of man in Adam. The consequence of sin is death. This haunted and ensnared mankind until Christ. The unity of mankind is stressed when Paul says: “For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life.”
It is through Christ Jesus that we are restored to life. Paul fully recognizes that we all will have to face death which is “the last enemy to be destroyed.” Jesus destroys the power of death in his resurrection from the dead. Since he is the victor over death he is the Lord of life. His reign shall endure forever.
The world presents many challenges to life. When we look at the world and even our own country there are many persons or ideas or causes that would like to claim “kingship” for themselves. Some seek power and authority over others. Some try to take this by force and fear. Some try to rob individuals and communities of their freedom which comes from God not from any state or jurisdiction.
Some forces in our society claim that wealth or prestige or status is the source of life. Others suggest that human freedom is an absolute authority in itself, one with no guidelines save personal will. Still others suggest that the way to life is in pleasure in the here and now. Any one of these is a claim on “kingship.” This is a temptation of the “world.”
And so we go back to the parable. Jesus is the King. He is not a king of pomp and circumstance but one who readily empties himself in love for his people. So much so that he identifies himself most with those who are the lowest and in most need of attention, care, mercy and love. He is the essence of compassion.
As King he demands the same from his subjects for he knows the only way to truly live is to empty oneself in love for others. In self-giving and humbly receiving, we experience the divine life that he bestows upon us.
Our praise of Christ the King is not only an acknowledgment of his kingship and authority but it is a response and a commitment to love.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.