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The Power of Words

Msgr. Joseph Prior

(Readings of the Holy Mass – Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe)

“The King of Glory comes, the nation rejoices, open your gates before Him lift up your voices!” is the opening line of a popular hymn many times used on this Sunday as we celebrate the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.

It is based on several scriptural references including Psalm 24. The words and tune connote a triumphal arrival of the King.

As we observe the solemnity, we are reminded of the Lord’s promised return and long for His arrival.

The theme resonates with the Gospel passages from the last few weeks and will continue into the new Church year beginning next week with the First Sunday of Advent.

In the past two Sundays we have heard parables regarding the Lord’s return. Both concentrated on our preparations.

The first (the Parable of the Ten Virgins) urges us to be “ready” for his arrival. The second (the Parable of the Talents) encourages us to use the “talents” so we can return them “with interest” on the Lord’s return. Today Jesus exhorts us to care for those in need by telling a story.

His opening conjures the glory expressed in the hymn mentioned above, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him.”

The image is grand, triumphal and great. The “Son of Man” is a title for the Messiah that has a particular meaning.

It does not reference to the fact of being human, in other words, being born of human parents but to a particular role that the Christ (‘Messiah’) will have – that of final judge.

Hence on his arrival the judgment begins. He separates the sheep from the goats.

We soon find out that the basis for separating the sheep from the goats, in other words the basis for judgement, deals with their care for those who are in need.

Jesus covers the most basic of human needs, food, drink, welcome (for the foreigner), clothing, compassion and care (for the sick), and companionship (for the imprisoned).

These are the basis for the “Seven Corporal Works of Mercy”: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned, bury the dead, and give alms to the poor.

The list is a very helpful way to help us remember. Another way to remember is what comes next in the story.

What is striking about Jesus’ teaching is that the great, mighty, and triumphant Son of Man identifies Himself with those who are in need.

When the King announces the judgement, he says that they either cared – or did not care – for him in his need.

Both the sheep and goats are surprised. Neither understood His meaning. So they ask him, “When did we see you hungry and feed you or thirsty and give you drink?” He replies, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

In the first reading, from the prophet Ezekiel, God promises to be like a shepherd who cares for His flock. We see this role fulfilled in dramatic fashion, in the Son of God, who took flesh and walked among us as that Shepherd.

Jesus, the King of Glory, is the one who gave food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, the one who welcomed the stranger, visited the imprisoned (and not only visited but freed), and healed the sick.

Psalm 23 (responsorial psalm for today’s liturgy) takes on a certain realism when we hear or read it with Jesus in mind. God’s tender, gracious and compassionate care are beautifully recalled.

Perhaps in this context they are also challenging. For not only does He Himself provide care and compassion for his flock; he expects His subjects to share in the care giving, like the shepherd who cares for his flock.

Today we acclaim Jesus as King of the Universe. This King urges us today to see Him among us in those in most need. And to acclaim Him in them by answering their needs with compassion, concern, care, and mercy.


Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.

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