SOLEMNITY OF CHRIST, THE KING OF THE UNIVERSE (2020)
Readings:Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17Psalms 23:1-3, 5-61 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28 Matthew. 25:31-46
We have arrived at the very last Sunday in the Church’s liturgical year, and the tone of the readings should not take us by surprise, as they are very much in keeping with those we have been proclaiming for several weeks now. Next Sunday we will begin the First Sunday of Advent, our approach to the great Feast of Christmas when Christ, although in a humble stable, is worshipped as King. The hint that the child who lies in the stable is not some ordinary infant whose parents couldn’t find appropriate housing, is given to us in the approach of three kings from the East, who come to worship one of their own.
More than a hint are our readings which we have for this Sunday, for, as the past few weeks have done, they point our minds in the direction of the last days, those days that will result in Christ drawing all things to Himself.
I remember well the first time I had the pleasure of entering the Basilica of the National Shrine [it was not a basilica at that time] of the Immaculate Conception, in Washington, D.C. I had been sent by the monastery to pursue doctoral studies at The Catholic University of America, and the Shrine sits on its property. I am told there is much more to look at that has been added to the Shrine since my absence, but dominating the interior of the Shrine, placed high in the apse over the main altar, is a mosaic of “Christ the Pantocrator” – an overwhelming and imposing image of Christ, nearly stripped to His waist and wearing a bright red, kingly garment. His extraordinarily muscular physique conveys an aura of “I am the Almighty,” and “I am all-powerful.” The image dominates the space merely because of its size, but it is His eyes that are the most dominant feature of the mosaic, for they search out the meek. They are serious eyes beneath a furrowed brow, which seem to peer deep within your heart. There is no hint of a smile; no hint of compassion, which is not the point of the image. In my first encounter with this image, I remember so clearly saying to the person that I was with: “I certainly hope He looks happier when I get to meet Him!” Orthodox, Byzantine icons generally depict their Saviors more serious than welcoming!
Providing a softer, but no less serious demeanor, is today’s gospel image of a Shepherd separating sheep from goats. It is an image that is definitely more welcoming, but no less daunting. It is the last parable that Jesus will tell in Matthew’s gospel, a parable that clearly speaks of the end of times. It is not without glory, for Jesus, accompanied by hosts of angels, will sit on “His glorious throne,” and with “all the nations of the world” before Him, He will separate people, “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” It is important to call upon all that has been said in the Scriptures concerning the Good Shepherd, a shepherd “who knows His sheep” and wants what is best for them, even if he has to lay down his life for them.
Imagine being a part of such a gathering. You’re heart would race within you as you drew closer to the throne. You know that those being seated on the king’s right is the favored side, and you suspect that they have been found worthy. But what did the people do who are seated on the king’s left? Certainly I couldn’t have done anything so bad as to be placed in that unfavored place? I go to Church as often as possible, I keep the Ten Commandments, I say a rosary daily, I treat most people well, and I keep clear of pornography! You say to yourself, I wish this whole process was over so that I knew what the two sides really mean. It’s my turn, and I have nothing to fear because my shepherd truly knows who I am, but then I get sent to the left; maybe its not such a bad place to be?
The king finishes, and he says to those on his right: “Come you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” The reasons given for his choice don’t make a lot of sense to me, because I have no recollection of doing any of those things for the king. But then the king sheds some light on his choice: “whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.” “I get it,” you say to yourself, but when he speaks to my group gathered here on the left, surely he will have some good news for us as well.
The king’s brow is furrowed, and it seems his mood has changed, and then he says: “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ Then [I] answer and say, ‘Lord, when did [I] see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer [me], ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And [we] will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
All of this is hypothetical for us, but it wasn’t hypothetical for the Scribes and Pharisees who heard Jesus speak, and in the very next chapter they conspire against Jesus and plan on having Him arrested, and we know where that leads. Like the Pharisees we need to see ourselves not as the privileged class who go through all the expected religious motions – Mass, rosary, devotions – for Jesus is telling us in this parable that unless we are like Him who is in solidarity with the hungry and thirsty, the aliens and the strangers, the immigrants and the oppressed, the poor and the downtrodden, the tax collectors and sinners, we stand a good chance of standing on the left side of Jesus in the Last Judgement, the side that “goes off to eternal punishment.”
Jesus’ intention is never to scare His listeners into doing what is right. He invites us to follow Him, to love and serve Him, and to love and serve those who He is close to. Jesus knows that encounters with the poor and disenfranchised enlarge the hearts and broaden the minds of the givers, for solidarity makes us all more human. In the words of Pope Francis, may we all have enough “smell of the sheep on us” that when it is time for our Last Judgement, we will be sent to God’s right side, where we will inherit the kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the world.