Even though only the liturgical year is drawing to its conclusion presently, many of us will not be unhappy to see the old year pass, filled as it was with disaster after disaster – political, weather-related, scandal-ridden, and terrorist-driven. A surging stock market hasn’t made it feel much better, except possibly for mega-billionaires, hedge-fund managers, and bank CEOs. Advent, a season of hope, begins soon. We could all use some hope.
Today, the Feast of Christ the King has taken the place of the 34th Sunday of the year (once called the 22nd Sunday after the Octave of Trinity Sunday or the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, if you are keeping track). Previously celebrated on the last Sunday of October, today’s feast was moved after the Second Vatican Council as part of a joint ecumenical recalibration of the calendar, not least because Reformation Sunday was observed
on that day by many Protestants. Now, thanks to the Revised Common Lectionary, most mainline Christian communities are literally on the same page, happy to say.
Although images of Christ the King antedate the Middle Ages, the liturgical feast was instituted only in 1925 by Pope Pius XI to counter what he considered the growing threat of secularism and atheism. It doesn’t seem to have worked very well. And there are fewer monarchies than ever – about 25, all told.
Historically, people have as a rule considered kings to be a pretty miserable lot. Only a handful are remembered favorably with positive epithets such as the Welsh King, Hywel the Good, Good King Wenceslaus, or Louis the Pious. Much more common are titles such as Ethelred the Unready, Ivan the Terrible, or even Charles the Bald. (I’m not making that up; he was the son of Louis the Pious and the grandson of Charlemagne.) Even fewer were saints, such as Wenceslaus, Edward the Confessor, and Louis IX. And for what it’s worth, there are more sainted Queens than Kings. So when early Christians called Jesus their King, they were saying something far more revolutionary than it might seem to us today, when kings and queens tend to be political decorations, media personalities, and amiable layabouts.
Actually, Jesus himself seemed to be allergic to the title. Matthew’s gospel begins and ends with Jesus as the unlikeliest of kings – the tiny unknown King of the Jews sought by the Magi and then by Herod, and, at the end, a crucified imposter with a mocking indictment nailed over his head. And this is the great divine irony of it all. So you may find our readings today to be a little puzzling.
Of the three sets of readings for this feast, which ends the liturgical cycle, this year’s is the least regal. The first reading is mainly about farm animals — but the clue comes in the last line, when God, the Shepherd of Israel, says through Ezekiel, “Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, rams and he-goats.” For ancient kings were also judges, if few were any good at it. Solomon was the exception, not the rule.
Sheep-and-goat imagery is found elsewhere in the bible, but this passage may be where Jesus found the allusion in today’s gospel. Jesus then speaks of the Son of Man as a King, judging the peoples of the world justly. Although it now passes us by without making even a mental ripple, the abrupt shift from “Son of Man” to “King” in the third verse is strange, because Jesus rejected efforts to make him a king or even to consider him a king. The supreme insult leveled at him by Pilate was the taunt, “Behold your king!” And the sign placed on the cross, “King of the Jews,” was both the warrant for his execution and a humiliating bit of mockery.
So the mention of the Son of Man exercising the judgment of a king at this point in Matthew’s gospel, just before the passion narrative, is doubly ironic and very important. For if Christ is a king, it is certainly not as this world recognizes kingship, then or now.
That might help us citizens of one of the world’s oldest surviving republics (next only to San Marino and Switzerland) to warm a bit to a title we have rejected as a suitable form of government. For Jesus’ kingship is as alien to the regal pretensions of ancient and modern rulers as his teaching about the Kingdom of God is opposite to common notions of power and might. This is brought out in his judgments, just as Ezekiel focused on the weak and weary, the oppressed and injured: “I will seek the lost,” God says, “and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy; I will feed them in justice.” So, too, the Son of man will require of those on his right and his left how they regarded the plight of the wretched and miserable. The judgment is automatic. The sheep and the goats have already been divided. They did it themselves: ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.’
In the end, Paul tells us, when Christ “has put all his enemies under his feet,” and the last enemy to be destroyed is death, when all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will deliver the kingdom over to God, having restored all things to their rightful balance, that God may be everything to everyone. This, truly, is the end of the world — a world that exalts might over right, wealth over compassion and justice, and beauty and fitness over the gift of life itself.
The credentials necessary for admission to God’s realm have not changed from the time of Ezekiel or Jesus: to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to provide shelter for the homeless, to clothe the destitute, to visit the sick and imprisoned. Jesus says nothing about merely sending an annual check to the United Fund or the Red Cross. He talks about actively tending to the needs of the unfortunate and desperately needy. If the nightly news broadcasts can be proud of anything, it’s the occasional feature about ordinary people doing extraordinary things for those in dire need. There’s nothing fake about that.
So today, as the Church’s year draws to a close, and as we ponder images of ultimate reckoning under God’s judgment, let us pray that our actions, not merely our words, will identify us as loyal subjects of the one and only true King.