Monday, November 24, 2008

Christ the King

Our Lord Jesus Christ the King

Reading 1: Ezekiel 34: 11-12, 15-17
Reading II: 1 Corinthiansm15: 20-26, 28
Gospel: Matthew 25: 31-46 (Inherit the Kingdom).

Today's feast of Christ the King marks the end of the church year. Although Christians have always believed in the Kingship of Christ, the feast is a relatively recent one dating only from 1925. At a time when the very idea of Kingship was on the way out, the Pope chose to emphasize the Kingship of Christ.The Second Vatican Council reemphasized the importance of the feast when it moved it from the last Sunday in October to the very last Sunday of the church year.

Naturally, the theme of today's readings is Kingship. The first reading from the prophet Ezekiel compares the role of a leader to that of a shepherd. The reading makes clear that a true king exists to serve his people, and not to be served by them.

Thus says the Lord God,
I myself will look after and tend my sheep.

In America we have never been partial to kings or the idea of Kingship. We pride ourselves on being a government "of the people, for the people, and by the people." It wasn't only that our founding fathers revolted against King George III of England but their aversion to kingship went even deeper.

Kings were supposed to be God's divinely appointed representatives on earth. Their coronations were religious ceremonies where the new king would be anointed with holy oils by a religious leader. Political philosophers spoke of the "divine right of kings" to justify their power. Old traditions held that the King even possessed miraculous healing powers. It was believed that merely touching his cloak could cure many physical maladies.

By the time of our Revolution it was clear that most kings were not what they were supposed to be. Many had come to their thrones not by divine right or election but through violence and usurpation. Many did not behave like representatives of God especially when it came to being good shepherds. A King was supposed to be the best and noblest man in the nation but often he seemed to be the worst. Even if they started out with good intentions, power corrupted them.

But what if there was a person whose teaching was both simpler and wiser than any of the world's great philosophers? What if this same teacher was able to calm storms at sea and even walk on the angry waters? What if there was a person who did indeed possess miraculous healing powers? -- if merely touching his cloak could cure both physical and spiritual ailments? What if there was a person who could feed the multitudes not only with bread for a day but with the bread of everlasting life? What if there was a person whose power was so great that he could even bring the dead back to life? Finally, what if there was a person who rather than being corrupted by power, surrendered his own life for his people? Shouldn't we call that person our King?

Today's gospel reading from the 25th chapter of St. Matthew is one of the most famous in all of scripture. Here we have the image of our Lord in His glory, surrounded by angels, and sitting on His throne at the final or last judgement. 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.

We know the response. When the blessed ask when they did all these things, the King replies, “whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.” What a King! He does not ask us to sacrifice ourselves for Him but only to follow His example and give our lives for others. Continually in the gospels Jesus diverts our attention from Himself and tells us that we must care for others. We can only come into His kingdom if we see Him in our neighbor.

Today’s second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians seems to be all about death. St. Paul believed that originally we were not meant to die, that we had been created, every single one of us, to live forever in Paradise. But then sin entered the world and death followed sin. This is why St. Paul thought the Resurrection of our Lord was the central event in History. Our King has defeated death and because of that we can follow Him to everlasting life. We merely have to feed and cloth and visit all those who have been entrusted to our care.

The scene of the Last Judgement where the sheep are separated from the goats has been immortalized by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Even before that time innumerable churches had put this image high up in their beautiful west windows. Usually in the back of the church, the west faced the setting sun which was identified with the end of the world or the final judgement. As they left the church the congregation could look up and see the Lamb of God in the center surrounded by Apostles and Prophets representing all the blessed.

On this last Sunday of the Church year we can also look up at the Risen Lamb and think of the words from the Book of Revelation.

The Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them,
And will guide them to the fountains of the waters of life,
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Monday, November 17, 2008

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
A cycle

Reading 1. Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31
Reading II. 1 Thessalonians 5: 1-6
Gospel. Matthew 25: 14-30 (to each according to his ability).

Today’s first reading is from the last section of the Book of Proverbs and is taken from a poem which some have called the “Poem of a Perfect Wife.” Our reading calls her a “worthy wife” from the famous opening:

When one finds a worthy wife,
Her value is far beyond pearls.

Most historians would agree that sexism was part and parcel of the ancient world. Whether we’re talking about Greeks, Romans, Arabs, or Jews it was all the same, a world dominated by men. The male had absolute authority in his own household and this power extended into all of their communities whether clans, tribes, or cities.

In today’s reading, however, we get a chance to peek behind the scenes and see what actually went on in an ancient household. The picture that emerges, especially if we read the whole poem and not just the excerpts in our missal, is of a wife as business manager or chief executive. What are her duties? She gets up while it is still dark and gets the whole household moving. She feeds her employees and gives them their work for the day. She herself labors well into the night. With the household running smoothly she turns her attention to other matters of concern. For example,

She sets her mind on a field, then she buys it;
With what her hands have earned she plants a vineyard.

She doesn’t seem to need her husband’s advice or permission even when she deals in such business matters:

She weaves linen sheets and sells them,
She supplies the merchant with sashes.

Finally, at the end of the day with her household and business prosperous and in good order, she can enjoy the fruit of her hard work:

She is clothed in strength and dignity,
She can laugh at the days to come.

It is very interesting that the Church uses this account of a hard-working woman to introduce today’s gospel account of our Lord’s parable of the three servants and the talents. Anyone who reads of the works and teaching of Jesus has to realize that there is no hint of sexism there. St.Paul realized as much when he said that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. We are all one in Christ.
How many times in the Gospels does our Lord refer to Himself as a servant and insist that we must be good and faithful servants? In other words, the role of the woman in the Book of Proverbs is now the work of all of us. After all, who benefitted from the hard work of the woman in the Book of Proverbs? It wasn’t just her husband, her children, and her entire household. She also benefitted for she found peace, prosperity, dignity and honor.

Isn’t it strange that Jesus called us to be servants even though God has no need of our service? Jesus asked us to use our talents in the service of others. The servants in the Gospel parable were all given talents and asked to grow them. Don’t we admire the athletes who work the hardest to develop their God-given skills? Isn’t it a shame when we see people who bury their gifts in the ground and waste their lives in trivial pursuits?

People in business attend seminars where they learn how to treat or serve their clients. They learn how to provide good “service” not only by doing their job well but by giving recognition and rewards, especially to their best clients. If only we could apply these techniques in our own families. What if husbands and wives were to regard each other as their best clients?

It is so sad when people, especially young people, take the easy way out. So many of our children refuse to take advantage of the education offered to them today. They often brag about skipping class or not doing assignments Some even get through college without ever reading a book.

Even if we have not been given the same gifts, it is still important for us to work with what we have been given. Wouldn’t our lives be happier and better if we worked hard to develop our God-given talents? Also, let’s not waste our time by wishing we had someone else’s gifts or underrating our own? It says in today’s Gospel that each servant was given an amount “according to his ability.”

If we work hard and spend our lives in the service of others, we will be able, like the worthy woman in Proverbs, to rest easy at night and laugh at the days to come. In today’s second reading St. Paul commended the Christians of Thessalonica for avoiding the “darkness” and being “children of the light.” Still, he urged them and us to keep up the good work:

Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do,
But let us stay alert and sober.