Stained Glass Window (1939), Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church, Fairfield, CT.***
The 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 re-emphasized 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 but it is really about life. 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.
Reading 1: Ezekiel 34: 11-12, 15-17
Reading II: 1 Corinthiansm15: 20-26, 28
Gospel: Matthew 25: 31-46 (Inherit the Kingdom).
***photo by Melissa DeStefano, Newtown, CT.