Ezekiel 34, Psalm 100 (Catholic: Psalm 23), Ephesians 1:15-23 (Catholic: 1 Cor 15: 20-28), Matthew 25:31-46
1925. In the wake of an unimaginably destructive World War, surrounded by rising totalitarian powers, and as the “civilized” military nation-states partied their way toward financial ruin, Pope Pius declared a new feast in honor of Christ the King, a celebration intended to habitually remind Christians of their primary and ultimate allegiance.
2008. In the (we hope) waning months of a disastrous war, surrounded by accelerating world divisions, and as the “developed” military nation-states prop up a teetering world financial system, Christians liturgically re-member their primary and ultimate allegiance. Now observed by many Western Churches (though often renamed “Christ’s Reign,”) the Sunday has become, in the words of one blogger:
…the day when Episcopalians and Methodists celebrate a 20th-century Roman Catholic feast by singing a hymn (All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name) written by a particularly obnoxious Baptist (Edward Perronet–ex-Methodist and all-out dissenter who launched vicious attacks on John Wesley). In other words, a truly ecumenical occasion.
I needn’t rehearse Sunday’s gospel; we’ve all heard it often enough to imagine knowing it by heart. In this post-election secular season, when I’m increasingly uncertain about nearly everything and more unqualified to play exegete than usual, I’ll just make a few observations.
The king isn’t elected. He’s king, literally by divine right, surrounded by angels and sitting on his throne. I’m fairly confident my priest will once again remind us this Sunday that “we need to use other metaphors for God” in an age when monarchies and patriarchies have no purchase on the imagination. I’m not so sure. In fact, the primary theological problem now and at any time in my life is that God is God and I missed the vote. In the same way, I find myself wincing when, in the Lord’s Prayer, we say, with feigned disregard for our own desires and plans, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” Creation is no democracy. I have to remind myself that’s a good thing.
Gathered before Him are all the nations. All pretenders to earthly sovereignty will be judged, from the most powerful government to the least person. I suppose that’s a good thing; at least we’re all in this together.
Neither the sheep nor the goats knew what they were doing. Cognitive awareness of serving the Lord appears irrelevant in this account of salvation. Perhaps that’s why, four chapters earlier, Matthew’s Jesus announces, “tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom before you.” Now substitute “tax collectors and prostitutes” with the object of your own righteous anger – and please, be brutally honest with yourself. Doesn’t feel that good, does it?
In Matthew’s gospel, the “Great Judgment” story is followed immediately by Jesus telling his disciples, “…the Passover is coming, and the Son of man will be delivered up to be crucified.” Christ’s Kingdom has no Department of Homeland Security or Defense, no FBI and no CIA. In Bonhoeffer’s words, “When Christ call a man, he bids him come and die.” We’re all going to die, some more faithfully than others. Good news or not, a lifetime may be insufficient to learn so hard a lesson.
The Sunday following this one is the First Sunday in Advent, the start of a new church year. Jesus is coming. One day, perhaps, I’ll be graced to truly desire the coming of God’s kingdom, to recite the Shema Yisroel without crossing my fingers, to pledge my full allegiance to the One on the throne. Until then, I’ll need a lot of help, some good examples, an occasional word of encouragement. We’re all in this together – and that’s a good thing.