Solemnity of Christ the King – November 22, 2020
Saint Peter’s Cathedral, Scranton
On 27 March, at the height of the first wave of the pandemic that continues to ravage our world, Pope Francis prayed for the well-being and salvation of suffering people throughout the world. You may recall that he did so in an empty Saint Peter’s Square, in the pouring rain, under the sorrowful gaze of the Crucifix of St. Marcellus and the loving gaze of Mary, Salus Populi Romani, protector, health or salvation of the Roman People.
“In this storm,” Pope Francis said, “the façade of those stereotypes with which we camouflaged our egos, always worrying about our image, has fallen away, uncovering once more that (blessed) common belonging, of which we cannot be deprived: our belonging as brothers and sisters.”
For all of the burdens that these past months have laid upon our shoulders, if we have been careful enough to reflect upon them, we will undoubtedly have come face to face with some of life’s ultimate realities. Despite all of our abilities to master so many aspects of our world and our lives, life is precarious – we’re vulnerable – and we are all ultimately at the mercy of God.
We don’t often talk about such realities, do we? And given today’s gospel and liturgical celebration amid this global pandemic, we may very well find ourselves a bit uncomfortable reflecting on judgment and death, not to mention pondering on what’s in store for each of us when we pass from this world into the next.
If that’s the case, we’re in good company. The fact is that the gospel from Saint Matthew that we just heard proclaimed on this great feast of Christ the King is the only description of the Last Judgment in any of the gospels. Yet, despite our uneasiness, given its timeliness, let’s reflect a bit on Jesus’ message to us today about life, discipleship, judgement and our salvation.
While of course we’re saved by the mercy of God and our faith in Jesus Christ, the same Jesus in today’s parable reminds us that judgment is linked to the pattern of our lives, which authenticates our faith. It certainly seems to be the case, then, that the degree to which we will be at peace in eternity is rooted in a reality of life that is both disarmingly simple yet the very essence of the Christian message.
In his vision of the final judgment, Matthew presents Christ as the king who sits in judgment – but more like a shepherd who separates sheep from goats. And in that moment of judgment, precisely who Jesus has been and continues to be throughout his life and ministry comes to the fore. Jesus, yet again, reminds us of how God has chosen to work and be present in our world and where God can be found.
If we seek to encounter God in our lives – yes, pray – yes, listen to God’s word in the scriptures – yes, receive the Lord Jesus in the sacraments – but recognize that this body of believers that we know as the Church – is also where the Lord can and will be found. It’s no surprise that as he speaks of judgment and how we have engaged the presence of God in our lives and lived as his disciples, Jesus clearly and unequivocally identifies himself with the poor and broken in today’s gospel of the final judgment.
Suddenly, our place in eternity is gauged less by our ability to articulate the nuances of what we believe as Christians. Instead, compassion and charity become the standards for determining our entry into eternity. Our place in God’s kingdom is determined by our ability to reach beyond ourselves to bring justice, peace and reconciliation into the lives God weaves into our own. … Who would ever imagine that God would link such basics of life – food, drink, and welcome – to our final judgment? Yet, recall today’s gospel, “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 clothes me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”
For as simple as the basis for our judgment may be, however, it is likely more challenging for me and each of you than we might imagine. In spite of our confession at the beginning of this and every Mass – forgive me Lord “for what I have done and what I have failed to do” – most of us likely feel that we are doing enough in this complicated world by simply avoiding evil as our ticket into eternity even if, in the process, we fail to go the extra mile to do the right – the good.
Today’s familiar and somewhat disturbing parable reminds us that it is not so much what we do that will do us in, but what we do not do.
Pope Francis put today’s gospel challenge into stark perspective in his recent encyclical, Fratelli tutti. “Belief in God and the worship of God are not enough to ensure that we are actually living in a way pleasing to God. A believer may be untrue to everything that his faith demands of him, and yet think he is close to God and better than others are. The guarantee of an authentic openness to God, on the other hand, is a way of practicing the faith that helps open our hearts to our brothers and sisters. Saint John Chrysostom expressed this pointedly when he challenged his Christian hearers: ‘Do you wish to honor the body of the Savior? Do not despise it when it is naked. Do not honor it in church with silk vestments while outside it is naked and numb with cold’.”
Brothers and sisters, the opportunity to live this gospel – to face our judgment with hope – and to serve Jesus abounds in our midst every day. As we reflect upon how we have been blessed by God, may we pray for the courage to live as Jesus lived – to give away what we’ve been given – to serve one another generously – and so prepare our way to an eternity of peace.