To Reign is To Serve, Solemnity of Christ the King (A), November 20, 2005

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Christ the King, Year A
November 20, 2005
Ezek 34:11-12, 15-17; 1Cor 15:20-26,28; Mt 25:31-46

1) Today the Church celebrates with great joy the Solemnity of Christ the King. It is the last Sunday of the liturgical year and, in many ways, the culmination of everything we have marked up until now — the goal of Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, Pentecost and Corpus Christi and of all the Sundays and feasts throughout the year. They have all pointed toward this reality, that Christ is the King of the Universe, the Lord of all, the judge of the living and the dead. All of time, all of history, is heading toward this climax when Christ will be revealed as the universal King of Kings.

2) As I think about Christ in his regal glory, and the joy of the angels and the saints who surround him, the beautiful finale of Handel’s famous “Hallelujah” choruses swell up within me, as the proper image of what the whole chorus of the earth sings today in unison:

“Hallelujah! (10x) … For the Lord omnipotent reigneth. … Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! (5x) … The kingdom of the Lord is begun, the kingdom of the Lord and of his Christ. … And he shall reign forever and ever! (4x) … King of Kings — forever and ever, Hallelujah! Hallelujah! — and Lord of Lords — forever and ever, Hallelujah! Hallelujah! (3x) … King of Kings and Lord of Lords… And he shall reign forever and ever! (2x) … King of Kings — forever and ever, Hallelujah! Hallelujah! — and Lord of Lords — forever and ever, “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! And He shall reign forever and ever! King of Kings and Lord of Lords! And he shall reign forever and ever. Forever and ever. Forever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”

3) Yes, the Lord is king and he shall reign forever and ever! The angels in heaven, as we see in the book of Revelation, now stand around his glorious throne and say, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” We might think that this type of jubilant praise is precisely what the Lord now wants on earth from us to mark this reality. But he wants something more.

4) For to Christ, “to reign is to serve” (Lumen Gentium 36). He left his heavenly majesty, and, as St. Paul tells us, “even though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave and being born in human likeness. He humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8 ). Christ’s whole kingship is caught up in this service. As he himself said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, to give his life as a ransom for the many” (Mt 20:28 ).

5) That’s why, on this great solemnity, the Church has us focus first on King’s service to us under another image and reality — that of our Shepherd. In the first reading, the Lord tells us through the prophet Isaiah: “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out… I will rescue them — and he means you and me! — from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. … I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak. I will feed them with justice.” In the responsorial psalm, we respond to this kindness of the Lord with some of the most famous words of all time: “The Lord — the Universal King — is my SHEPHERD. There is nothing I shall want.” We express our confidence that with him, we lack for nothing, we have it all. He leads us by restful waters, refreshes our souls, anoints our head with oil, and fills our cup to the brim. Even though we walk in the scariest and darkest pits of life, we fear no evil, for he is with us, conforting us with his strong staff and rod. As long as we’re with him, only goodness and kindness will follow us all the days of our life; as long as we stay close to him, we shall dwell in the Lord’s house for millennia to come! In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus would take this reality of his shepherdly service to the extreme, when he said, ““I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11). Jesus loved us so much that he came down from heaven to seek us out when we were lost, to take us back to his fold, and to die for us so that we might not die eternally, so that we might always remain with him in the verdant pastures of heaven. This is our king! As a modern composer wrote in a hymn, paraphrasing today’s Psalm, “The King of Love my Shepherd is!”

6) For Christ the King, to reign is to serve. Today, on this his great solemnity, he turns to each of us and says, “Come, follow me!” The best way we can give him homage, the best way we can enter into his kingdom, is to put into practice his example and reign with him by serving with him. He said this during the last supper, when he got down to wash all of the filth off of our feet and told us he was doing this as an example, so that we might do the same for others (cf. Jn 13:15). That’s why today’s Gospel makes so much sense. He tells us that when he comes as King to judge the living and the dead, we will be judged on the basis of our actions of loving service. For us to “inherit the kingdom prepared for [us] since the beginning of time” — his kingdom — we need to spend our time here on earth reigning with him in service. At our judgment the king will separate us into two groups, as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. He will place his sheep — the saved — on his right and the goats — the damned — on his left. Then he will say to those on his right, among whom, God-willing, we will be: “For I was hungry, and you gave me food; thirsty and you gave me drink; naked and you clothed me; a stranger and you welcomed me; ill and you cared for me; in prison and you visited me.” Those on his right will respond, in effect, “Lord, when did we do any of this for YOU?” And the King will reply, “Whatever you did for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me!” Jesus did not mean to give us an exhaustive list of good deeds. He gave us merely six simple actions that any of us can do. But he told us that whatever we do out of love for another he takes personally. If we wish to serve and honor him, the means is by serving and honoring him in the disguise of the hungry, the thirsty, naked, poor, afflicted, imprisoned, persecuted, those in need in any way.

7) The Lord tells us, however, that it is possible to fail the exam of life. Those who do will hear those horrible words which must have broken his shepherdly and sacred heart to say, “Depart from me you accursed into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” These people are the ones who fail to serve Christ in others. These are not necessarily the people we would call evil. To some, they might even seem holy, those who would seem to do anything for the Lord. By their question to the King in today’s parable — “Lord, when did we see YOU hungry, or thirsty, naked or a stranger, ill or in prison and not attend to your needs?” — they imply that had they known it was the LORD they would have spared no effort. But because all they saw was a “nobody,” they did nothing. This is why they were not accounted one of the Lord’s sheep at his right, but rather a goat at his left, because they did not listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd and follow him (Jn 10:27) when he said, in his great commandment, “love ONE ANOTHER as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). The great test of our love for God is our love for each other, especially those people who are hardest to love. Dorothy Day, the American founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, once said, “We love God to the extent that we love the person we like the least.” We love God to the extent that we love a poor hungry beggar, or a homeless drunk, or a felon on death row, or an AIDS-infected drug user, or an illegal alien. Obviously the ten commandments fit here as well. We honor God to the extent that we honor our parents and dishonor him when we dishonor them. When we hate anyone, we hate God. When we’re unfaithful to a spouse, we’re unfaithful to God. When we use another, or kill another, or abort another, or deceive another, or rob another, we’re doing that to Jesus.

8 ) The great question for us this morning — the single most important question of our life — is whether we have been serving or ignoring Christ in our brothers and sisters. Christ the King gives us this very clear message in today’s Gospel out of his shepherdly love for us, so that like good sheep, we may “hear his voice and follow him,” by putting this message into practice. The last thing the King wants to do is to judge us. In St. John’s Gospel, he tells us that he came to save us, but that we will essentially judge ourselves by our actions, by whether or not we conform our actions to his word. He says, “I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge” (Jn 12:47-48 ). The judgment will be nothing more than a revelation of how we have used our freedom to live by Jesus’ words, how we have chosen to love Jesus or to reject Jesus directly or in disguise. Jesus tells us all of this now so that we might use that freedom to learn to reign with him by serving, by loving others as he has loved us.

9) When we examine our consciences on the basis of today’s Gospel, probably most of us can recall those times when we really have lived up to our call as Christians to serve the “least” of our brothers and sisters with Christ-like love. But we can also recall some explicit occasions when we stiffed a homeless person, or were cheap to a missionary, or refused to open our heart to a family member or colleague who really needed our assistance. We are also aware that, like those in the Gospel, there are countless times that the Lord will show us when we didn’t ever realize what we were doing or to whom we were doing it. How will they stack up? Will the pluses of loving deeds outweigh the minuses of selfish omissions? Sometimes we can get caught up in this type of calculus, as if God is a pedantic accountant. But that is not what the Lord wants us to do. If we’ve committed sins in the past, he wants us to make a good examination of conscience and a good confession, full of sorrow, so that we can receive the mercy that flows from his shepherdly heart. Then he wants us to get practical, to develop those means, so that we can learn how to love as he loves and come one day to his eternal gloriously scarred right side.

10) Today’s Gospel — and the practice of a great modern saint — provide us a great clue about how to do that. Those on Christ’s eternal left likely would not have failed the test of love had they seen Christ in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the lame, the leper, the unwanted, the scorned, the handicapped, the other. If they had seen Christ in them, then, they imply, they never would have failed to take care of his needs. I think they’re on to something really important. The more aware we are of the presence of Christ, the greater we will love and the less we’ll ever be attempted to sin. After all, if we could physically see Jesus asking us for something, who of us would refuse? How do we do that, though? Blessed Mother Teresa, perhaps the greatest saint of our lifetime, dedicated her entire life, and the mission of her community, to “quenching Jesus’ infinite thirst,” to serving him in the “distressing disguise” of the poorest of the poor. She began with those abandoned to die in the sewers of Calcutta, and spread that mission to all the abandoned and neglected throughout the world. The only way, she said, she could recognize Christ in the disfigured and distended faces of the ill and the dying was if she “zeroed in” on his face in prayer. At the beginning, she had her community do a holy hour every day. The more she looked at Jesus in the Eucharist, the easier it was to see him in others. But she soon started to see that one hour was not enough, because by the end of the day, she was failing to sense the Lord’s apperance in the gruesome sights and foul odors enveloping the ones brought to her Home for the Dying. So she and her sisters determined to do three hours of prayer each day, which is what they still do today, even here in New Bedford. The only way that they could see Christ in others was to contemplate him in the Mass, in Eucharistic adoration, in prayer. If we focus on Christ’s presence under the appearance of bread and wine, and give him the homage and the love that he is due, then it becomes so much easier to recognize him under the human disguise of a brother and a sister. And the more they allowed Christ to give them his body to quench their hunger and his blood to quench their thirst, the more capable they became of giving their body, blood and lives to quench His in the person of their brothers and sisters.

11) The same helpful message is proclaimed by the enormous, beautiful stained glass window of Christ the King in our south transept. Here we see Christ the King in the center, with his scepter of gold in his right hand. All the angels surround him with praise. The Father and the Holy Spirit, above him, point him out. Various saints who have brought his good news to the world — St. Francis Xavier, St. Jean de Brebeuf, St. Peter Chanel, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha — are shown on the side panels, bringing people from every nation and race to adore him. Pope Pius XI, who inaugurated this feast of Christ the King in 1925, and Pius XII, his secretary of state and successor (who was Pope when this window was installed in 1952), along with Fall River Bishops Feehan and Cassidy, are all present, too. They’re all adoring Christ the King, not in his image of eternal glory, but in the monstrance containing the King in the disguise of the Eucharist right below Christ in glory. That’s the point that our ancestors wanted us to capture, that to join the angels and the saints in heaven, to enter into the heavenly court of the King of Kings, begins with coming to Christ the King in the Eucharist, and like Mother Teresa, learn from this King of Love how to reign by serving. This is the path to his eternal, glorious right. This is the path to heaven. That is the way to hear those words for which Jesus formed our ears in the wombs of our moms years ago, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father! Inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world!”