Homily delivered to the English Church in Villars, Switzerland.
Sunday, 19 November 2018. Feast of Christ the King.
The Feast of Christ the King was established in 1925 by Pope Pious XI in the Catholic Church and later adopted by the Anglicans and other protestant groups. While it may be a late addition to our western liturgical calendar, it is still both a helpful and powerful holiday.
It is an important time to mark because we arrive this evening, the final Sunday of our liturgical year, to something of a crossroads, a meeting point of beginnings and of endings. Of judgment and nativity. Of resurrection and advent. Of being found and being lost. The Feast of Christ the King brings us face to face with a specific incarnational reality that shapes both where we have come from this year, and how we can prepare ourselves for the next one we are about to enter.
In celebrating this feast, Christ becomes not simply a personal saviour. We are called to recognise him this day as the enthroned ruler of all reality. Our faith becomes much more than pious thoughts, a single prayer, collection of beliefs or hope that we will end up on the right side of the afterlife. No, our faith is to be perceived within the context of a Kingdom that has arrived. Of a ruler that has taken his throne. All of the Gospel’s discussions and parables of what it means to find and enter the kingdom of heaven are suddenly and frighteningly in focus and relevant.
Throughout this season of Ordinary Time we have been following the Gospel according to St. Matthew, examining how Christ’s teachings continually forced his followers, and critics, to rethink the typical way of things. Through this establishment of Christ’s “kingdom thinking”, the Jewish leaders have been working to trap him in a political or religious misstep. But through their attempts, Christ continually both escapes their trap and provides sharp critique as to who are the truly righteous in God’s coming kingdom.
This discourse is concluded in Matthew with the dramatic story of the sheep and the goats, the final judgment. God is enthroned as judge, and all of humanity is divided up as either sheep or goats based on a certain criteria that come as an unexpected surprise down both sides of the judgmental division. It is a difficult story to hear. It feels uncomfortable, strange, and has less of a pithy and simple lesson as some previous parables. This, I believe, has caused us to pacify the story with ideas that we feel work better for us in today’s modern and enlightened society.
The easy way to approach this story in our world today is as a mighty call to social justice. That we as good Christian’s who claim Christ’s love will be out on the front lines: feeding the poor, taking care of those less fortunate than us. Serving in tangible ways that can improve the lives of our neighbours. It sounds, and is, a noble call. This is not at all untrue or un-Christian.
But in our present society, I fear this is perhaps an almost easy escape. From what could have at one time been a powerful and deeply reflective passage may today almost seem to be an easy tick box. From soup kitchens to automatic, monthly donations to the very structure of our governmental institutions, we have well embraced as a society what it means to care for the poor. Collectively, we are not perfect, but neither are we all that bad at the task.
This is the danger. A division of sheep from goats followed by a simple listing of ways to help people provide for us something concrete and measurable that we can feel capable of working toward. It seems we could almost tackle the issue head-on in some type of committee meeting. “Let’s just harness the grassroots power of social media and improve our understanding of big data. With the right people, in a few election cycles, we could reduce the poverty rate by 23.7% in urban areas when mean income sits below one standard deviation of the norm.”
Loving the poor, check.
Feeding the hungry, check.
As good as these things may be, and as much as we are in fact called to do and be such things, this alone is not what it means to celebrate Christ’s enthronement as King. The Christ we have encountered in Matthew this season is not a Messiah who is content with people who are capable of checking a few boxes, even if it does do some real good. The Jewish leaders had already perfected this strategy.
To pressure ourselves with such a limited reading of this passage could even do more damage. A few years ago there was a book going around in some circles entitled, “When Helping Hurts” and it worked to demonstrate that a lot of the classic ways Christians seek to minister to the poor, can in the end do more harm than good. From short term mission trips in the third world to other one-off charity events, the dangers of helping without any real knowledge or understanding of complex sociological and psychological situations can actually work to perpetuate cycles of poverty, or even cause us to view others as projects rather than people. We walk away, then, with an inflated sense of self gratification and a long list of ticked faith boxes.
What, then, do we have to do to understand the implications of this story in a way that does not make it so easy for us to feel we have done our duty, safely counted amongst the sheep of heaven? If we recast this story in the context of today’s Feast Day, recognising Christ’s enthronement in the world and in our lives, I believe we can make some progress toward understanding this startling and surprising story in a much fuller context.
Christ’s words of judgment, “As you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me,” is not simply a cute parallel to demonstrate that Christ cares about other people. This story and Christ’s words are a unique and practical application of God’s incarnation.
Christ is uniquely present in this story. Yes, he is the enthroned judge, but his is also the afflicted: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. This is not just another parable of humans trying to figure out how to access the kingdom; God himself is present here.
While we may celebrate the more magnanimous and glorious names of Christ, it is precisely by becoming incarnate as a human, by taking on the identity of all these broken and painful conditions that Jesus redeems and becomes humanity’s Saviour through each and every point. Through his discussion on this passage and interpretation of St Augustine’s writings, the late Orthodox priest Thomas Hopko describes Christ’s brokenness and redemption of each condition.
Hungry in the desert of temptation, Christ becomes the bread of life.
Thirsty on the cross, Christ becomes the fountain of living water.
Estranged and rejected by his people without place to lay his head, Christ brings all home to the heavenly house of the Father.
Naked in the manger and on the cross, Christ clothes all with himself in the pure robes of salvation.
Wounded, bruised and beaten, Christ becomes the great physician and healer.
Imprisoned as a criminal and forsaken by his disciples, Christ proclaims freedom to the captives and forgiveness to the sinner.
In this way the significance of caring for the poor is not just because it is right and good from a moral point of view but because Christ has in reality become all of these things. Christ is the hungry. Christ is the thirsty. Christ is the stranger. Christ is the naked. Christ is the sick. Christ is the imprisoned.
The proper recognition of Christ’s incarnation is critical in our understanding of the final judgement, because through the Eucharist we partake of this incarnation. When we partake of Christ in the Eucharist, it is in this spirit that we sacramentally identify with him in all the ways that he identified and became like us. We feed on him in our heart by faith and with thanksgiving.
In fact, in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI wrote an exhortation entitled, “Sacramentum Caritatis” meaning the Sacrament of Charity. In this he writes,
“In the Eucharist Jesus also makes us witnesses of God’s compassion toward all our brothers and sisters. The eucharistic mystery thus gives rise to a service of charity towards neighbour, which consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, affecting even my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ.”
He then continues,
“Our communities, when they celebrate the Eucharist, must become ever more conscious that the sacrifice of Christ is for all, and that the Eucharist thus compels all who believe in him to become ‘bread that is broken’ for others, and to work for the building of a more just and fraternal world. Keeping in mind the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, we need to realise that Christ continues today to exhort his disciples to become personally engaged: ‘You yourselves, give them something to eat.’ Each of us truly called, together with Jesus, to be bread broken for the life of the world.”
Central to our salvation is not just that we care for the poor and broken, but that we identify with them; that we see Christ in them. That we love them in the truest and deepest sense of the word. And the poor, hungry, thirsty and naked, these are not just the others down the street. Some group in a distant country. They are part of us. They are with us and around us. This also is why our charity is not just a simple tick box, a donation.
How often are the “strangers” that other Christian group with whom we would rather not associate? How often are the hungry those who sit alongside us in Church? This image of the last judgment is about how we relate to every, singlehuman. No matter where, how or what condition we find them. As the story makes clear, it does not even matter whether we know it or not. Both the sheep and the goats each ask, “Lord, when did we see you?”
The point Christ makes with his body and his blood is that we are to see him in everyone.
Our celebration then of Christ’s enthronement this day is the ultimate realisation of the story. When Christ is seated on his throne, we are judged by his very presence because he is the very presence of the least of these. It is Christ’s enthronement as King that allows us to actually feed the hungry and welcome the stranger, because we do so in the name of one who has been them. Who has been us. This is how we enter the kingdom, how we truly celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. How we pray for the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
And so we stand at the crossroad of this great and final feast. The beginning and the ending of our liturgical year. On one side we see Christ enthroned and the final judgment of his presence in our lives. We see Christ in the prisoner, and we see the prisoner in us.
But on the other side of the crossroad, down toward the valley, we see the work that lies ahead. We see with the prophetic words of Ezekiel, in the distance a shepherd who is seeking out his flock. The shepherd who seeks out those in need of rescue on the day of clouds and thick darkness.
We see with clarity now. We are the sheep. We realise on this day of enthronement, with both roads open before us, that we are the hungry, thirsty, naked and lost. The shepherd who is seeking us, we realise, will become these things for us, just as we will become them for the whole world.
The Shepherd becomes the lamb of God for his sheep.
As we stand at the crossroads, at the judgment, at the entrance to a new year let us call to mind all those times we have not ministered to our Christ. When we have ignored him in our neighbour. When we have refused communion with him as the stranger, even as he seeks us.
“And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravens, and in all the inhabited places of the country. . . 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.”
We stand today at the crossroads of two great prayers, the cry of Advent, “Come quickly Lord Jesus” and the great exclamation of our enthroned King, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.”