Sunday of Christ the King: Shepherd and Savior

van eyck adoration

 EZ 34:11-12, 15-17; PS 23: 1-2, 2-3, 5-6; 1 COR 15:20-26, 28; MT 25:31-46

We come at last to the final Sunday of the year, Christ the King.

Year B, next year, when we read through Mark’s Gospel, the Gospel for this feast will be from John: Pilate asks, “are you the king of the Jews?” And Jesus responds, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (Before Vatican II, this was the reading for the feast every year.)

Year C, in Luke, we read, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” But the good thief says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

His kingdom is not what we expect.

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This year we read the final words of Jesus’s preaching, the end of Matthew’s magnificent Fifth Sermon. We begin with kingly grandeur and judgment: Jesus tells his disciples, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another.” Christ the King!

But the story quickly takes a strange turn. First, “he will separate them one from another . . . as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” The King is a shepherd . . . .

And then it gets stranger. Judgment seems appropriate to this king of glory: “the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ . . . ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

But then he explains his judgment. “For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.” It’s quite a list. I must visit prisoners? Bad guys?

The Tradition, of course, takes these words with dreadful seriousness, and is full of St. Martin’s giving their cloaks to the naked Christ. (Even a boring saint like Thomas Aquinas was said to do this frequently.)

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The sheep and the goats each ask the same question: “When did we see you?” And they get the same answer, “What you did . . . .” In his most distressing disguises, it is hard to see Jesus. He asks us to serve him anyway.

But why? How does all this fit together? What do filthy prisoners have to do with Christ the King?

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The reading from Ezekiel gives an answer in metaphors. “I myself will look after and tend my sheep,” says the Lord. “The lost I will seek out.”

We have seen this theme several Sundays this year. “To the merciful I will show myself merciful.” In our acts of mercy we recognize his mercy. The problem with saying to the prisoner, “you are a lost cause, not worth my time,” is that we are a lost cause, not worth Christ’s time.

In stooping to the poverty of others, we recognize that he stoops to our poverty. In refusing to stoop, we refuse to acknowledge that he stoops. We deny his love, his mercy, his generosity. Deny it also by thinking we have to be stingy: any time I say I don’t have enough to share – enough money, enough time, enough energy – I deny also that the Good Shepherd provides for me.

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Ezekiel gets strange. “The sick I will heal,” says the shepherd, “but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. . . . I will judge between rams and goats.”

What is the difference between sheep and goats? The sheep follow the shepherd: they go where he goes (even to the lowly), and they receive their food from him (and not from their own strength).

“The sleek and the strong” could also be translated “the greasy and noisy” – and then it sounds more like goats. But perhaps the deeper difference is that they have no need for a Shepherd.

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Our reading from First Corinthians explains more directly. At the Resurrection, “in Christ shall all be brought to life.” The deeper question of Christ the King is whether we receive all from him, whether we are “those who belong to Christ,” or more simply, just “those who are of Christ.” In him is life. Without him is death.

And therefore he will “destroy all sovereignty.” Those who think they are mighty cannot abide the way of Christ: cannot follow the shepherd, cannot receive life from him.

This is what we live out, in our acts of mercy or our refusal of mercy. Will I follow the one who stoops to seek the lost? Will I receive from the one who provides for my hunger and visits me in my sickness?

Where does your life call you to acts of mercy? Can you see the provision of the Good Shepherd there?

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion: Your King Comes

Giotto, The Entrance Into Jerusalem

Giotto, The Entrance Into Jerusalem

MT 21:1-11; IS 50:4-7; PS 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24; PHIL 2:6-11; MT 26:14-27:66

The readings for this Sunday are long. We’ll just pick out some key themes.

This Sunday is called “Palm Sunday of Our Lord’s Passion.” Mass opens, of course, with the procession of the palms, and the Gospel that describes it (this year, from Matthew 21). The Liturgy of the Word culminates with the reading of the Passion (this year, Matthew 26-27). We thus get the beginning of Holy Week, Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem, tied together with the culmination, the Passion, though in the story, as in the week, there are several chapters in between.

At the heart of Jesus’s triumphal entrance are the words from the prophet Zechariah. “Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” (Oddly, there are distinctly two animals. Sometimes the Fathers of the Church like to notice the strangeness, the mystery of these readings.)

The story revolves around this welcoming of the king. Jesus sends his disciples into the village to find the animals, telling them to say, “the Lord has need of them.” (The translation this Sunday will say “master,” but the Greek word is Kyrios, Lord.) Just as in the reading of the Passion, they are told to say, “The teacher says, ‘My appointed time draws near; in your house I shall celebrate the Passover with my disciples.’” Jesus is Lord and King over his disciples, and Lord and king over the unknown people who are providing for him.

And the people spread out their garments, saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” They too welcome him as king.

But in both situations, what kind of a king? Meek, and riding on a beast of burden. A different kind of king.

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The reading from the prophet Isaiah underlines the difference of this kingship. The prophet asks for “a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word of comfort,” and “ears that I may hear.”

The reading culminates in him saying, “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.” It is here, in fact, that we get our deepest scriptural warrant for imagining that Jesus wore a beard: he is the one whose beard is plucked.

To be a follower of this king will not bring power and prestige. He demands a new kind of obedience. An obedience that leads us to speak comfort to the weary. The King of Love demands tribute not of gold, but of mercy, of being poor among the poor, of loving those who have nothing to give in return (including the nasty people we might have to work with). To follow the king who rides on a beast of burden means that we, like him, must be willing to suffer.

But it is not suffering that we seek, but those who suffer. Jesus comes to be with those who are wounded, and calls us to do the same. Our beards will be plucked because the world can’t stand what it cannot own; the world is troubled by a different way of being, a different scale of values. In this world, to love is to suffer.

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But it is also to be cared for. “The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced.” If the suffering Lord calls us to suffer, it is because he also joins us in our suffering. “I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” If he is for us, who can be against us?

The very dramatic Psalm 22 begins “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” But God himself takes up this cry; Jesus joins us in our weakness. And so even the Psalmist continues to praise God. He experiences the apparent abandonment of suffering, but he knows he is never abandoned. The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced. I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.

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And then in the great Christ hymn of Philippians, we hear that Jesus himself emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. The hymn emphasizes his obedience, “obedience to the point of death.”

“Every knee should bend . . . and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father,” because he is the kind of king who joins us in our weakness. The kind of king who deserves true obedience and love.

This is the attitude we are to take to the long reading of the Passion, and the events of this holy week.

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How could you know Jesus better as the meek king, the shepherd who suffers for his flock?