I think back, not to 1926 when this feast of Christ the King was instituted but over the years which I have been celebrating the feast, the liturgy has gradually shed its triumphalism and militarism. We do not march into the feast of Christ the King with trumpet blasts and drumbeats but with the Son of Man’s words about his identification with the poor and needy echoing in the ears of our heart. The pilgrimage of the Church year we have made with Matthew’s Gospel this year leads us to the last and defining Gospel about entrance into the Kingdom of God where those who have been a blessing to others now receive the definitive blessing of the inheritance of the kingdom.
For whom have the blessings of the kingdom been prepared by the Father “from the foundation of the world?” They are the people who have responded with merciful love and hospitality to the needs of others, just as Jesus did. We often see some of them on TV screens or in the newspaper in situations of disaster. But such people are also walking our streets in less spectacular and tragic circumstances. The needs they meet are listed for us today in this Gospel: hunger, thirst, nakedness, sickness, imprisonment: these are the needs that are representative, although not exhaustive, of universal pain and poverty.
The surprise of the parable is the surprise of the ones on Christ’s right hand, the place of honor, and their emphasis on “when was it that we saw the Lord in others?” Jesus’ face is obscured by the faces of the suffering and vulnerable ones of the world, but he is there as “Emmanuel,” God-with-us, with whom Matthew begins his Gospel and ends his Good News. He identifies himself with “the least of my brothers and sisters.” The way we serve Christ is to serve one’s neighbor-for the neighbor’s sake.
Think about how often that happens in the course of a day. Almost every day I find myself touched by the sensitivity of people to the pain of others and sometimes to my own pain. The reason we keep preaching the Gospel is so the people can make the connection with this “built in human response” and Christ’s saving servanthood. How comforting this Gospel is also to others who do strive to see Christ in others, to know that when they respond to human suffering of others they are responding to Christ.
With those on the left hand of the King, their response has been the reverse image of those on the right. Again, there is the emphasis on seeing. They respond that they have never seen Jesus in any human suffering described. The sentencing goes beyond the issue of whether one is a believer or a non- believer: if one has responded to human suffering one has responded to Christ.
At the end of the Church’s year of grace it may be helpful to take some longer reflection time to judge ourselves about our now in preparation for the not yet.
How have we fed the hungry? It is hard for us as monks to respond to the financial appeals or to be part of service organizations. But have we been able to offer ourselves to those who hunger for friendship, for a listening ear and heart? Are we ready to be Eucharistic people, broken and consumed by our service of and sacrifice for others?
Do we recognize how arid the lives of our sisters and brothers can be when they are dried up by a sense of failure and worthlessness? Can we offer them a drink of compassion and affirmation of their personal worth?
The homeless are on the streets in the thousands, and refuges and asylum seekers are seeking hospitality from oppression and injustice. If we can do nothing directly, do we support those in face-to-face ministry to them, become more informed about their plight, advocate for them by the ballot box, and pray for them? Can we see them as icons on our own inner homelessness, our sense of not-belonging, of searching for something or Someone “more?”
Exposure and nakedness are cruel human indignities. Life can be cold, not only when exposed to climate conditions or social impoverishment. Have we stripped others naked by malicious gossip or failures in confidentiality.? Do we leave relationships in bitter cold through overt or subtle humiliation, rather than clothing them with warmth and forgiving love?
We are all prisoners, each in our own way, to the reality that is sin. Some may minister with great compassion to those who are physically imprisoned, but in everyday life do we try to lead each other into freedom or lock one another out?
The sick are always with us: in our families, our communities. Do we care for them, visit them? Do we fail to recognize them as “sacraments” of our own mortality?
When Jesus finishes this parable, he has nothing more to do than to show himself for the last time as Messiah of both the word and deed. Immediately after the parable, the Shepherd King goes forth to his passion, for the love and salvation of humanity leaving us to extend his reign by the daily deeds of loving service to our sisters and brothers.