The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Christ the King

Today, on this last Sunday of the liturgical year, we turn our minds and hearts to Jesus, to Christ the King. It's especially appropriate that we do so today as we look toward Advent, anticipating that season when we are called by the Church to meditate on both the Incarnation and the Second Coming of Jesus. Yes, we will celebrate His first coming as the helpless infant who humbled Himself to become one of us, but we will also celebrate that day when He will return in glory to judge the world and bring all things to their fulfillment.

The following is the homily I gave today -- my thoughts on this solemnity of Christ the King:


Back in the mid-sixties, several of my classmates and I were invited to be escorts at a debutante ball in New York City. It was a very posh affair, held at the Waldorf Astoria, and we felt like fish out of water, like party crashers, since we had absolutely nothing in common with most of the people present. After a while we concluded that we'd been invited only because we were Naval Academy Midshipmen and someone thought we'd make a nice scenic backdrop standing around in our full dress uniforms.

It wasn't a particularly fun evening, but it was interesting, seeing how the other two percent lived. I can't recall much about it now, but I do remember that at one point in the evening, they presented each new debutante, presumably signifying her entrance into polite society. What amazed me at the time was that several of them had royal titles, with really terrific names like...Princess Beate Amanda von Hapsburg Johnson of Vienna and Brooklyn. Countess Margarite von Keutel Schmidt of Hungary and West Hempstead.

Everyone seemed suitably impressed. And these young women looked truly elegant in their long gowns and tiaras as they glided across the ballroom floor. But as I watched, I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for them. For they were royals without a realm, remnants of royal families who had long ago been stripped of their kingdoms, their power and their palaces. All they had left were their titles -- titles that signified nothing but a seemingly desperate attempt to hold onto a world that no longer existed.

If there's one thing that history tells us, it's that kings and queens and kingdoms and empires come and go, sometimes quietly, but often violently, in the midst of revolution and war. For the kingdoms of this world, like all human institutions, are transient. They certainly can’t be counted among what T. S. Eliot called the "permanent things."

And yet today the Church celebrates a King and a Kingdom that are permanent, an eternal Kingdom that will outlast the world itself. During the past twelve months the liturgy has led us from Advent and the world’s expectation of a Savior, to His arrival among us as a helpless infant, through His ministry, His passion and His death, to His resurrection and His return to the Father. Then, beginning with Pentecost, we experienced the Church’s pilgrimage as it awaits Christ’s final coming in glorified splendor.

And so today, on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, we celebrate the very pinnacle of salvation history, when all that is, ever was, and ever will be is subjected to Christ’s rule. As usual, St. Paul says it best in today's second reading: "...then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to his God and Father, when he has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.When everything is subjected to him..."

For there can be only one eternal King, and all human authority must be subjected to Him. This is why the Church celebrates the feast of Christ the King when it does. It not only brings the movement of salvation history to a decisive end, but also presents us with something wonderfully new...because God's Kingdom is a kingdom like no other. “My kingdom does not belong to this world,” Jesus told Pilate.

Exactly so. For Jesus brought His kingdom into this world. Indeed, that he came to establish a Kingdom was clear from the beginning of His ministry. He affirmed it openly and unequivocally. Read the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” Then reread the Gospel parables in which Jesus reveals its mysteries. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…like leaven…a treasure hidden in a field…a merchant in search of fine pearls…a net thrown into the sea.

Yes, Jesus' Kingdom is not of this world…but it’s certainly in this world. It’s in the Church He founded. It’s in each one of us who bears witness to the truth of God’s revelation. His Kingdom isn’t a place. It’s a people: God’s people of faith responding in obedience and love to the will of their King…a King who owns us body and soul, who purchased us on the cross with his blood.

And what kind of King is Jesus? Well, I’ve always liked the prophet Ezekiel’s answer to this question. It’s among the earliest portrayals of God as a shepherd lovingly tending His flock. "I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered when it was cloudy and dark...I will give them rest…The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal…" Yes, Ezekiel tells us, we have a loving God, a God who cares deeply about every aspect of our lives.

But Ezekiel doesn’t stop there, for our King is also a judge. "…the sleek and strong I will destroy…I will judge between one sheep and another, between rams and goats..." – words echoed by Jesus in today's reading from Matthew’s Gospel.

Yes, He will judge us all. And I suppose the outcome will depend on the extent that we acknowledge Jesus as Lord, when, in faith, we do the Father's will. Empty words mean nothing. How did Jesus put it? “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father.”

How often do we plead with God to save us, and yet remain indifferent to His Will? God’s not looking for words; He’s looking for conversion. But conversion can occur only if you and I freely allow God’s grace to shape our wills to His, only if we allow Christ the King to rule over us.

You see, God calls us to obedience, but never forces Himself on us. He lets us decide whether to serve Him or reject Him. In effect, God places the keys to His Kingdom in each of our hands. And what does He call us to do? Nothing less than His work, the work of the shepherd. Even as He hung on the cross, dying, Jesus was both good shepherd and king, loving and forgiving the thief hanging by His side and inviting him into the kingdom. Pilate had that sign tacked to the cross for one reason only: as a not so subtle way to ridicule both Jesus and the Jews. How ironic that a thief, seeing that sign over Jesus’ head, should be moved to plead: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

For Jesus suffered and died for us all, not just for a select few. Everyone, no matter how sinful, how separated from God, remains a child of God, a product of His infinite love. You see, Jesus is telling us that we can't separate God's two great commandments. When we love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, we must also love each other. To deny one is to deny the other. To ignore this truth is to run the risk of one day hearing those forbidding words, "Depart from me…For I was hungry and you gave me no food, 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."

In a few moments Father will recite the Preface of Christ the King which affirms a “kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.” This is the kingdom we are called to serve.

The question is: are we willing to serve, to carry the Word of God to an unbelieving world?

Are we men and women of truth, conformed to God’s Will and faithful to His commandments and to the teachings of His Church?

Does Christ our King truly live in us? Will the grace we receive today in the Eucharist transform our minds and hearts, making us into new creations?

Can we put aside the pragmatism of human justice and accept God’s perfect justice into our hearts?

Do we shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, visit the lonely, the sick, the imprisoned? Are we fathers to the fatherless? Mothers to the motherless?

Is our love for one another as outstretched as the arms of Christ on the cross?

God knows, I am not accusing you. For my own answers to these questions only show me how far I am from the kingdom.

And so, brothers and sisters, until the king returns in glory, we all have a fair amount of work to do.

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