Saturday, November 22, 2014

Living in the Kingdom

Only goodness and kindness follow me
all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
for years to come.
—Psalm 23:5-6

When Pope Pius XI instituted a special feast honoring Christ “the King” in 1925, he lamented a world that had been ravaged by the First World War and which had begun to bow down before the lords of exploitative consumerism, nationalism, secularism, and new forms of injustice. The old power structures in Europe and the Middle East were fading into memory (including the colonial system that allowed European nations to claim holdings in Africa, South East Asia, and South America) and a new and uncertain world was rising in their place.


Pope Pius XI opening the "Holy Door"
for the 1925 Jubilee Year,
during which he instituted
the Feast of Christ the King
It would seem that Pope Pius began to understand that, for the Christian, the passing empires and colonies did not define who or whose they were. Instead, he reflected that the kingdom to which Christians belong is “spiritual and concerned with spiritual things… it demands of its subjects a spirit of detachment from riches and earthly things, and a spirit of gentleness. They must hunger and thirst after justice and more than this, they must deny themselves and carry the cross” (from the Enclyclical Quas primas, 15). Pope Pius envisioned “a dominion by a King of Peace who came to reconcile all things, who came not to be served but to serve.” (20) The reign of Christ embraces all people (cf. Daniel 7:14; Revelation 5:9-10).

Although the annual celebration of the Solemnity of Christ the King on the last Sunday of Ordinary Time has been part of my life for many, many years, last year I had an opportunity to experience this celebration in a very different context: with a Protestant community celebrating “Reign of Christ” Sunday. Their celebration provided a new perspective on what Pope Pius XI intended when he created this feast and for what it can mean for all of us today.

The idea of a “king” is very foreign to most people. In fact, there are only 29 sovereign monarchs in the world today. (This number would be 30, if we include Pope Francis as the sovereign head of Vatican City.) And yet, in our communities, many of us will sing great hymns like “To Jesus Christ Our Sovereign King” and “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” By limiting the focus of this feast to the kingship of Christ, we risk losing the broader view of what we are really celebrating today: our citizenship in the Kingdom of God. And the message that we hear today is that we can no longer identify simply ourselves as “American,” “Navajo,” “Italian,” “Dutch,” “Sudanese,” or “Thai.” We have been claimed by and for Christ in our baptism and our true home is in the Reign of Christ—a reality that surpasses the limits of boundaries, ethnicities, and even time itself. We are co-citizens of God’s Kingdom with all of the communion of saints.

The image of the Shepherd-King that we find repeated in the Readings for this year’s celebration of the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe give us a wonderful perspective not only on the reign of Christ, but also on our place within his Kingdom. As our shepherd, Christ claims each of us as a member of his flock.
 
I was struck as I reflected on this reading by the huge amount of press Pope Francis received last Holy Thursday when he reminded the Church’s pastors that they should have the smell of their sheep (after all, pastor is the Latin word for “shepherd”). But, as I reflected on this further, I realized that it isn’t just that the pastor should have the smell of the sheep… the sheep also smell like one another. Each of us, regardless of who we are, shares a common humanity and dignity. None of us can ever be separated from or placed above any other member of the human flock. That is what today’s celebration is about. We have one home and one identity—we are Christ’s and our true home is in the reign of our Shepherd-King. The celebration of the Solemnity of Christ the King is also a celebration of who we are as a people of faith, obedient to the One who rules all of creation in justice and mercy.

In a commentary on this Sunday’s celebration, Dr. John W. Martens observed:
Part of what made the shepherd-king imagery resonate is that sheep were not primarily intended for slaughter. Although sheep were food, their true economic value was found in their wool, a renewable resource. As a result, the shepherd was concerned not only to feed, care for and protect his sheep from predators but to increase his flock. So a shepherd had to know his flock intimately and had to protect the weak and the vulnerable in his flock from internal and external threats.

This intimacy with this flock is celebrated in the texts from Ezekiel and Matthew chosen for this feast. This is the reason why the Shepherd-King can also stand in judgment, separating the sheep from the goats. As we read in Matthew, the sheep will “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” and the goats will be told to depart “into eternal fire.” Regardless of how we might understand words like “kingdom” and “fire,” the point is clear: those who will be rewarded are those who cared for the hungry and thirsty, who welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and cared for the sick and those imprisoned. Our Shepherd-King knows what is in the heart of each of us, including not only the times when we have lived up to our commitment as disciples, but also the times when we have failed to do the work that has been entrusted to us.  

"The Last Judgement"
in Ravenna's Basilica of Sant'Apollinaire in Classe (6th century)

In his book, The Dwelling of the Light, Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, shared these words:
To be in relation with Jesus is to be “in the truth,” even when we cannot formulate this in tidy philosophical language. And this also tells us that there is something in the being of God that is appropriately expressed in a vulnerable life, in the self-forgetfulness that brings ultimate truth to us in the limits of suffering and mortality. The nature of God is both irreducibly mysterious and completely expressed in God’s putting himself unreservedly at our disposal and our mercy in becoming embodied in human life.

The vulnerability and self-forgetfulness that Williams describes are the qualities of those who live in Christ’s Kingdom—his Reign—not in a hypothetical way or in some far-off future. Instead, the citizens of this Kingdom live lives that follow the pattern of the Shepherd who took on the “smell” of his sheep and who walked among them and who still walks among us.

As for the judgment and the time of separation…Saint Robert Bellarmine summarized all we need to know: “On the last day, when the general examination takes place, there will be no question at all on the texts of Aristotle, the aphorisms of Hippocrates, or the paragraphs of Justinian. Charity will be the whole syllabus.”

 
Prayer for the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe +
Almighty ever-living God,
whose will is to restore all things
in your beloved Son, the King of the Universe,
grant, we pray,
that the whole creation, set free from slavery,
may render your majesty service
and ceaselessly proclaim your praise.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

 

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