Matthew 25:31-46, Solemnity of Christ the King
Were you expecting to hear about crowns, processions and majesty in our readings for today’s Solemnity? Why is it that it is all about sheep? Because Christ’s kingship is modelled on God’s kingship, which is that of a Shepherd King. In the British countryside the sheep are left to fend for themselves. In the difficult terrain of Palestine, however, a shepherd must always be on the move to look after the flock, to stop them falling over a cliff or stave off attack from predators. Their shepherd must constantly walk. Allow me to look at three aspects of how this Shepherd King walks with us.
Pope Francis’ favorite image ever since whenever he would talk about the Christian and the Church is that of walking. This is the first image which has been originally captured by our Church’s word ‘synod.’ It has been used since the first centuries. The Greek word συνοδοσ comes from two Greek roots: συν (with), οδοσ (path). It connotes “walking together” on the same path. Pope Francis stressed that synodality “is an essential dimension of the Church” in a sense that “what the Lord is asking of us is already in some sense present in the very word ‘synod’.” In his address to the clergy in Assisi, he said, “What could be more beautiful for us than walking with our people? It is beautiful!” He talked about a parish priest who knew not only the names of his parishioners but also the name of each family’s dog. During this pandemic, social distancing does not mean no more walking. It is more apt to call it as physical distancing because we are still social. I admire our brothers and sisters around the world who are walking in front in order to guide people, in the middle, through online means, in order to encourage and support, and at the back so that no one lags too far behind, to keep them united as a flock. Even as we do all these, let us never forget to walk with Christ. The Shepherd King is always leading the way. During Pope Francis’ first mass with his fellow Cardinals on the occasion of his election on March 14, 2013, he said in his homily, “We can walk as much as we want, we can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, things go wrong. We may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of the Lord…. The Church herself could be washed away … if she is not based on Christ, if she seeks any other basis, even the basis of good works. Only when based on Christ can she stand secure. Otherwise she crumbles away under the pressures of the world.”
Second, here let us ask ourselves how do we walk with the Shepherd King? At Jesus’ march into the city where he would be enthroned, it is not a majestic entry but a paradoxical one. Jesus enters the city of his execution which we commemorate during Palm Sunday. This is very much characteristic of a Shepherd King who walks even towards dangerous frontiers for the sake of his flock. Are you going to continue walking with him there? It is not a walk in the park but in Calvary towards the cross. There was a young man who once said to Jesus, “Jesus, I’ll follow you wherever you go,” Christ answered, “The foxes have their holes, the birds of the air their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus was telling the young man, “If you want to follow then be prepared to live my life and drink the cup of suffering with me.” I remember a retreatant who was sharing about how unbearable the suffering has become these days. At times she finds herself at the brink of giving up. In our spiritual direction, I walked with her by allowing her to cry her heart out to God. Suffering in general is part of life whether with this pandemic or without. Jesus did not promise to take away suffering. Often the question, “why is there suffering?” is a pointless one. You just have to go and walk through it. And that is precisely what Jesus came to do. We can say that suffering could serve as the very touchstone of our Christian life. We experience God’s redemption through suffering. If you do not buy this, do not worry, the apostles did not buy it either, at first – the Christian paradox that surrender is victory. Take it or leave it: To surrender to the pandemic means to conquer it. Charles de Foucauld said, “Not by his words or his works, not even by his miracles, but by his cross.” Jesus conquered evil by surrendering to it in love and obedience. Can we walk with Christ these days just as he walked towards Jerusalem to the place of his passion and death? In the words of the apostle Thomas, “Let us go to Jerusalem and die with Him.”
Third and final aspect, when we walk with someone, what takes place inside? Let us look at the compassion of Jesus in his words, ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ The mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “You may call God love, you may call God goodness, but the best name for God is compassion.” He knows what hurts the human heart and God weeps with us when we are hurt. This is how Jesus as Shepherd King fully embraces us. He walks with us in every human struggle. There is nothing that Jesus does not understand about the heartaches throughout human history. Τhat is why when no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was found worthy to open the scroll of human history or to examine it. He came to be with us and to seek us out like the image of a ferocious lion from the tribe Judah. When life seems like a never ending dark night we cry out with Jeremiah, the crying prophet and say, “Enough already! Leave me alone in my melancholy,” our Shepherd King replies, “I will not leave you alone. You are mine. I know each of my sheep by name. You belong to me. If you think I am finished with you, if you think I am a small god that you can keep at a safe distance, I will pounce upon you like a roaring lion, tear you to pieces, rip you to shreds and break every bone in your body. Then I will mend you, cradle you in my arms and kiss you tenderly.”
Finally, let me end with an excerpt from the homily of Pope Francis for Solemnity of Christ the King of the Universe and Closing of the Jubilee Holy Year of Mercy on November 20, 2016. I quote, “The Christ of God, the Chosen One, the King” (Lk 23:35,37) appears without power or glory: he is on the cross, where he seems more to be conquered than conqueror. His kingship is paradoxical: his throne is the cross; his crown is made of thorns; he has no sceptre, but a reed is put into his hand; he does not have luxurious clothing, but is stripped of his tunic; he wears no shiny rings on his fingers, but his hands are pierced with nails; he has no treasure, but is sold for thirty pieces of silver. Jesus’ reign is truly not of this world (cf. Jn 18:36); but for this reason, Saint Paul tells us… we find redemption and forgiveness (cf. Col 1:13-14). For the grandeur of his kingdom is not power as defined by this world, but the love of God, a love capable of encountering and healing all things. Christ lowered himself to us out of this love, he lived our human misery, he suffered the lowest point of our human condition: injustice, betrayal, abandonment; he experienced death, the tomb, hell. And so our King went to the ends of the universe in order to embrace and save every living being. He did not condemn us, nor did he conquer us, and he never disregarded our freedom, but he paved the way with a humble love that forgives all things, hopes all things, sustains all things (cf. 1 Cor 13:7). This love alone overcame and continues to overcome our worst enemies: sin, death, fear.” Amen.
*image from the Internet