Solemnity of Christ the King
Of King & Subjects, Shepherd & Sheep
Of King & Subjects, Shepherd & Sheep
Readings: Ezekiel 34:11-12,15-17; Psalm 22:1-3,5-6; 1 Corinthians 15:20-26,28; Matthew 25:31-46
Pictures: cc Ha-Wee
Sisters and brothers, as you know, this Mass is often referred to as the Children’s Mass. The reason is obvious. Many little ones come to this Mass. We even have a Liturgy of the Word designed specially for them. But isn’t it also true that we could just as easily call this Mass a Parents’ Mass? After all, the children don’t come here on their own, do they? At least I hope not! Invariably, the parents tag along as well. It’s sort of like a package deal. Sort of like a bottle of two-in-one shampoo. And not only do parents and children come together as a package, but it’s also true that we can’t truly understand what it means to be a child, without also considering what it means to be a parent. We can’t fully grasp the experience of parenthood, without also considering the experience of being a child. Parenthood and childhood are not separate things, standing alone by themselves. They are relationships. And because they are relationships, we cannot truly understand one without also considering the other.
It’s especially important to keep this in mind today. For as we bring our liturgical year to a close–next Sunday is already the 1st Sunday of Advent–we are invited to meditate on the meaning of the kingship of Christ. As we approach the end of the year, we recall what we believe will happen at the end of time. And our second reading tells us that, when that day comes, Christ will be made king over all. For everything is to be put under his feet. But what do we mean when we say that Christ is king? What sort of kingship does he exercise? Is he like Bhumibol Adulyadej, the king of Thailand? Or Jigme Wangchuck, the king of Bhutan? Or is he perhaps more like Elvis Presley, or Michael Jackson, or Eminem? Kings of rock or pop or (what is it called again?) hippity hop? What do we really mean when we say that Christ is king?
This is the question that our Mass readings invite us to ponder today. And, as it turns out, kingship is not unlike parenthood. It is not a thing separate and standing alone by itself. Rather, it is a relationship. As such, we cannot truly understand what it means to be a king, let alone submit to a king’s authority, without also considering what it means to be a subject. King and subject. Today our readings invite us to ponder these two sides of a single relationship.
What does it mean to be king? Both in the first reading and the psalm, we’re presented with the moving image of a good shepherd. We’re told that the kingship of Christ is a reign of care and compassion. Like a conscientious shepherd watching over his flock, so too does the Lord care for us, his sheep. Not only does he stand up in the middle of his scattered sheep, keeping all of us in view, but he also guides us to fresh and green pastures and streams of restful waters to revive our drooping spirits. He is careful even to ensure that every individual sheep is looked after according to its particular needs. The sick have their wounds tended to. The healthy are cared for so that they do not fall ill.
If this is how Christ exercises his authority as king, then we become authentic subjects of his–we truly submit to his reign–only to the extent that we are willing to behave like members of his flock. Only to the extent that we are willing to become his sheep. To hear and to follow his voice as he leads us to pasture. To submit to his healing hands, as he binds our wounds and keeps us safe from harm.
But, as we may well know from bitter experience, this is not as easy as it sounds. For there are many other voices competing with the shepherd for our attention. Voices that claim to offer us true happiness. But when we allow ourselves to be seduced by them, we often find, to our great dismay, that these voices lead us not to refreshing streams, but to stagnant pools of muddy water, unfit to drink. We may expend much time and energy, for example, slaving to build a career for ourselves. Only to find, later on, that the gratification brought by the money we make, or the positions we attain, cannot quite fill the gaping hole in our lonely hearts. We meet many different people everyday. We may even have thousands of friends on Facebook. And yet, we find it hard to connect with just one other human person in a meaningful and fulfilling way. We live with our family under the same roof. But we struggle to find quality time to spend with them. We fiddle daily with the newest most advanced gadgets, devices that keep us connected to the world 24/7. And yet, we still can’t escape the haunting feeling of being disconnected, of being isolated, not just from others, but even from ourselves. Who am I, really? For what or for whom do I live my life? Why am I so deeply unhappy?
It is especially to those of us who may find ourselves in such distressing circumstances that our readings today offer much needed consolation. If the world does not fulfill you, then come to Christ, the Good Shepherd. Heed his voice. Become his sheep. Let him lead you to where you need to go.
But that’s not all. There’s something more in our readings today. Something deeply surprising. What is it that distinguishes the sheep that belong to Christ the Shepherd-King? What is it that sets them apart from all others? In the parable that Jesus tells in the gospel–the parable of the Last Judgment–what is the distinctive characteristic that separates the sheep from the goats–those on the right side from those on the left? Quite amazingly, the true sheep of the shepherd are those who have themselves acted, not just as sheep, but also as shepherds. In a mysterious way, they who are sheep have actually cared for the Chief Shepherd himself. For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome... And they have managed to do this–to shepherd the Chief Shepherd–by showing compassion to those around them who are most in need. In so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.
The implication for us is clear. We only become true sheep of the shepherd’s flock, true subjects of Christ’s kingdom, to the extent that we ourselves are willing to care for the least ones in our midst. Not just those whose stomachs need to be filled, but also those who long for a listening ear and a reassuring touch. Not just those imprisoned behind bars of iron, but also those bound by various addictions. Not just those afflicted by diseases of the body and the mind, but also those who have fallen victim to the illnesses of society–to selfishness and greed and apathy.
Sisters and brothers, like parenthood and childhood, the king and his subjects, the shepherd and his sheep, come as a package deal. We can’t become one without also experiencing the other. We can’t be true sheep without also learning to be shepherds.
How willing are we to heed the call of Christ the Shepherd-King today?