Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Solemnity of Christ the King: The Readings


Congratulations, everyone!  God has seen fit to let us live to complete another liturgical year!  We have journeyed with Our Lord from his birth through his ministry, passion, death, resurrection, and into the growth of the Church and the spread of the Gospel to all the nations.  Now, at the end of the year, we reflect on the Final Judgment, when Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, will pass sentence on each and every human being, establishing justice, punishing evil and rewarding love and self-sacrifice.  The Feast of Christ the King is a profession of our faith that ultimately there is a moral standard to the universe, that all is not in flux or random, that the Good, the True, and the Beautiful triumph in the end over darkness, ugliness, and selfishness. 

Our First Reading comes from Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17:


Thus says the Lord GOD:
I myself will look after and tend my sheep.
As a shepherd tends his flock
when he finds himself among his scattered sheep,
so will I tend my sheep.
I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered
when it was cloudy and dark.
I myself will pasture my sheep;
I myself will give them rest, says the Lord GOD.
The lost I will seek out,
the strayed I will bring back,
the injured I will bind up,
the sick I will heal,
but the sleek and the strong I will destroy,
shepherding them rightly.

As for you, my sheep, says the Lord GOD,
I will judge between one sheep and another,
between rams and goats.

Ezekiel is my favorite prophet, and the one I know the best.  This weekend, in fact, on the Saturday before Christ the King, I’ll be presenting a scholarly paper on Ezekiel 40-48 and it’s relationship to the Pentateuch.  In any event, Ezekiel 34-37 is a discrete unit within the Book of Ezekiel, from which our Reading is taken.  I call these four chapters, “Ezekiel’s Book of Comfort,” and in many ways they are parallel to Jeremiah’s similar unit, Jeremiah 30-33.  In both cases, the prophet devotes an extended amount of text to the description of the coming New Covenant (or in Ezekiel’s terminology, “covenant of peace”) and its economy (i.e. arrangement).

Much of Ezekiel 34 is devoted to a condemnation of the leadership of Israel and Judah, both past and present.  Ezekiel denounces the “shepherds” of God’s people who did not put foremost the welfare of the sheep, but rather their own profit and pleasure, killing and abusing the sheep in order to enrich themselves. 

In the ancient Near East, the image of king as shepherd of his people was very common, and it is used, for example, of King David (2 Sam 5:2).  Ezekiel 34 has in mind some of the evil descendants of the Davidic line, as well as various other royal officials who took advantage of their power.  Ezekiel 34 stands as a perpetual warning against selfishness and self-centeredness among those who have responsibility for the leadership of God’s people.

On behalf of the LORD, Ezekiel promises that the day will come when God himself will come down to shepherd his people.  This was, in fact, God’s original plan at Sinai: a theocracy, or direct rule by God.  Due to the hardness of their heart, Moses allowed the people to choose a human king (Deut 17:15ff), an option they invoked much later in their history, under Samuel (1 Sam 8).  David eventually became king, and he was a man “after God’s own heart,” and God granted him a perpetual covenant of kingship (2 Sam 7, Psalm 89).

What of Ezekiel’s promise that God himself would one day be shepherd of his people?  Is this a revocation of the promise given to David?  No, because in a passage skipped by our First Reading, God promises to restore David to the throne: “And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (34:23).  Curiously, God promises “I myself will be shepherd of my sheep” (34:15) but also “My servant David … shall be their shepherd” (34:23) yet there will not be two shepherds, but “I will set up over them one shepherd” (34:23).  How is that going to work, O Lord?  Only if God and David become one shepherd, one person.  That is the hypostatic union.  That is Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man: king because he is divine, and king because he is the Son of David.

Responsorial Psalm Ps 23:1-2, 2-3, 5-6:

R/ (1) The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
In verdant pastures he gives me repose.
R/ The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
Beside restful waters he leads me;
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me in right paths
for his name's sake.
R/ The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
You spread the table before me
in the sight of my foes;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
R/ The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
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.
R/ The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.

Psalm 23 was well-known already in Ezekiel’s day, and Ezekiel 34 employs imagery from the Psalm.  This beautiful poem was recited by the ancient Israelite worshiper who entered Solomon’s Temple to sacrifice to God and pray.  It has remained a favorite of the people of God into the New Covenant era.  Among the Church Fathers, together with the Song of Songs it served as one of the primary texts to use for mystagogy or sacramental catechesis.  In this Psalm, the Fathers saw images of the Sacraments through which Jesus shepherds us as his sheep.  So the “restful waters” that “renew the soul” are Baptism, the “verdant pastures” and “table set before me” is the Eucharistic banquet, the “head anointed with oil” is Confirmation and Anointing of the Sick, etc., all of which lead us to eternal life: “I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever (Heb. ‘for length of days,’ i.e. indefinitely, forever).”  The whole relationship with the Lord is covenantal: “only goodness (Heb. tov) and mercy (Heb. hesed, covenant fidelity) shall follow me all the days of my life.”  Psalm 23 already anticipated the New Covenant and the intimacy of the believer with God through Jesus Christ, who touches us physically in the sacraments.

Reading 2: 1 Cor 15:20-26, 28

Brothers and sisters:
Christ has been raised from the dead,
the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
For since death came through man,
the resurrection of the dead came also through man.
For just as in Adam all die,
so too in Christ shall all be brought to life,
but each one in proper order:
Christ the firstfruits;
then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ;
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,
then the Son himself will also be subjected
to the one who subjected everything to him,
so that God may be all in all.

St. Paul reflects on the kingship of Jesus Christ.  Jesus has already conquered death in principle, through his own resurrection.  Twice St. Paul calls Christ “the firstfruits,” and there is liturgical significance of this statement: the Feast of Firstfruits celebrated the beginning of the harvest, and was held on the day after the Sabbath of Passover Week, i.e. the Sunday after Passover.  This, of course, was the day on which Jesus rose from the dead: the Sunday after Passover, Easter Sunday.  Jesus rose on the Feast of Firstfruits, the firstfruits of the dead.  Jesus is the first to experience his resurrected body, but all who are united to him will also experience the transformed body at the “final harvest,” the end of time. 

Christ is King and in the end of time will remove all competing human authorities, until “all things are under his feet”, a reference to the “Son of Man” from Psalm 8:

3 When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
the moon and the stars which thou hast established;
4 what is man that thou art mindful of him,
and the son of man that thou dost care for him? 
5 Yet thou hast made him little less than God,
and dost crown him with glory and honor. 
6 Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands;
 thou hast put all things under his feet

Psalm 8 was originally composed by David as a thanksgiving for the royal status God had granted to David.  The hyperbolic poetry of the Psalm, however, better fits David’s divine son, Jesus Christ.

When Jesus has established his perfect reign over the universe, he hands all things to God the Father.  There is a reciprocal relation between the Father and Son: they do not compete for kingship but share it.  So Father and Son sit on the same throne (Rev 3:21).

Modern society has for the most part given up hope that there is meaning to life and some kind of good resolution to the story of humanity.  Bill Nye the science guy sums up current attitudes at an address he gave to the American Humanist Association a few years ago:

I'm insignificant. ... I am just another speck of sand. And the Earth really in the cosmic scheme of things is another speck. And the sun is an unremarkable star. Nothing special about the sun. The sun is another speck. And the galaxy is a speck. I'm a speck on a speck orbiting a speck among other specks among still other specks in the middle of specklessness. I suck.

What a wonderful attitude.  That’s where Western civilization has arrived.  But against this, the Catholic Church still proclaims: everything is significant.  We come from love and are headed to love.  There will be a final judgment and ultimate justice.  The kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of Christ.

Our Gospel is Matthew 25:31-46:

Jesus said to his disciples:
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory,
and all the angels with him,
he will sit upon his glorious throne,
and all the nations will be assembled before him.
And he will separate them one from another,
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the king will say to those on his right,
'Come, you who are blessed by my Father.
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
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.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say,
'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
or thirsty and give you drink?
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,
or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And the king will say to them in reply,
'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did
for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left,
'Depart from me, you accursed,
into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
For I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was 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.’
Then they will answer and say,
'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison,
and not minister to your needs?’
He will answer them, 'Amen, I say to you,
what you did not do for one of these least ones,
you did not do for me.’
And these will go off to eternal punishment,
but the righteous to eternal life."

This Gospel Reading is one of the most sobering in the Lectionary, not the least because it implies that those who face Christ at the final judgment may be surprised at the sentence awaiting them.  Actually, both the sheep and the goats seem not to realize their true spiritual standing, whether that is righteousness or wickedness.  So we need to make a serious examination of conscience.

The criteria by which the Son of Man makes judgment is based on “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine.”  We generally assume that this refers to acts of kindness to the poorest of the poor.  However, we can’t jump to that conclusion immediately.

The first and primary sense of this text is Christ’s unity with his members, that is, which his Church.  The point of the parable is: the nations are judged based on how they treated Christians, those identified with Christ.  The meaning of Matt 25 is similar to Acts 9:4: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Jesus says to the pre-conversion St. Paul.  Persecution of Jesus’ disciples is persecution of himself.  Therefore, the first level of meaning of Matt 25 here is that Jesus regards the least service done for one of his disciples—the “least of my brothers”—as service done to him.

By extension, there is application to the poor, because we do not know the identity of Jesus’ brothers.  Among the poor, the marginalized, and the downtrodden may be many who are “brothers of Christ.”  So we must assume that all persons are brothers of Christ either in spe (in hope, i.e. potentially) or in re (in fact).

So yes, by all means every one of us needs to make an examination of conscience on whether we are doing anything to alleviate the suffering of the poor, the hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, among us.

However, this Gospel text speaks especially to the situation of the “brothers of Christ” who undergoing persecution even now at the hands of communists, Muslim extremists, and others around the world.  We think of the abused, displaced, and imprisoned in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and elsewhere.  Where is justice?  Do lies triumph in this world?  No, says our Gospel.  Injustice is ephemeral and passing.  All in this world will give an account of how they treated the mystical body of Christ.  And we ourselves will give account, first of all, on what we have done to alleviate the suffering of those who share with us the communion of saints; and then also, the suffering of the poor generally.

2 comments:

thecommonlanguage said...

Yep, that's it. Thanks for this. Am praying for you and the others this long weekend to come, so that your works with His sword bring glory to Him, the one absolutely true God who saves and heals. You all are our warriors. Many blessings.

heidi keene said...

Dr. Bergsma,
You pointed out that both the elect and the damned in the parable seem to be shocked or show that the sentence is not what they thought it would be.
I never saw that, yet it is most significant.
Also, I never saw the sense of the text being a unity of Christ with His members.
That insight will help me double up my efforts to remember the souls in purgatory.
Thank you for enlightening us through tsp!
And again, a wonderful exegesis with spiritual insights. Makes for great mediations.