Sermon: Christ the King (A)

Mt 25.31-46
23 Nov 2014

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Today is the last Sunday of the year, liturgically speaking. Next Sunday is of course the first Sunday of Advent, and we will begin our joyful preparation for the celebration of our Lord’s Nativity, and annual pilgrimage of grace, ever ancient and ever new, will begin again.

Advent, the beginning of our liturgical pilgrimage, is about preparation, expectation – but today, this last Sunday of the year, is about consummation, completion, fulfillment – an end attained.  And this Sunday is set aside by the Church as “Christ the King Sunday.” Or, more properly, the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.

This feast was proclaimed in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. And done so in the face of the growing totalitarian claims of the secular state. Pius looked about him and saw what was happening in Italy with the rise of Mussolini, and he looked across Europe and saw the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, and in the face of both Fascism and Communism – opposite sides of the same statist coin – Pius proclaimed this great feast, and by it proclaimed that Christians are citizens of another and eternal country, and the allegiance claimed by any and every earthly state is relativized by, conditioned by, and actually absolutely trumped by the claims of King Jesus and the rights of the Church. And also, for us citizens and subjects, that the allegiance we pledge is always “under God” and the judgement of Christ the King.

Christ the King – who reigns now by his Spirit in our hearts, who reigns now by his law of love and gospel of grace preserved and proclaimed in and through the Church, and whose reign will one certain and great day be fully realized among us, fully consummated among us. When, as we have heard in this Gospel lesson, the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, [and] will sit on his glorious throne – and all the nations will be gathered. That coming and great day when his will will “be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

This Feast of Christ the King reminds us of all that – not as an abstraction to be filed away until this same Sunday next year, but as a present truth, a fact to understand and reckon with for the every day ordering of our lives. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” is as much, actually more, about what happens or should happen today, than as it about what will one future day be the case.

So what does the reign of Jesus and our subjection to his coming kingdom mean? After all, times have changed. We don’t call Jesus “Lord” in the face of absolute and even divine claims by some emporer off in Rome, nor beneath the crushing yoke of fascist or communist statism. Which is not to say that we don’t yet have the need for serious and sustained political witness and, in some cases, even resistance – we do, as events here in South Carolina just this past week should have reminded us. But we find ourselves, and gratefully so, in what is, still and all, a democratic republic.

And yet…we have our own rivals to King Jesus. Pius XI was defending human dignity against the encroaching claims of the state through fascism and communism, but there was also in the air another threat to the faithful, another “ism” in the air.  This was not a statist threat so much as an individualist, voluntarist threat, a cluster of error which Pope Leo XIII, writing in 1898, called “Americanism.”

Now, that’s a long and complicated story, but one writer very briefly summed up the issue this way:

One set of condemned ideas concerns ranking natural virtues above supernatural ones, along with a division of virtues into “passive” and “active” that gives preference to the latter as more suited to modern times [And what could be more American than esteeming the active over the passive virtues?]. The Pope says this fosters “contempt … for the religious life” and the disparagement of religious vows.

Turning to the origins of Americanism, Leo XIII says it reflects a desire to attract to the Church “those who dissent.” Central to it, he adds, is the idea that the Church … must “show indulgence” to new opinions, including even those that downplay “the doctrines in which the deposit of faith is contained.”

Leo XIII’s reply is that how flexible the Church can and should be is not up to individuals but rests with “the judgment of the Church.” Opposing this orthodox view, he notes, is the modern error that everyone could decide for himself, inasmuch as the Holy Spirit today gives individuals “more and richer gifts than in times past” — no less than “a kind of hidden instinct” in religious matters.

Well, what can we say – the more things change, the more – and the more intensely – they stay the same. Just the week before last, at the USCCB meeting, the bishops received a report concluding a three-year study of the opinions of a cross-section of Catholics.

“They feel completely Catholic even while disagreeing with the Church. We often heard ‘the Pope is entitled to his opinion’,” … “They agree to disagree with the Church” Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami stated,

So, not fascism or communism, but Americanism – me, and what makes me feel good, and as for the things that don’t make me feel good, well, the Pope is entitled to his opinion.

Too often, we approach the Faith in good, modern American fashion: as shoppers – and, we implicitly presume, the customer is always right, our desires and feelings self-validating. What Leo XIII called Americanism is really a manifestation of contemporary consumerism – which unites Democrat and Republican alike – but applied to religious and spiritual matters.

All of which is only to point out, as was made plain in this morning’s gospel, that it shall not be so – is not so – among the subjects of Christ the King, who are even now being formed into the image of their King.  And Jesus is not a shopper, a consumer, but rather a Giver who takes the form of a servant, a Lover who gives himself to be consumed.

And he reigns – not as some gold-bedecked and besotted monarch, but as hungry and thirsty, alone and unclothed, sick and imprisoned, a scarecrow king nailed to a cross. And his subjects, being conformed to him, are not shoppers, they are givers, not because they are of superior and more generous moral fiber by nature, but precisely because in their need, in their poverty, they have received grace, and that has changed them.  They have learned to receive, and so learned the value of passive and active virtues alike, which makes them docile, tractable subjects, who pay their tribute, honor and adore their King, by serving not themselves but the least of his brethren.

And, in point of fact, that is how they may, and one great day will be, distinguished as his subjects – not how they become his subjects, which is by his grace, but the sign that they are his subjects, which is their gratitude.

Their passport, our passport – is love: love in the Name of the King who first loved us. The King who saw us poor and miserable, and then laid aside his divine rights, and became one with us, for us – to exchange our poverty and misery for the riches of his grace, and the wonders of his love. The King who calls his subjects “friends,” and seeing them – seeing you and me this morning – hungry and thirsty, gives himself, his Body and Blood, to be consumed. The King of Love whose glory is the cross, the King of Love who is coming.

In the meantime, charity begins at home. Let us love him, by loving one another. Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus.

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