Today is the feast of Christ the King. It is a celebration of a central tenet of Christian faith: our hope of redemption is in Christ, and our hope for eternal life lies in His Kingship, ordained over the world by its Creator, His Father. There are many things to celebrate about Christ as King. We may in wonder recall His incarnation. We may solemnly remember His great sacrifice for us, the shameful death on the cross. We may rejoice in his triumphant resurrection and the promise that holds for our own future. Or we may consider His inevitable judgment on the Last Day.
Judgment: The role of Christ as the judge of mankind is frightening. We often pray at Mass, “Oh Lord, look not on our sins but on the faith of thy people,” and indeed how much we would have to fear if God justly considered our sins. The exhortations to righteousness found in the Old Testament are strict indeed. Yet the lives of the just are often fraught with adversity. Think of Job, or Daniel. These men were destroyed for their faith and righteousness, and only received in recompense a reward not even fully promised unto humanity until Jesus spoke through the Gospels. Think of the prophets—exiled by their own people for speaking the truth. Think of Moses, whose failure in faith caused him to be denied entry into the Promised Land.
Jesus exercises judgment in the Gospel that foreshadows the judgment of the Last Day. He tells his disciples he comes to bring “fire and the sword.” Will we, thinking ourselves pious, be beaten out of the temple by our Lord as the moneychangers were? Will Jesus dismiss us, like the rich young man, for a hesitation to give up our earthly goods (despite our diligent following of the commandments)? Are we to be found among the five virgins who wait for their Lord with the trimmed lamps, or among the five lazy virgins who have no oil? And are we keeping our house in order like the good steward? We belong to the Lord whether we like it or not—He created us for himself, and sustains us with His grace; it is His prerogative to judge whether or not we have truly loved Him in our often half-pious, half-kind, and (perhaps) mostly-selfish worldly life.
He clearly communicates these commandments, so we cannot plead ignorance. First, the Ten Commandments were handed to our predecessors, the Israelites, through the prophet Moses. Later, Christ Himself further enunciated their meaning, explaining to the Pharisees that “The first commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your strength, and with all your mind. The second is to love your neighbor as yourself.” Theologians and clergy across all sects of Christianity almost unanimously agree that “your neighbor” refers to all other people, not simply those close to us. It is a provocative statement. How do we love ourselves? indulgently? obsessively? do we “love” ourselves by setting high standards (so-called “tough love”)? Some of us, maybe, do not love ourselves enough. But then how exactly are we to love our neighbor?
Christ provides guidance in the Gospel reading for today’s feast. He previews His final judgment thus:
[He] said to his disciples: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory…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… 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… whatever you did for the least of my brothers 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… what you did not do for the one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ (Matthew 35:31-46)
Today at Mass, emphasizing Jesus’ role as the King of kings, first among all in justice, we are powerfully reminded that righteousness is properly keeping the commandments. Faith, Hope, and Love are virtues to be sure, and without them, as St. Paul writes, we cannot do anything well. Yet simply having those virtues are not enough. We must do good things. We must love our neighbor. When we fail to do so and allow ourselves to fall in to selfishness and self-indulgence–whether it takes the form of avarice, lust, spite, or greed–we are inviting condemnation. Christ calls us to be vigilant against this temptation: we must gird our loins for our journey, purchasing a rod and a cloak; we must wait up for our Lord, even into the second and third watches of the night; we must keep our lamps trimmed. Only thus will we be ready to meet our King and Lord. For “as gold in the furnace he proved them” (Wisdom 3:4), and “the just man, though he die early, shall be at rest. For the age that is honorable comes not with the passing of time, nor can it be measured in terms of years…[it is] an unsullied life” Wisdom 4:7-9).
Today someone close to me died. He was young and promising, and his early death brings to mind these “Last Things:” Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. I grieve for him, and yet I cannot simply isolate the tragedy to him alone, for that would minimize it. John Donne wrote, “No man is an island, entire to himself… Therefore send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” Accordingly, it is important that my comrade’s life and death leave a small legacy in my own soul: his death occurring on the terrifying feast of Christ the King reminds me that I live at the pleasure of God and His providence, and that His coming judgment of me is inevitable.
How much more important now is the impending season of Advent, when I will join with fellow Christians to wait and prepare for the final coming of our Lord as the Israelites waited for His first coming. As I put my spiritual and earthly life in order this year perhaps I will better remember the Last Things and Christ’s imperative to righteousness.