The Gospel for this year’s Solemnity of Christ the King is the familiar scene from St. Matthew’s Gospel that speaks of Jesus coming in glory, seated on a throne, with all the angels around him. Frequently, we refer to this as the end of the world. I suspect that we speak of it in these terms because of some of the apocalyptic literature that we read in the Scriptures, particularly those verses that speak of signs in the sun and the moon and the stars. However, St. Paul speaks of that day more as an end to history than as an end of the world. For St. Paul, time is divided into three distinct eras: the time before Christ’s reign, the time of Christ’s kingship itself, and the time when Jesus hands the kingdom over to his Father. As he writes to the Corinthians: “then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to his God and Father” (I Corinthians 15:24a).
At first glance, it may not seem as if there is really any difference in the two views. After all, the end of the world and the end of history both signal the end of human life as we know it. However, St. Bonaventure and the Franciscan school of philosophy remind us that Jesus’ death and resurrection redeemed the entire universe, all of creation. The human race is part of God’s created universe. We are inextricably linked to the rest of creation. In his encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis reminds us of this Franciscan viewpoint. If we are to work to preserve the environment, why would God choose to destroy it when Jesus returns?
St. Paul makes this clear when he says that Jesus “must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” It seems quite clear from this passage in I Corinthians that the reign of Christ is inaugurated with the resurrection-ascension and is destined to last until the second coming. The kingdom of Christ is thus interconnected or coterminous with the period of the Church. In chronological respect the kingly rule of Christ and the Church completely coincide.
The Gospel passage for this solemnity makes that fact all the more evident. St. Matthew envisions the end of human history in very Jewish terms, speaking of Jesus’ return in language that is reminiscent of the ritual of the Day of Atonement. The children of Israel would sacrifice a goat upon which was led through the assembly while those present would symbolically heap their sins upon it. After it was slaughtered, its blood would be collected and sprinkled on the people. The High Priest would then take some of the blood and enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle some of the blood on the Ark of the Covenant. Then he would reappear before the assembly and proclaim that their sins were forgiven. This annual ritual is compared to what Jesus has done for us in the Letter to the Hebrews. Jesus has entered the Holy of Holies, ascending into heaven. When he returns, he will gather the nations before his throne and separate them into the sheep and the goats – sheep to his right, goats to his left. Then he will proclaim that our sins are forgiven.
The sole criteria used for the separation of the sheep and the goats is the care of the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters. The king utters the sentence in the strongest possible language: “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.”
Then, according to St. Paul, Jesus will hand over his kingdom to his God and Father. The mystery of the incarnation will no longer be something that we cannot understand. This scene from Matthew’s Gospel makes it crystal clear why God made the choice to become one of us. The God whom we could not see has become visible so that we could come to understand that the Kingdom of God is among us – within the created universe and living in God’s people. When we worship Jesus as King of the Universe, we acknowledge that we are to remember that we are all part of the flock with Jesus as our shepherd-king. Jesus will return to bring us back to God the Father who created us out of love and to live with him forever.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator