Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe
First Reading: Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 23:1-3, 5-6
Second Reading: St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians 15:20-26, 28
Gospel: According to St. Matthew 25:31-46
With all that is going on in the world it is no surprise if most people are giving more than a passing thought to the topic of death – maybe their own or maybe the death of someone they love. Death is certainly not the cheeriest of thoughts, yet it is one that should be on the minds of all Christians as the liturgical year draws to a close. Thinking of death can easily be dismissed as a morbid and counter-productive use of our imagination, yet it is a necessary topic for us to ponder since, as St. Thomas More so correctly stated in the play and film A Man for All Seasons, “Death comes for us all, my lords. Yes, even for kings he comes.”
Several years back, in a talk that today seems almost prophetic, Pope Francis echoed the words of St. Thomas when he pointed out that, “To think of death isn’t bad imagination; it’s a reality. If it’s bad or not depends on me, on the way I think about it, but it will come.” The inevitability of death can be a frightening reality to ponder, but to avoid, ignore, or deny it will not remove its inevitability. All we can do is to prepare for that day of reckoning as best we can.
As a way of fostering that preparation, the Church reminds us on this the last weekend of the liturgical year of the necessary steps to be taken in order to remove the dread from that unavoidable end-of-life meeting with Jesus. The concluding section of Matthew 25, The Judgment of the Nations, uses the metaphor of the separation of the sheep and the goats to help us to “stop to think about death” in a way that might change our approach to life, and therefore change the mood of our face-to-face encounter with the King of the Universe.
If Pope Francis is correct in his belief that our thoughts on death depend upon us, then we need to do what we can to make those thoughts positive rather than negative. One way to turn negative thoughts into positive ones is to attempt to conform reality to our way of thinking. Modern psychology has done a great job of convincing people that as long as they can abandon guilt then they can be happy: you don’t have to change your behavior, just change your attitude towards that behavior. Modern psychology’s legacy is fairly universal – after over a half century of such advice it would be difficult to find a family that has not in some way been damaged, and sometimes irrevocably broken, by self-centered lives led without the presence of guilt.
In opposition to this narcissism is the teaching of Jesus. Here in this weekend’s story, unique to the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus proposes a plan for happiness where we conform our actions to His way of thinking. Jesus does not say, “If you have ignored the least of My sisters and brothers, then I hope you don’t feel guilty about it – come on in!” For some reason, He doesn’t care if we feel good about ourselves. All He wants to know is whether or not we did what we could to love Him by loving the least of His sisters and brothers.
The Old Testament term for those least among us is anawim, God’s poor. Special consideration was to be given to orphans, widows, and strangers – the most vulnerable members of society. Today we can also include the unborn, the elderly, the homeless and jobless, and those with physical, mental, and emotional difficulties.
But in addition, as told to us in the words of Pope St. John Paul II, we need to recognize the anawim who live lives of “fidelity to the moral teaching of the Alliance with God.” That holy pope reminds us all that if we follow Christ we will be “marginalized by those who prefer to use violence, riches, and power.” Again, as with Pope Francis, it is as if these words are part of a prophecy come true.
Some have the status of anawim thrust upon them, but for the rest of us it is a mantle that we need to embrace even as Jesus did through the humbling act of the Incarnation and the mounting of the Cross at Calvary. Just as death came to the Word-made-flesh so it will come to those who are God’s poor and the world’s rich. And for this unknown day and time we need to be well prepared because without exception all will be assembled and judged by the King of the Universe.