This Sunday, the Catholic Church throughout the world celebrates the Solemn Feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. This feast day itself is not that old, although the reality it represents is timeless. Pope Pius XI created this celebration in 1925 because of growing secularism in Italy at the time and tensions between the government in Rome and the Vatican. The Pope wanted the faithful to remember that Jesus Christ is the Lord and King of all.
For us in the United States, the notion of a king is something foreign to our own national consciousness. After all, our country was founded as a rejection of the King of England. But if we were to think about kingship at all, especially as it relates to Jesus Christ, our readings Sunday help frame our consideration.
The first reading from the prophet Ezekiel portrays God as a shepherd loving, caring for and tending his sheep. His “authority” is one of being present to the sheep, especially those who are scattered: pasturing them, giving them rest, seeking the lost, binding and healing wounds, shepherding them rightly, separating them from their enemies. Ezekiel presents comforting thoughts about the authority of God. These ideas resonate in the homilies and reflections of Pope Francis, our Chief shepherd, in our own time as he encourages us to care for God’s flock. He spoke to the Bishops of Brazil in 2013 during World Youth Day about that “care”:
We need a church capable of walking at people’s side, of doing more than simply listening to them; a church that accompanies them on their journey; a church able to make sense of the "night" contained in the flight of so many of our brothers and sisters from Jerusalem; a church that realizes that the reasons why people leave also contain reasons why they can eventually return. But we need to know how to interpret, with courage, the larger picture.
Fast forward to Matthew’s Gospel, and you get a slightly different picture than that of Ezekiel. Jesus, the Son of Man, is portrayed as a shepherd, but one who comes in glory with judgment as his purpose. This is a very famous Gospel passage, one that is used frequently as a reminder that our actions toward one another have consequences and are, indeed, the basis of the judgment he will render. “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me.” His authority is also one of final judgment based on our behavior.
The Kingdom of God presumes a king. For us as Catholics, that King is the Lord Jesus Christ. Do we think of him the way that Gospel presents, as a judge of our actions, or do we prefer the image of the loving shepherd? The fact of the matter is that we aren’t that familiar with either kings or shepherds. What we are familiar with is authority – and both king and shepherd exercise it. The solemn feast of Christ the King is not an either/or proposition ... it is a both/and part of our faith. The authority of Christ the King is both the loving mercy and care of a shepherd watching over his sheep as well as the judgment that moves them in the right direction. Jesus Christ is that kind of shepherd and that kind of king. And his authority can best be experienced by following his loving example: meeting the needs of one another in love, charity and mercy.