On this annual celebration of Christ the King, the Church challenges us to contemplate Christ’s return in majesty - his coming again “in glory” (as we say all the time in the Creed) “to judge the living and the dead.”
Traditionally, we speak of two judgments – the general and the particular. Like Michelangelo’s famous fresco in the Sistine Chapel, today’s gospel portrays that final, general judgment, which we associate with the end of time. Yet, as we also know, that final, general judgment will just ratify and confirm the particular judgment of each one of us at end of our individual life - in effect, the individual end of the world for each one of us personally. Likewise, that particular judgment just confirms each one of us individually in the kind of life he or she has been living on earth - confirming each one of us individually in the kind of person you and I have each chosen to become over the course of our life, and, consequently, where each of us will stand eternally in relation to God.
Around the end of World War II, the British author C.S. Lewis wrote a short story, The Great Divorce, a fantasy, in which the narrator finds himself at a bus stop in hell (which resembles a rather dreary 1940s English town in apparently perpetual drizzle). There he joins a group of quarrelsome, grumpy ghosts on a bus trip to the outskirts of heaven, where they are to be offered yet one more opportunity to leave behind the sins that have trapped them in hell.
The narrator then listens in on a series of conversations between the bus passengers and some representatives from heaven - people they previously knew in life, who now try to persuade them to change. (It’s as if some of the “sheep” on the Son of Man’s right side in the gospel story were to try one last time to persuade some of the “goats” to transfer their allegiance from left to right).
One visitor, for example, asks whether heaven will give greater scope for his talents and, what he calls, “an atmosphere of free inquiry.” His friend responds: “No sphere of usefulness: you are not needed there at all. No scope for your talents: only forgiveness for having perverted them. No atmosphere of inquiry, for I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.” Meanwhile, another heavenly figure poignantly pleads with one of the visitors from hell: “Could you, only for a moment, fix your mind on something not yourself?”
Overwhelmingly, as in the Gospel account we just heard [Matthew 25:31-46], the visitors seem obstinately unwilling to acknowledge the true nature, implications, and consequences of how they had lived, remaining forever focused only on themselves. As one of heaven’s residents explains to the narrator (who is understandably perplexed by so many seeming to choose hell over heaven): “There is always something they insist on keeping even at the price of misery. There is always something they prefer to joy – that is, to reality.” That is why each one becomes, as one of the heavenly figures explains, “nearly nothing,” that is “shrunk, shut up in itself.”
Lewis wrote a novel, not systematic theology. Like the Gospel’s judgment story, however, it illustrates the unity between the faith we profess and the life it challenges us to lead. It reminds us that we may not simply believe in some private personal way, devoid of larger social - even political - implications. And it dramatically captures how, by my own choices and actions here and now, I can either identify with others or cut myself off from others, and thus ultimately either be forever united with or be forever separated from the one and only source of life, and light, and love, and joy, in whose presence – and only in whose presence – can I hope to thrive for all eternity. Both stories illustrate how the person that I will be forever is the person I am presently in the process of becoming – by how I am living here and now. What I do matters. How I live matters. My actions, my relationships, my entire life matter.
It is, of course, a process – a lifelong process. Listening to Jesus passing judgment in today’s gospel, many of us might wonder how we could ever qualify to be judged as one of the sheep on his right. Many of us might wonder whether we could ever sufficiently overcome our preoccupation with ourselves and do enough for others to be judged as one of the sheep on his right. On a quantitative scale, the fact is we will fall somewhat short of what we would hope to become; what we do will likely fall short of what we believe. But, on the qualitative scale of our ultimate allegiance, we may confidently hope to be aligned in the right direction.
Today, the Church celebrates Christ’s glorious kingship, inviting us to align ourselves with Jesus Christ, who overcame the great gulf between God and us by becoming one of us, and who now challenges us to recognize his continued presence among us in our brothers and sisters, and thus to acknowledge Christ’s kingship here and now, and so enjoy citizenship in his kingdom forever.
Most modern monarchs – for example, the 10 currently reigning European ones, we are probably most familiar with –ascend their thrones rather peacefully, according to established constitutional rules. Once enthroned, a King (or Queen) functions as a sort of social glue that bonds his or her people together and helps create a powerful experience of political unity and community, distinct and separate from others. Like earthly monarchs, Christ the King bonds his people together and creates a special and distinct community. In ascending his throne, however, Christ the King has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power. Bonding his people together in a network of faith and hope lived out in love and mutual service, Christ the King is even now creating a unique community, commanding one’s ultimate and absolute allegiance, in which one must ultimately be either a citizen or not. And that begins here and now, as the person I am becomes, however imperfectly, the person I hope to be for all eternity.
Homily for Christ the King, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 20, 2011.