Feast of Christ the King – November 23, 2008 – Blessed Sacrament
For all of its familiarity, the Gospel passage we have just heard retains its power to move and to challenge and to convict.
We are likely, perhaps, to hear this passage as describing the criteria by which we will be judged individually, and that is not wrong of course, which is why at least the first part of the scene is often read at funerals. But Christ gives the scene a larger, grander context. It comes in Matthew’s Gospel after parables of judgment and accountability, such as the one we heard last week, about the servants who were given large sums of money and then required to account for what they had done with it. Now, capping them all, the scene is described as a final settling of accounts and passing of sentence. The scene is described in dramatic terms: the Son of Man comes in divine glory, accompanied by his angels, and sits upon his glorious throne, and all the nations are assembled before him. This is not just a judgment of individuals; it is a judgment of nations. Perhaps we could say that this is a settling of accounts with regard to the entire history of humanity. The final judgment is being passed on what humanity as a whole has done with its freedom. What ought to count as success and failure is being described, the criteria by which all human activity should be measured are being set forth. The final scene in the drama of creation discloses what was at stake all along at all prior moments as the drama that is human history unfolded.
And, it turns out, the criterion is simply stated: what have individuals and nations done to relieve human misery? It is not a criterion of wealth or power, of beauty or fame, of genius or discovery. The criterion is whether one has lightened the burden others are bearing, has brought light into their darkness, has broadened and deepened the scope of their freedom. The six examples which Christ employed are not exhaustive, and we can add to them: I was illiterate and you taught me to read. I was in deep despair, and you lifted me. I was lost and you looked for me. I was fearful and you en-couraged me.
These and many other examples can be seen as examples of humanitarian aid, and our communities and country can use much more of it, especially as times become more difficult. For a Christian, however, it has all been made more personal because the one who pronounces sentence is the one who has been encountered before, even though he has not been recognized. The final arbiter of the value of the lives of individuals and of nations is not being met for the first time in this great scene of judgment. He tells them that they have already met him in the course of the history now under judgment. He has not been met only in the short span of the life he shared with humanity, when, though he was rich, he became poor for our sake, so that through his poverty we might become rich. People have met him, he tells them, also in the persons with whom he has identified himself, in the hungry and thirsty, in the naked and the homeless, in the ill and imprisoned. One did not have to live 2,000 years ago to encounter Christ on one’s way; one met him yesterday; one meets him today; one will meet him tomorrow.
We meet him here, of course. His word re-echoes in the Scripture readings we have heard. By his Spirit he is speaking to our hearts and minds. From this altar-table we will receive his Body and become his Body, he in us and we in him. But one of the purposes of our gathering for this great thanksgiving is to alert us to the fact that when we leave this church we will not be leaving Christ behind but are likely to encounter him again and again in the course of this day and of this week.
St. John Chrysostom was a priest in Antioch and then the bishop of Constantinople. In his homilies on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, he has an extended comparison between what Christians do as a people of priests at the eucharist and what they do as priests in the world. Every Christian is a priest by baptism. He doesn’t wear liturgical garments, but is supposed to be clothed in kindness. He has an altar, not an altar of stone like this one, a holy altar, holier than this one, for this one simply receives the Body of Christ while the altar on which the Christian offers his sacrifice is itself the Body of Christ, an altar “composed of the very members of Christ…. You honor indeed this altar, because it receives Christ’s body; but the one who is himself the body of Christ you treat with scorn, and neglect him as he dies. You may see that altar everywhere, lying in lanes and in market places, and you may sacrifice upon it every hour; for on it too is sacrifice performed…. When you see a poor believer, then, consider that you are looking at an altar; when you see such a one begging, not only do not insult him; reverence him even; and if you see someone else insulting him, prevent it, stop it.”
“Do you wish to honor Christ’s body?” St. John asked in another homily. “Then don’t neglect him when you come upon him naked. While you honor him here with silk garments, do not neglect Him when he is perishing of cold and nakedness outside. For the same Christ who said, ‘This is my body,’… also said, ‘When I was hungry, you did not feed me,’ and ‘When you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’” We cannot honor the one Body of Christ without honoring the other Body of Christ.