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Embodying the Kingdom of God

The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe-Cycle A

My Dear Friends in Christ,

Today is the day toward which the celebrations of the previous weeks have been hastening, the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. Today’s celebration marks a certain pivot point within the Christian life, bringing one Liturgical Year to a close and bidding us prepare for the one to follow, beginning next Sunday with the First Sunday of Advent. That said, with the Season of Advent following closely behind the culmination of this liturgical apex of sorts, the Church will ask us to redouble our efforts toward preparing for the coming of Christ as we make ready for Christmas. In this sense, today’s celebration marks not only an end, but serves as an axis around which the immediate time-space of the liturgical seasons turn. More to it, given the nature of the celebration, it likewise serves as a focal point on the horizon of the Christian life in its entirety. These time-space tensions that we have drawn suggest something of the deeper reality of the nature of Christian life this side of eternity. That is, we live in an already-but-not-yet time in salvation history. Said differently, salvation has indeed already come and been gifted to us by the life, Passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in this sense we already have a share in and live out of the eternal Kingdom of God. However, the perfect fulfillment of this Kingdom, its coming in its full glory, perfection and power, awaits the Second Coming of the Son, and in this sense we do not yet experience its fullness.

This, my friends, is a message of hope. Amidst our current political and social chaos, regardless of where we locate ourselves on the political spectrum, there are many reasons to worry, many causes of anxiety. Over the last few months we have been bombarded with political ads saturated with hyperbolic vitriol and apocalyptic rhetoric, each side promising that the salvation of the country rests on their being put in power and assuring their listeners that for the other side to win would surely mark the end of existence as we know it. Consequently, on the one hand, those who consider themselves conservative look at their brothers and sisters on the other side of the political aisle (for make no mistake that is what they are) as progressive leftists seeking the destruction of everything the country stands for. On the other, those considering themselves liberal look at their brothers and sisters on the other side of the aisle (for make no mistake that is what they are) as standing in the way of social progress and the creation of a more equal society. Today’s celebration is a reminder of the most important kind that salvation will not come at the hands of any political party, nor will lasting peace this side of eternity be established by political leaders.

Instead, the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe proclaims once again the controversial refrain uttered by the very first Christians: not Caesar kyrios, but Christos Kyrios! Thereby Christians are reminded that the degree of peace to be had this side of eternity depends on our willingness to hand over our lives in their entirety to the Prince of Peace (Is. 9:6), taking upon ourselves his easy yoke (Mt. 11:29-30) which not only joins us to him, but to one another; for “those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 Jn. 4:20-21). John here is of course alluding to the twofold command to love God and neighbor affirmed by Our Lord when questioned as to what was the greatest commandment (Mt 22:36-40; Mk 12:38-31; Lk 10:25-28; Lv 19:18). However, this is no mere law in the human sense, it is rather the law of the universe, the thread by which our God knit together all things when bringing them into existence through His Word. If we look around our world and see, quite obviously so, that something is amiss, that something is desperately wrong, that we are making no progress towards peace, today’s celebration asks us to come to the realization that the reason for this is nothing else than that we have failed to live in accordance with the law of love undergirding all of reality. It is as though our lives, individually and socially, pull away from that which sustains our very existence and the result is unrest. How could it be otherwise? It is perhaps something of comfort that the turmoil we experience today is nothing new. Societal turmoil and the struggle for peace is a perennial problem for the human family since Cain slew his brother Abel (Gn 4:1-16). And so it has been down through the centuries. In 405 AD, preaching to the people of Carthage in North Africa, Augustine noted the grumbling of the people: “The times are troubled, the times are hard, the times are wretched.” And his response is the same one that must be reissued today: “Live good lives, and you will change the times by living good lives; you will change the times, and then you’ll have nothing to grumble about” (Sermon 311.8).

Augustine is here recommending to his listeners and us nothing else than what we as Christians pray for everyday: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” Augustine’s own exegesis of the Lord’s Prayer echoes a passage from Luke that is thematically related to today’s Solemnity. There, the Pharisees ask Our Lord when the Kingdom of God was coming, and our Lord answered, “The Kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the Kingdom of God is within (entos) you” (Lk 17:20-21). In his commentary on the petition, Augustine draws out five meanings for it, four of which are important for our theme today. In the first, he writes that the meaning of this petition is that “in the same way that [God’s] will prevails among the angels in heaven, who are completely united to [God] and rejoice in [God]…so let it be among your saints who are on earth…” (The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, 2.6,21). The following three get us directly to the heart of our readings for today, and echo what we saw Augustine say above about changing the times as well as the tension between the already-but-not-yet time we live in. The second is this: it “can also mean that, as it is with the righteous and the saints, so also with sinners,” which he adds should be taken to mean that Christians ought to pray for their enemies, so that those estranged from God may be reunited to him (Ibid., 2.6,22). However, Augustine is never one to let Christians rest easily or think themselves superior to others because they have been given the grace of faith. And so, the next meaning he gives it is that we might overcome the sin that we struggle with in our very selves (Ibid., 2.6,23). Finally, Augustine says the petition can also mean asking God that His Will be done in the Church as it is in Christ (Ibid., 2.6,24). It is this final that is able to bring about true change in the world so that the Kingdom of God is an ever greater present reality this side of eternity as we wait in hope for the Second Coming of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

It has already been mentioned that the Kingdom of God, and indeed, the cosmos in its entirety, has been woven together by the single thread of the twofold command to love. Yet our reflection on the Lord’s Prayer led us to find various meanings in the Kingdom that all flow towards the dawning of a reality that transforms individuals from the inside, and in the final meaning that the coming of the Kingdom of God is the coinciding of the life of Christ and the Church. This points to the very nature of the Kingdom of God that is gestured toward by the images in today’s readings. In the first part of his work, Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph Ratzinger explores Jesus’ teachings concerning the Kingdom of God and concludes that, in some way or another, “the Kingdom of which Jesus speaks…is to be found in Jesus himself” (Jesus of Nazareth, Pt. I: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, 60). Further on, after affirming the same reading, he qualifies this by writing that “the parables speak in a hidden way, then, of the mystery of the Cross…In the parables Jesus is not only the sower who scatters the seed of God’s word, but also the seed that falls into the earth in order to die and so to bear fruit” (Ibid., 191).

Ratzinger will find the same meaning in the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, in another of his works, thus giving us direct entry from all that has been said to today’s readings. In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Ratzinger writes that above all, the early Church used the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, connecting it with the Greek philosophical concept of the Logos. “The Logos, through whom all things were made, who bears within himself, so to speak, the archetypes of all existing things, is the guardian of creation. In the Incarnation he takes the lost sheep, human nature, humanity as a whole onto his shoulders and carries it home. The image of the shepherd thus sums up the whole of salvation history: God’s entry into history, the Incarnation, the pursuit of the lost sheep and the homeward path into the Church of the Jews and Gentiles” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, 118-119). This is precisely what we find in our first reading for today from the Book of the prophet Ezekiel. There God says through the prophet: “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered…I myself will pasture my sheep; I myself will give them rest…The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice” (Ez. 34:11-12 & 15-16). Thus we see the image of the Good Shepherd, caring for the sheep, giving special care and support to the weak and admonishing the proud, so that all might be united in the One Flock. The last line here is curious, though. For God says through Ezekiel, “I will feed them with justice” (Ez. 34:16). What do we make of this?

To reduce this passage to a simple matter of social justice won’t do, given all that has preceded in our discussion on the Kingdom of God. That said, it does not exclude it either, as the twofold command certainly calls for right relationship. The answer that must be given is the very same as that given to the question of the Kingdom of God. Drawing from the work of St. Paul, Augustine repeatedly refers to Christ as the Just One. For example, in one particular sermon, using words very reminiscent of Ratzinger’s above, Augustine writes: “We know, brothers and sister, that Christ died once for us; the Just One for sinners, the Lord for slaves, the free man for the captives, the doctor the for sick, the blessed for the wretched, the wealthy for the needy…and what is more astonishing than all that, the creator for the creature.” And then, concluding the thought in words we must very carefully attend to, he adds “giving live by his strength, dying in his weakness; unchanging in godhead, subject to our suffering in the flesh; as the apostle puts it, who was handed over for our misdeeds, and rose again for our justification (Rom 4:25)” (Sermon 220). The words to attend to is that at the center of this dynamic, precisely by dying and rising again, Jesus has given us “life by his strength,” the Latin here being virtute vivificantem, which ought to be rendered giving life by his virtue. The retranslation is an important one as it will connect for us the Psalm for today and the Gospel as well.

In Book Ten of the City of God Augustine discusses the Eucharist at length, and he describes our reception of the Eucharist in this way: “it is by spiritually embracing Him that the intellectual soul is filled and impregnated with true virtues (veris impletus fecundaturque virtutibus). We are enjoined to love this good with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength (virtute). To this good we ought to be led by those who love us, and to lead those we love. Thus are fulfilled those two commandments on which hang all the law and the prophets” (City of God, 10.3). The dynamic Augustine describes here is the that found in the Responsorial Psalm for today and the desired outcome of being fed with justice by God spoken of in Ezekiel. In the well-known Psalm 23, we are told that the Lord as Shepherd leads us in the paths of righteousness, or justice, “for his name’s sake” (Ps. 23:3). Said differently, to live righteously or justly is to live in accordance with the Just One Whose Name we bear, Christian. Then it goes on to say that this life is nourished by the table spread before us in the presence of our enemies (Ps. 23:5). That is, we are fed on the life of the Just One amidst the trials and tribulations of this world. But why? Precisely so that we might draw others into the Kingdom of God as we saw above. And how do we do this? Through the Goodness and Mercy that follows us, or better, that we partake of and follow, giving us safe lodging within the house of the Lord all the days of our life (Ps. 23:6).

Just further on in that same book of the City of God, Augustine tells us that having partaken in the Eucharistic sacrifice and shared in the life of the Just and Merciful One, we must live so as to make our life one continual sacrifice of Eucharistic praise. He writes: “true sacrifices are works of mercy to ourselves or others, done with a reference to God,” these are the sacrifices fitting of those who participate in the life-giving Passion of Christ in the Eucharistic Liturgy, and consume its bounty under the guise of bread and wine (City of God, 10.6). By these true sacrifices we embody the Kingdom of God within ourselves and thereby transfigure the world. Moreover, it is our willingness to have so sacrificed that will ultimately be the criteria by which we will be judged as Our Lord makes clear in the Gospel for today (Mt. 25:31-46). Let us pray earnestly to God to give us the grace to make His Kingdom come through our words and actions, so that they may announce and established the reign of the One True King, Who alone can give us lasting happiness and peace: Christos Kyrios!

Your servant in Christ,

Tony

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