Ez 34:11-12, 15-17; Ps 23; 1Cor 15:20-26, 28; Mt 25:31-46.
Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of ordinary time. The image of kingship and kingdom, like most of the images used to describe Christ, is rich and multifaceted. All of today’s readings, however, either feature or allude to a certain dimension of Christ’s kingly power: his role as Judge. Ezekiel, describing the Lord as a royal shepherd, reports that the Lord “will judge between one sheep and another, between rams and goats” (Ez 34:17). The Gospel of Matthew makes the link between King, Shepherd, and Judge even clearer when it describes the Son of Man seated “upon his royal throne” (25:31) and separating the nations “as a shepherd separates sheep from goats” (25:32). In the reading from 1 Corinthians, Christ does not separate any sheep, but he does destroy every “sovereignty, authority, and power” (1Cor 15:25) hostile to himself, so that “God may be all in all” (1Cor 15:28). Christ, in other words, is judge of everything.
It’s no secret that the theme of judgment has always been central to Christian preaching and, therefore, to the Christian imagination. For many nowadays, however, it seems to provoke only anxiety, and to have so little to do with the “Good News” of the Kingdom. And, it must be admitted that there has been a tendency in some ages to fix morbidly upon the prospect. When properly understood, however, the Judgment of Christ becomes one of the principal places for learning hope.
Judgment is hopeful because we cannot live without Justice. I find it telling that the tendency to emphasize God’s Mercy to the exclusion of His Justice typically prevails in wealthy, stable countries, and among those who have spent little time on the receiving end of oppression and injustice. Tragically, however, the majority of humanity has lived and continues to live under different conditions. The human heart cannot rest without justice; it will seek it somewhere. And when a society despairs of God’s justice, history shows that it will entrust itself instead to man’s justice to right every wrong.
This was exactly the situation in the Europe of 1925, the year the Church instituted the Solemnity of Christ the King. WWI had disfigured Europe with injury, injustice, and loss. This coincided with a swelling tide of secularism and skepticism. Knowing that wrongs needed to be made right, and doubting there was a God who sees and judges, people were easily seduced by the false promises of fascism and communism. Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini—these men came to power by promising to make everything right. In opposition to this dark tide, the Church held up the image of Christ, true King and Judge. The emergence of WWII, tragically, proved the Church’s fears to be well founded.
But we don’t have to resort to extreme cases of fascism and communism. Common sense recognizes that man’s justice, even in the best of circumstances, is a fragile thing. Juries cannot see into men’s hearts; they must work with probabilities and “reasonable doubts.” And even when human justice is properly administered, it seldom restores what was lost: the human life taken, the good name tarnished, the years of suffering and want endured. Unless there is an all-powerful Judge, one whose judgment touches all times and all circumstances, one who has power to “undo” past wrongs as well as punish them, there is no ultimate healing of injury. Unless Christ is truly King and Judge, in other words, there is no justice. This is one reason to find hope in God’s judgment.
But there is another reason to hope. God’s judgment doesn’t touch us only at the political level. It also touches us at the personal level, at the level of our sins and our spiritual struggles. Souls who thirst for God actually begin to long for judgment, because they know that God’s judgment transforms. Our sins, which separate us from Him, are often too deep for us to reach. We can’t just make a decision to turn off our insecurities; we can’t just yank our out ego by the roots. The full measure of Christian holiness is beyond what we can even imagine. We know that God deserves more than we can give him. And in truth, our hearts have longed all our days for purifying judgment, a judgment that burns away all falsehood, a judgment that makes us dwell in Truth, a judgment that makes us just.
But what about fear of judgment and—let’s say the word—of Hell? Christ’s words in today’s Gospel make it clear that it remains a possibility; He takes our freedom so seriously that He even lets us choose separation from him. But here it is best to recall that Christ’s seat of judgment is also his Cross, the perfect embrace of Justice and Mercy. No one who looks upon the cross can long imagine that God does not take sin seriously, that the demands of justice are of no account with Him. But neither can anyone who contemplates the Cross long forget that His Justice is not our justice. No, the one who will judge us is also the one who has died for us. His Justice is shot through with grace. For this reason, we may approach his throne with great hope and his altar with great gratitude.