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The new liturgical year will begin next week with Advent’s anticipation of the Christ Child. It will continue with his Nativity as a helpless infant, then continue in February with Lent, marking his fast in the desert, leading to Good Friday.
In other words, we will be focused on the weakness of Jesus for some time. But here at the end of the year we see the figure of Christ as he exists in heaven, fully realized: The all-powerful king of the universe.
In fact, this Sunday’s Gospel shows Christ in his glory and us in utter subjugation to him.
After two weeks of parables, Jesus tells a story today that is clearly not a parable.
Each of the past two Sundays were parables in which Jesus said the kingdom of heaven “will be like” something else. He drops the parable introduction this Sunday and says simply: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another.”
He will separate people into two camps — those who served others and those who never even thought to.
The message is clear: God is the master of the universe, and he regards each of us as an individual who must be judged on our own terms. We will not be saved because we claim allegiance to him. We will be saved because of what we each did or failed to do.
When Christ sums up our duties on earth, what he cares most about is love — acts of love, not words of love: Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned.
As St. Paul put it elsewhere: “If I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
Earthly kings judge us by what we accomplish: The great deeds we do for them, what we have produced for them or added to their power, the extent to which we have extended their kingdom.
Christ the King doesn’t judge us by whether or not we have extended his kingdom. He judges us by our service, not its success.
But just as Christ transforms our idea of what divine power means when he comes in a manger, dies on a cross and remains with us in the Eucharist, he transforms his our idea of judgement as well.
In this Sunday’s first reading, from Ezekiel, before he separates the good sheep from the bad, he says “I myself will pasture my sheep. … The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal.”
This is a new kind of king: Not one who rules, but one who serves. He doesn’t gravitate toward the weak because they are easy to lead. He gravitates to the weak because they need him most.
And Christ the King doesn’t identify himself as the master organizer of a vast network of do-gooders — he identifies himself with the ones being served, or neglected, by us.
This shows just how total his kingdom is: He sees all things as properly his, and therefore the way we treat every person is the way we treat him.
His power is total. His only weakness is love.