Something that you may not know about me is that I’m kind of a history buff, particularly of Roman History. Well, the year 69 AD in Roman History is known as the Year of the Four Emperors, which as you might imagine if you’re even half awake this morning, was a year in which there were four (count them, four) emperors, one after another, in a single year: Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian. The strategy of these guys was basically to buy off the military and then kill any opposition – and it was pretty effective! You better hope we don’t use the same strategy over in the rectory – although as the youngest and strongest, I’m pretty sure I’d win. These guys were consumed by their quest for power, so much so that they ignored the needs of their people. As you can imagine, it was a period of fear, instability, mistrust, and selfishness that Rome never really got over.
Oppression, fear, and powerlessness – these are the sort of adjectives that we typically associate with the rule of a king. And then, boom, we have this feast of Christ the King. Sometimes, we can try to play this down a little. We hear the Gospel about Jesus sorting the sheep from the goats, a Gospel that is typically referred to as the final judgment, and our minds instantly go back to Roman Emperors and kings condemning people to death. And so it might be important to ask ourselves, and ask the Church today, what kind of king is Christ?
You know this already, but Jesus is not the kind of king who sits on his throne, munching on a turkey leg, and who chooses which fancy clothes to wear and whose life to end in the same sentence. But Christ is a king. Like those emperors, Christ the King is a conqueror, but not one who destroys cities and cares little for the suffering of their inhabitants. Christ is the conqueror of everything we can’t handle. The second reading tells us today that the last enemy that Christ has conquered is death! Now, I don’t know about you, but death scares me sometimes. I know I can’t avoid it, I can’t handle it, and I can’t escape it, at least not for long. That uneasiness and uncertainty are things that I can’t conquer on my own. But Christ can. Christ the King is a king who gives gifts to his people. Not tax breaks, or certificates, or gold stars or anything. But he gives food to the hungry heart, comfort to the sorrowful, hope to the hopeless. And he does this today as much and more than he ever did in his public ministry as we’ve been hearing over the past year. Christ the King is a king who is a leader, but not one who makes artificial laws that bind us to commit acts against our conscience or well being. He’s a shepherd, who looks out for us as a shepherd does his sheep, and who tries to lead us to do what is best for our souls.
You see, the Solemnity of Christ the King that we celebrate today isn’t just there to teach us some intellectual lesson about the fact that Jesus is king and judge over all (which he is, by the way). It’s there to help us approach him as well. If Christ is a king, then we are his subjects. Sometimes this makes us feel separated from him, but remember, he is not there to lord his power over us, like a Roman Emperor, but in fact, his power is the very thing that enables him to treat us with such love and concern.
Being a subject of Christ changes the way we act. It means that we have a good sense of obedience. Now, by obedience, I don’t mean doing what we do because someone else says so. Every parent knows that although this is what children usually pick up when they ask for obedience, the reason behind your “commands”, “laws”, or “rules” for them is because you love them. The same is true for us as children of God. Christ gives us the beatitudes to follow, which teach us to be humble, meek, and loving. He gives us some tangible things to do too, like those outlined in the teaching of the Church on moral issues and social justice – giving to the poor, the lonely, and the afflicted, even if all we can give is prayer at times. Being obedient to Christ also means being obedient to the Church. Now notice, I’m not even going to talk about money on this one. But what I mean here is trying to listen to what Christ has to teach us through the Church. The Church isn’t trying to penalize us, it is there to show love for us, by teaching us what it means to serve God, even if that’s tough to do.
One of the biggest, and possibly most testing examples of obedience is coming next week. In one of the most momentous occasions in our Church in a long time, we’re going to begin using a new translation of the prayers of the Mass from the original Latin text. Now, before we even begin, and before you throw things at me for saying the word “Latin”, let me just remind you what this is. This is the Latin version of the missal that was given after Vatican II. It is not a return to the old Mass, as some have feared. But immediately, one of the things you’ll notice next week is how formal some of the language sounds, which can really turn some of us off. But think of it this way. You know as much as I do that there are different ways that we address people. Some people you address very casually, like friends. Some people you treat a little more formally, like those you’ve just met. And then you speak to some people in a very formal way, such as if you were talking to the president. If you mix these up, it can be really awkward. “Yo dawg, what’s up my home boy!” can work if you’re talking to your friend, or if you’re trying to look ridiculous. But how do you think the archbishop would act if you addressed him that way? See, we have the struggle in our worship to use language that reflects both the intimacy of God and the majesty and glory of God at the same time. And if nothing else, maybe this change in words for the Mass will remind us of that second part. We’re not sitting in beanbag chairs or bleachers here (except for the gym Mass, I guess)! We’re worshipping God, and addressing the king of the universe!
We can go into this in one of two ways – grudgingly, or with open hearts. When we find ourselves struggling, and I’m sure we each will in some way, try not to ask “Why would the Church want me to do this?” But ask yourself, “I wonder why the Church is asking me to do this?” It all goes back to obedience, and seeing what it is that Christ, our King and Shepherd, has in mind for us.
As we approach this holy altar today, the throne of Christ the King who is present to us in the Holy Eucharist, we’re mindful that Christ is no ordinary king, but rather a conqueror of our fears, a giver of great gifts and graces, and a loving shepherd, who is there to treat his flock with care. As we prepare to celebrate these mysteries, let us humbly bow before the glory of our great king, and ask him for those things that might help us to build his kingdom on earth, always mindful that if we are loving and loyal subjects to our King, we too will see his reign in the everlasting kingdom.