Christ the King
Preached November 26, 2017; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
Whatever you did to the least of my brethren you did to me.
From time to time a transient will pass by the parish or rectory asking for assistance. Normally, my first approach is to refer the person to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul does not just give automatic handouts; there is an interview process and a judgment made regarding the reality of the need.
This actually fits with the teaching of one of the most ancient Christian writings outside of the New Testament: “Let your alms sweat in your hands, until you know to whom you should give.” (Didache, Ch. 1) Or it could also be translated “to whom you are giving.” The first translation speaks of the exercise of prudence used in giving, while the second refers us to today’s Gospel. In the parable, the people do not recognize Christ present in those they help or fail to help, but the reason Jesus gives us the parable is to teach us to recognize his presence in others.
Still, I can’t always refer people to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, especially on weekends. That is good, because it means that sometimes I have to address the situation myself. Sometimes I have to let the alms sweat in my hand; sometimes I have to make the difficult judgment of prudence; sometimes it takes time and patience to discover Christ present in the real need of another person.
Talking to people in the parish I have learned that I am not the only one doing this sort of thing. We really do have a lot of generous people in this parish who do not just put some coins (or bills) in someone’s hand as a salve to their conscience and walk away without ever really encountering the other person, much less encountering Christ in that person. We have a lot of generous people in this parish who when faced with a person in need will really try to help in some way.
So while it is good to refer someone to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and while it is good to write a check to a charitable organization, we cannot just pass the responsibility on to others. As Catholic Christians we must each learn to recognize and to respond to the need of Christ in the least of our brothers and sisters.
Still, there is another aspect to today’s Gospel to which I would like to draw your attention, precisely in relation to the kingship of Christ. Jesus refers to those in need as his ‘brothers’.
Back in September there was a Catholic man that I helped. Eventually the man was able to make it home to Denver. He then posted a ‘thank you’ on our Facebook page and in his comment he spoke about how wonderful the Catholic Church is where you can recognized, welcomed, and received as a ‘brother’, even in distress, even far from home. His comment reminds us of a passage in St. Paul, While we have the opportunity, let us to good to all, but especially to those who belong to the family of faith. (Gal 6:10)
In the New Testament the term ‘brother’ is used especially for those who belong to the ‘family of faith’, those who belong to the Church, to the Body of Christ. The Gospel must be proclaimed to all, and everyone is called to belong to the Body of Christ, but not everyone is actually a ‘brother’ in Christ in the strict Christian sense of the word.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of the least of his ‘brothers’. When Jesus meets St. Paul on the road to Damascus, he does not speak of ‘brothers’ but he communicated the same truth to St. Paul when he said, Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me. (Acts 9:4)
We might want to put the priority simply on every one being human, but the human race has been wounded and fragmented by sin. Jesus Christ established the Catholic Church, as the sacrament, the sign and instrument, of intimate union with God and the unity of the whole human race. (cf. Lumen Gentium 1) The Catholic Church is Christ’s chosen instrument to gather his flock, to bring back, to bind-up, to heal, to unite.
The Church, the Body of Christ, is the presence of his Kingdom in this world, even if the royal officials and subjects of that Kingdom are not particularly well behaved or loyal to their King. Jesus Christ has redeemed us from every tribe and tongue, people and nation, and made us a kingdom and priests for our God. (Rev 5:9-10)
As a consequence of all this our strongest identification should not be with our nation, our race, or even our family, but should be that of our belonging to Christ in his Church. (cf. Mt 10:37-39; Lk 14:26-27)
I know a holy old priest from the northeast who grew up in the 1930s in an area where there were Catholics from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds, speaking different languages – Irish, German, Italian, Polish, Slovak, Ukrainian, and even Lebanese. Commenting on this in a homily once, the priest said, “We all hated each other.” He was raised not to see members of the other ethnic groups as fellow Catholics, but as enemies. Then he went to the seminary and studied Pope Pius XII’s encyclical on the Mystical Body of Christ, written during World War II, when Catholics were killing Catholics. We need to remember that Nazism was a great evil, but we also need to remember that not everyone serving in the German army was a monster; indeed, towards the end of the war there was a teenage boy who did not at all like the Nazis, but who, like many others, was forced to serve. His name was Josef Ratzinger. He could have been killed by American soldiers who were Catholics. In any case, for the priest from the Northeast, Pope Pius XII’s encyclical was a great revelation; that was when he first learned, in his way of putting it, “We are all Jesus”. When he was taught to hate other Catholics because of their different ethnicity, he was being taught to hate Jesus.
We can consider this same truth in relation to the celebration of the Mass, the Mass in which the Irish, German, Italian, Polish, Slovak, Ukrainian, and Lebanese Catholics of the northeast urban areas all participated. Everyone who comes forward and receives communion receives the very same Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. If people receive communion with the proper dispositions, they are integrated more fully into the Body of Christ, gradually transformed interiorly, united ever more closely to Jesus Christ, and become more and more like him, which means they will be able to love others as he loved them. (cf. Jn 13:34)
That is the proper effect of holy communion, but it is also the simple, practical, and visible lesson, when people come forward and receive the same Body of Christ. That is the lesson, but it seems that today many people don’t get it, just as they didn’t get back in the urban centers of the northeast.
St. Paul, in writing about those who receive communion unworthily says, Anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the Body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Cor 11:29) To “discern the Body” does not just mean recognizing and believing in the reality of the Body of Christ, hidden beneath the appearance of bread, but recognizing also the dignity of all our brothers and sisters united in the same Body of Christ.
In that light, the poison of the life of the Church and of any parish comes from backbiting, gossip, and intrigue, especially when this produces cliques and factions. This poison keeps the Body from working together in the service of those who presently do not belong to Christ. This poison also gives scandal and keeps others away, deterring them from entering into the saving unity of Christ’s Body.
In today’s Gospel we learned that people are condemned to eternal fire for nothing more than failing to minister to Christ in those in need. If that is the punishment for those who fail to feed, cloth, and welcome Christ in their brothers and sisters, how much hotter will that fire burn for those who actually injure or harm him by their words and actions?
In a family, when the children are not getting along, when they are squabbling and fighting among each other, the mother steps in to make peace. The mother reminds the children that what is most important is that they are all brothers and sisters, with the same father and mother.
In the great family of the Church, it is the same: Our Mother Mary appeals to us, to recognize each other first of all as brothers and sisters in Christ, children of our same Father in heaven. Then she directs us to our older Brother, Jesus Christ himself, saying, Do whatever he tells you. (Jn 2:5)