Sunday, November 22, is the Solemnity of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, or more simply "The Feast of Christ the King." The U.S. Bishops have published a bulletin insert for the feast that takes about five minutes to read and is certainly worth the time.
The bishops' message begins this way:
Pope Pius XI instituted this feast in 1925 with his encyclical Quas Primas ("In the first") to respond to growing nationalism and secularism. He recognized that these related societal ills would breed increasing hostility against the Church. His encyclical reminds the faithful that while governments and philosophies come and go, Christ reigns as king forever.
Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will look after and tend my sheep.
As a shepherd tends his flock
when he finds himself among his scattered sheep,
so will I tend my sheep.
I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered
when it was cloudy and dark.
I myself will pasture my sheep;
I myself will give them rest, says the Lord GOD.
The lost I will seek out,
the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, ... (Ez. 34:11-12)
[The passage continues, but we'll stop here.]
What a beautiful image for us in these troubled days: Comfort, assurance, hope, and joy! Since this image of a shepherd-God will be used by the gospel writers to refer to Jesus as the Good Shepherd who seeks out the lost sheep and carries it back on his shoulders, I was expecting to find this much-needed comforting image reflected in the day's Gospel passage. What I found instead began this way:
Jesus said to his disciples:
"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,
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. (Mt. 25:31-31)
My face fell as I realized that the theme is not Jesus' love for the world, but rather Jesus as the supreme judge whose role is to "separate them one from another." In fact, the final verses of the first reading contain the same threatening message:
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,
shepherding them rightly.
As for you, my sheep, says the Lord GOD,
I will judge between one sheep and another,
between rams and goats.
This is not the image we need today: The ultimate "us-versus-them," with Jesus presiding over the division, with us good guys on this side and "them" on the other side of the chasm; "they" being, of course, the bad guys and therefore our enemies. And most likely there are angry insults being shouted back and forth across the divide.
I know that there is always a message for me in any passage of scripture, even in passages I find distasteful or obscure. Often these passages turn out to hold a message for me that I particularly need to hear. But today I'll concentrate on the assigned Responsorial Psalm: Ps. 23 "The Lord is my shepherd," which seems completely out of sync with the main theme of God's Final Judgement.
I have two songs playing themselves in my head today. The first, by Bob Dufford, S.J is entitled "Like a Shepherd." Here are the words:
Like a shepherd He feeds his flock and gathers the lambs in His arms,
Holding them carefully close to His heart, leading them home.
Say to the cities of Judah:
Prepare the way of the Lord.
Go to the mountaintop, lift your voice:
Jerusalem, here is our God.
I myself will shepherd them,
For others have led them astray.
The lost I will rescue and heal their wounds
and pasture them, giving them rest.
Come unto me if you are heavily burdened,
And take my yoke up on your shoulders.
I will give you rest.
Bob Dufford, SJ
© 1993 Robert F. Connor, SJ New Dawn Music Published by OCP Publications.
The second song I'm enjoying is a poetic version of Psalm 23, "The King of love my Shepherd is, Whose goodness faileth never; I nothing lack if I am his And he is mine for ever."
Yes, if you're looking for Christ to be King, remember that from the beginning he has always been "The King of LOVE."
Again, I encourage you to read the entire message of the U.S. Bishops for today's feast.
May Christ, our Shepherd King, bless all of us with whatever gifts we need to build up His Kingdom and become one flock with one shepherd.