Let me start by saying that I am a reluctant observer of the liturgical feast known as "Christ the King." Every year, on the last Sunday of the liturgical cycle, we stop to celebrate the kingship of Christ. Originally scheduled for the Sunday before All Saints' Day, this practice was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in the wake of the Great War, which had ravaged Europe and had resulted largely from competing versions of nationalism.
Now that it has been moved to its present place on the calendar, on this coming Sunday lots of churches--Protestant and Catholic--will be asking the question "Who is our real king?" as the feast implicitly asks. "Christ is our true king," the church replies. I am admittedly slow to pick up on newfangled liturgical inventions, but this one is starting to grow on me. Here's why.
In my ministry as a parish priest, one of the biggest challenges I face is getting people (including myself) to realize that God's love is a whole lot bigger than we think it is. When salvation comes, it will be far more extensive than we can imagine. When God's victory is achieved, it will be much further reaching than we expected. As this Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 25:31-46) puts it, "When the Son of Man comes in his glory..." the result is a lot bigger than we thought it would be, and that has the potential to catch up with us in a big, scary way.
What does it mean for the Son of Man to come and sit on his throne? In much of scripture, the Son of Man is an image of judgment. It's is the figure used to express the eschatological fulfillment of creation. For the most part (there are exceptions in Ezekiel for example), biblical authors don't harken to the "Son of Man" unless they want to convey God bringing things to their completion. That means that the image of the coming of the Son of Man that Jesus uses in Matthew 25 reminds his hearers of what things are going to be like when God sets everything right. And what that means depends on whom you ask.
If you're part of God's faithful poor, salvation may mean new riches. If you're part of God's faithful oppressed, salvation likely has to do with being set free from oppression. If you identify with the outcast, salvation probably involves you being offered a seat at God's banquet table. Salvation, we trust, is the setting right of all that is wrong. That means the wicked are brought down from their lofty heights and the poor are raised up. For God's people, that's all-around good news...unless it isn't.
Jesus teases us with the image of the Son of Man. By using it, he gets our hopes up. All of God's faithful people look forward to the coming of the Son of Man because it means that finally everything that is wrong with life will be set right. But, just as soon as he gets our hopes up, he dashes them to pieces with a damning warning: "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me." It's the surprise that gets us. We thought the coming of the Son of Man meant our redemption, but those of us who thought we were God's favorites might just discover that our hardheartedness has led to our exclusion from the kingdom. Those of us who were waiting on God's victory discover that by caring less about the misfortunes of others than about our own plight we have actually become the oppressors whom the Son of Man comes to bring down from their lofty seats. It's the old bait-and-switch, only we're the ones left holding the goat.
So where is our hope? Jesus came to show the world that God's preference is for the marginalized. Yes, that means that God cares for sinners like you and me, but let's not fool ourselves into thinking that salvation is just for us. God's love is always bigger than we think it is. God's plan is never just about us. When all things are made right--when the Son of Man comes to sit on his glorious throne--everything will be turned on its head. If we are too worried about our place at the bottom of the pile now and thus miss those we're already stepping on, we might miss our chance to be a part of that reversal of fortunes. May the work that we do be about turning the world on its head--not just then but also now.