Feast of Christ the King, year A, November 26, 2017
In the crisis of their exile in Babylon, the princes and priests of Israel failed to shepherd the people faithfully. So through the prophet Ezekiel, God promises to eliminate the middle-men and care for the people directly.
In a very early letter, for an anxious Christian community, Saint Paul tries to answer the big questions about our resurrection from the dead and the end of the world. Surprisingly, Paul puts those big questions into an even larger context.
Saint Matthew makes a sweeping connection between our day-to-day choices and the end of the world.
The Historical Situation: Ezekiel exercised his entire career as prophet while in exile. Not exile from his people, but with them, in Babylon, where the emperor Nebuchadnezzar had forced them to come when they rebelled against his rule in the homeland. Ezekeil knew the delights of pre-Exilic Jerusalem, having been born there into a priestly family. But his call to serve God and people came after he and many of his friends had been dragged away from home. Other prophets among the exiles were saying this interruption in their lives would be brief, that things would soon be normal again. But Ezekiel knew better; he foresaw worse coming to worst, and said so. The overoptimistic prophets, as well as other leaders and priests, were poor shepherds in Ezekiel's estimation. You might read again the Malachi passage (starting at verse 14) condemning lax priests that we read on the Thirty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time.
The prophets' job is always to say how God wants things to be. In this passage, Ezekiel prophesies that God will eliminate the middle-men, becoming Israel's shepherd directly. The prophet utters this with great dismay at the poor earthly leadership, and great hope in the transcendent God.
Proclaiming It: Note that the prophet speaks in God's voice, in the first person, and use your own tone of voice to express his feelings about the situation. When God says I will do this, the unspoken meaning is because you bad shepherds will not. So emphasize all the occurrences of I and speak with the vehemence of prophetic outrage, especially in the early sentences.
On the other hand, the passage has a great tenderness in its concern for the people who have suffered from bad leadership. In the latter sentences, where God promises to bring back strays and heal the sick, express that tenderness, too.
Our Liturgical Setting: As usual, the first reading prepares us to hear the day's gospel. The link to the gospel is the reference to sheep and goats in the last sentence. Today's gospel is the famous last judgment scene from Matthew 25. Since this Sunday concludes the liturgical year, it's the last passage from Matthew that we'll hear for a while.
The Theological Background: That we will rise again on the last day is perhaps the most puzzling mystery of our faith. In this passage, Paul won't satisfy our curiosity. Rather, as he always does, Paul puts the issue in the context of the mission of Christ. Christ is the new Adam, who undoes the principal consequence of the first Adam's sin, which is death.
But Paul says that Christ has an even bigger agenda. He is to subject all cosmic powers to himself, and then to God. It's in that larger context that our resurrection is to occur. Perhaps our questions about what our resurrection will be like would seem trivial to Paul, when he's thinking on the grandest of scales.
Modern readers should remember that our view of the cosmos is quite simplified compared to that of the ancients. We believe in one God (in three Persons), and one devil, each of whom has an undetermined number of angels in his service. Then there's the material universe, and us, and that's all. Ancient writers, in contrast, thought of a more complex universe. They believed there were layers of spiritual powers, all unseen and probably competing, with more or less interest in human affairs. Even Moses didn't insist that there were no gods beside Yahweh, just that Israel shouldn't worship them. Saint Paul, centuries later, calls them not gods but sovereignties, authorities and powers. Christ, upon his return, is to subject them all to himself, and turn them over to his Father.
So what, the modern reader may ask. Well, it just means that this Christ, who took our flesh and endured our death, did so as part of a mission more broad than we might think. And the Father whom he reveals to us is God of more than the earth. This is the grand context in which we hope to rise from the dead. Copernicus may have kicked us out of the center of the universe, but Saint Paul places us unashamedly at the center of the eternal, all-encompassing plan of God.
Proclaiming It: The lector should find this more than a bit intimidating. The second half of this passage deserves the most solemn, dignified proclamation you can muster. I don't like the punctuation supplied by the translators in this part of the passage:
then,at his coming, those who belong to Christ;
then comes the end, ... That second clause marks a new logical section, and deserves a pause before you start it. Slow down your reading dramatically here. You're describing the climax of all, not just human, history.
Benito Mussolini, during the March on Rome, with some of the quadrumviri ("four leaders" [of the march]): from the left, Emilio De Bono (not shown in this fragment), Italo Balbo and Cesare Maria De Vecchi. (detail). Click here for larger and complete versions, and copyright terms.
I chose this 1922 picture because the rise of totalitarian government in Italy was arguably the proximate cause of Pope Pius XI's 1925 encyclical Quas Primas, which called for a feast of Christ, the King, and asserted, roughly, that there can be no peace unless nations acknowledge the kingship of Christ.
Lector's Notes should be easily readable on any device, including small-screen ones like cell phones and tablets. This is among the first of a few hundred pages to be converted to a responsive format (responsive to the kind of screen you are using). So when you're not serving as lector, and you arrive at church and mute your cell phone, you can brief yourself on the readings you're about to hear. Format conversion is a work-in-progress and will be so until maybe April of 2018.
This page updated September 24, 2017