Christ the King

See Commentary on Matthew 25: 31-45 in Matthew 25:31-46

Homily 1 - 2008 

The Gospel today commends those who act in response to the poverty and powerlessness of people in the community.  Though those who respond compassionately to others may not recognise the fact, Jesus takes their response personally: as long as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.

By its choice of this Gospel to mark the Feast of Christ as King, of Jesus the Messiah, the Church sees such behaviour as somehow an expression of our sharing in the kingly role of Jesus.  Kingship has to deal with the ordering of relationships in society: with social justice (or injustice).  Kingdoms were the general model of social organisation in Jesus’ day.  Democracies were not well known, and, in fact, there were none around when Jesus was alive.  So naturally he used the term Kingdom.

Jesus was concerned about how people interacted in society.  He was insistent on the need for radical change – that poverty, intense hardship, powerlessness and injustice be brought to an end.  According to his vision for the world, (which was simply God’s vision for the world – the Kingdom of God ), those presently hungry, suffering, powerless and oppressed would eventually find justice.  As he promised in the Beatitudes, the poor would enjoy the Kingdom, those who mourned would be comforted, the meek and powerless would repossess their land and those hungering for justice would have their fill.

But that the vision become reality, there was need for conversion.  Justice would become reality only as people prioritised and lived according to mercy, purity of heart and personal integrity, and genuinely worked for peace and order within society:  Blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the pace-makers.

Jesus’ kingship is sterile unless we work with him.  All of us are called to share in and to give shape to his kingship.  That call was made when we were baptised.  We were christened – made one with Christ, the Anointed One.  Like Jesus, we were anointed priests, prophets and kings.

In Jesus’ day, mercy, personal integrity and work for genuine peace were seen by those in power as subversive.  As we know so well, Jesus was eliminated precisely because the chief priests and the Roman governor saw his priorities and activities as dangerous.

Action for justice is not so dangerous these days in our neck of the woods – though it certainly is perilous in lots of other hot spots around our world.  We have much to be thankful for.  Yet our society is still far from measuring up to Jesus’ vision for society.  To make it ever more just is a constant task.  It is a difficult task, and often uncertain, and calls for real integrity and wisdom, and sometimes a thick skin.

I wish more Catholics, attuned to the vision of the common good and prepared to give their energies to its practical implementation, would show a greater interest in politics at all levels – local, state and federal.  Politics are important.  But they are not enough.  Education for justice, work for justice, education for peace, work for peace are simply part and parcel of the vocation to be Christian.  Blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peace-makers.

Perhaps we should face also the final beatitude: blessed are you when people abuse you and persecute you and speak all kinds of calumny against you….  since, unfortunately, that is often the response to those who work disinterestedly for the implementation of the Common Good, of the Kingdom of God.  Long live Christ the King!

Homily 2 - 2011

I have so many questions with this Gospel passage.  For a start, it immediately puts me on the defensive.  I feel vulnerable.  A second reaction, after a bit of defensive thinking, is to feel confused.  Where do I fit?  Perhaps, I’m neither a sheep nor a goat but a bit of each.  When the Son of Man comes, what will be my fate?  A third problem… I feel uneasy at the way some people seem to read the passage – something like: "When I come across people I don’t like, I try to see Jesus in them, and to love Jesus through them." To me, that could be like using people as a means to loving Jesus – by–passing the persons, not loving them, but loving Jesus.

What did Jesus himself do?  Did he by-pass persons, looking as though he loved them, but all the while really loving his Father, and virtually ignoring them as the persons they were?  I think that Jesus loved people for themselves, not as a means to anything.  I certainly hope that this is how he loves me - loves me as I am, the unique person I am – not using me to look good, or to please his Father.

Having said all this, I do have my own “take” on the story.  Whatever we do to the least of his brothers and sisters is done to Jesus in much the same way as, when I warmly reach out to a child, mum and dad can’t help but beam inside.  What I do to the child, I do to them – because they deeply love the child and, through their love, identify with their child.

But there is also something more: Since Jesus’ resurrection, something else has happened – happened not just to him but also to us.  We share in that risen humanity of Jesus.  Together, we are, as St Paul, puts it, the Body of Christ.  So, what we do to each other somehow reverberates through the cosmos.

As I reflect further, I see in the behaviours that Jesus listed, a sort of description of his own conduct.  He reached out consistently to people in need - people on the margins, excluded, people oppressed and exploited, people who were powerless.  He had a profound and spontaneous compassion, and a genuine sense of solidarity, particularly with those on the underside of society.  He connected with them.  He connected with them, as the messed-up, often unlikeable, unique, precious persons they were.

Personally, I don’t have much confidence in moralistic exhortations – even though St Matthew specialises in them.  They lack power.  For example, I strongly disagree with our country’s treatment of asylum seekers, but I have, in fact, done very little to change the situation.  Why don’t I do more?  Closer to home, I wish I were not so selective in my willingness to connect with others, especially those I disagree with, or who don’t like me.  I would love to be consistently open to whoever comes into my orbit.  But if I haven’t made it after 78 years, what chance have I got?  Will-power has got me only so far: I’m part-sheep, part-goat.

As I see it, my only hope is God himself.  God needs to empower me, to change me.  I believe that God does that by loving me.  My problem is to accept, ever more fully, God’s love with all its liberating power.  I presume I have to be patient.  Perhaps there are a lot of other things that God wants to do first with me.  All I can do, it seems to me, is wait, and hope, and relax, and do my best to keep open [however I might manage that].

In the meantime, here we all are at Mass – here, not because we’re worthy but because we’re not.  We want Jesus to get hold of us – shake us if necessary, embrace us if necessary, somehow to transform us in his image.  And I think that that is what he wants to do, what he is in the process of doing.  … Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God!

Homily 3 - 2014

The other night I watched the Irish-made film ‘Calvary’ - though it was not about Jesus’ crucifixion. It was about the murder of a good innocent priest by a victim of clerical abuse. I found it a powerful, thought-provoking film. At the end of the film, the distraught abuse victim, now an adult, confronted the priest. During the week before the encounter, the priest had found his old Labrador dog with its throat cut. The victim asked the priest about the dog, “Did you shed a tear for the dog, Father?” “I did”, said the priest. And then the victim asked, “And did you shed a tear for any of the innocent young lads raped by your brother priests, Father?” And the priest admitted, “No … I did not.” The victim shot him.

I haven’t in fact shed a tear for them either. I found it hard to sleep that night. Can I be truly compassionate without shedding a tear? Was the question a fair question? That is what I was asking myself. I don’t know.

I remembered remarks made by Pope Francis a couple of years ago, not about victims of clerical abuse, but about asylum seekers. He said, “We have lost a sense of fraternal responsibility … The culture of well-being, which leads us to think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of others”. He said it had “anaesthetised our hearts”. And he went on, “The globalisation of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep.”

Then I listen to Jesus in today’s Gospel. It sounds a bit harsh, a bit too black and white. Yet really he is telling us what eternal life is like, not only on the other side of the grave but also on this – and it is not precisely the reward for what we do, but the personal experience of who we are. What we do, and how we do it, show us, perhaps even go to make us, who we are, what we are becoming. And what we are determines how we experience life now, and how we shall carry on experiencing it for eternity.

What kind of person was Jesus? In today’s Gospel, he spoke of himself as one who saw ‘the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, the naked, the prisoner’ as his own ‘brother or sister’. He spoke as one who felt a deep, deliberate solidarity with others, a closely personal relationship, a true compassion, especially for those on the margins, the excluded, the over-looked, the invisible ones. He was not, to use Francis’s words, ‘indifferent’; his heart was not ‘anaesthetised’; he was not ‘insensitive’. Did he weep? Sometimes, at least. But he was truly compassionate, always. Earlier in his life he had said, “Blessed are the merciful, the pure of heart, the peace-makers.” Blessed! I think we know what he meant. And we know it’s true. And we know that it is not really different from love – not just justice, but love. Not ‘as if’, but truly.

Basically, true compassion flows from how we see others – whether we see them as somehow connected, in solidarity of some kind, with ourselves: our ‘brothers and sisters’. Jesus lived it – no barriers, no fences, no ‘us and them’. In his example of the vine and the branches, he talked about ‘abiding in him’ as the source of fruitfulness. Does growth in compassion come somehow, then, by osmosis, by some kind of blessed contagion – by keeping in close touch with him? I think that ultimately the insight that we are all inter-connected is gift. Life-giving action will flow from that insight, that is, from a contemplative heart. In the meantime, we may have to be content with acting ‘as if’ – and waiting, and hoping, to become authentic. But compassion will not grow in a vacuum. It will happen in relationship, everyday relationships, in the family, at work and right through all our social and political interactions.

 Homily 4 - 2017

The Feast of Christ the King is one of those feasts etched deeply in my soul. It marks the day when I began my priestly ministry in the diocese of Ballarat a year or two short of sixty years ago. It was a feast that in those days was inspirational to the Lay Apostolate of the 1950s & 60s, holding high the values and attitudes according to which young workers in the YCW movement strove to shape the world they worked and lived in. It was a feast cherished by the Second Vatican Council as it called the faithful everywhere to build Christ’s “kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, his Kingdom of justice, love and peace”.

Though the sense of Christ as King had been with the Church for centuries from the time of Constantine, the special Feast day was fairly new, having been instituted by Pope Pius XI only a few years before I was born. By stirring up devotion to Christ the King, he hoped to counteract the rising tide of militant secularism already triumphant in Russia and threatening to assert itself across Europe and elsewhere. Until then, the image of Christ as shepherd had largely held sway. The possible differences in mood suggested by the two images gave rise to a certain amount of tension in the Australian Church, and indeed in our own diocese in the earlier years of my priestly life. Is the role of the Church to serve humanity or to control it? Is it to bring God to a godless world, or to find God already at work, somehow, everywhere in the world? Or is there room for something of both? It is interesting how much Pope Francis uses the imagery of Christ, the Good Shepherd.

I remember reading around that time a thoughtful book pointing out that the most perfectly moral social order could not express the will of Christ if it were forcefully imposed on people either by dictatorial decree or by the ballot box. It would not reflect the Kingdom of Christ until and unless it were freely and knowingly chosen by people. There are no short-cuts to the Kingdom of Christ the King.

I went through an uncertain period in my life as a priest early in the 1970s. Fortunately around then I was occasionally involved, unofficially, in Australian Catholic Relief that coordinated the Church’s outreach to countries struggling with injustice and under-development. I remember attending a weekend gathering of representatives of non-government organisations discussing issues of international aid and advocacy. At first I felt overwhelmed by the participants’ commitment, effectiveness and competence. By the end of the weekend, however, I was struck by the depth of anger and hostility shown by some to whoever disagreed with their views. My disillusionment with priesthood disappeared when I realized the wonderful opportunities that I had as priest to keep insisting that, without love and compassion for everyone, work for justice might not always serve to build God’s Kingdom. And I have not looked back since then.

Today’s Readings get me thinking. Both the reading from Ezekiel and the Gospel of Matthew illustrate clearly God’s “option for the poor”. Through most of my life I have interpreted in a metaphorical, though clearly serious, sense Jesus’ statement that he takes actions done to “the least of these ” as done to him. I have come to the conclusion now that he means something more breathtaking than metaphor. Through his creative activity as Word of God, through his becoming flesh and bone with us, and then through his drawing us into his resurrection to new life, he has mysteriously yet clearly so identified with us that we are all inseparable. We truly are the Body of Christ. In giving everyone existence, God gives reality to us, shares life with each one and enables our loving. Every single human person is sacred. Every single person shares a divine dignity. This has mind-blowing implications for how we relate to everyone, to the so-called least no less than to the would-be greatest.

I believe this with my head. It has yet to soak into my heart. Give me ten more years of quiet pondering!


Homily 5 - 2020

I have heard today’s Gospel since I was a child, and still instinctively I hear it as a child — unless I deliberately decide to look more carefully, no longer as a child but as an adult. It is so easy to hear it simply moralistically in terms of reward and punishment.

Jesus’ story is about enjoying “the kingdom prepared for us since the foundation of the world”. What will that experience consist in? Essentially, it’s about the company we can enjoy there — God and all those whom God loves. But to enjoy them, we, too, like God, shall need to love them.

Remember how Jesus in John’s Gospel said, “Anyone who receives my commandments .. will be one who loves me; and those who love me … I too shall love them and show myself to them. On that day you will understand that I am in my Father and you in me and I in you”. Mind-blowing! The kingdom experience is being in love. But, as he said, we can’t love Jesus without “receiving his commandments” and committing to love everyone else. That is not a nuisance, or a distraction, but is part and parcel of any genuine love. Love reaches outwards.

Jesus said true discipleship is like a vine. The vine is Jesus, and we are the branches — now. Jesus is real in people. That is why he said to those on his right in today’s Gospel passage, “as long as you [reached out lovingly] to one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it to me”.

If our lives are not focused on learning to love everyone [and that takes a lifetime to get anywhere near even partially succeeding], then we are kidding ourselves if we think we are loving Jesus. And we are also kidding ourselves if we think we can enjoy the reality of the kingdom. That is why Jesus sadly observed to those on his left, “As long as you neglected to [reach out] to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.” It seems that those who haven’t made loving others, even those they despise or fear, or those on the margins, an over-riding priority of their earthly lives inevitably condemn themselves to the continuing self-focussed experience of lovelessness and loneliness for eternity.

As the kingdom experience of learning to live in love, with Jesus and with everyone else, begins to take shape in this life, we discover, perhaps surprisingly, it truly is Good News!