Christ Pantocrator, Monreale Cathedral, Palermo, Italy.
Sunday 26 November 2017.
Amen, I say to you, whatever you did
for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me. Matthew 25:40.
Unlike just about every other feast in the church’s calendar, this one is less than 100 years old. It was established by Pope Pius XI in 1925. It was a deliberate attempt to counteract secularism in modern society, and was possibly an attempt to influence the political situation in Italy at that time. The ancient Papal States, which had stretched across the middle of the Italian peninsular from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Adriatic Sea, had been ruled directly by the popes for over 1000 years This was conquered by the forces of Italian unification in 1871. All the popes from that time on had refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Italian state, and refused even to set foot in it. This gave rise to the expression “the prisoner of the Vatican”. With this new feast, the pope was trying to point out where legitimate power ultimately lay – with Christ. Well, history tells us that only four years later, in 1929, an agreement was reached between the Catholic Church and the state of Italy with the creation of the Vatican City State, independent of Italy, a sovereign state in its own right, with the pope as its head. This has lasted down to today. The philosophy behind it states that no lay authority should have any influence whatever over the religious mission of the church, and that has what has come to pass. Unlike other “state churches” such as the Anglican established Church of England, where major changes require an act of parliament signed (technically) by the queen, and where the bishops are chosen by the prime minister and the monarch (no doubt with plenty of input from church people), the Catholic church is completely free of any such lay authority.
So, what is the meaning of this feast for regular Catholics? First of all, it occurs on the last Sunday of the church’s year. Next Sunday marks the beginning of Advent. In a sense it marks the culmination of all the teachings of the past year, reminding us that one day each one of us will stand before the King of the Universe to justify our lives and what we have done to live out this King’s teachings. As today’s gospel says,
[Christ] 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. Matthew 25:31-32.
Our job is to try and make sure we are not lumped with the goats! And the remedy is spelled out in some of the clearest language in all of scripture. Have I fed the hungry? Have I clothed the naked? Have I visited prisoners? Have I given drink to those who were thirsty? Have I welcomed the stranger? Have I tended the sick? Placing these barbed questions before us today makes us feel as though we are, in fact, standing before the Lord of lords. How does each one of us answer? What evidence do we have of obedience to God’s commands to do such, for on such evidence depends our eternal life thereafter. Hence this is a wake-up call to holiness before it’s too late.
Now I believe that these questions may be taken literally or metaphorically. For example, feeding the hungry. Here in the USA there may be hungry people (just traveling on the New York subway it is very likely we will hear such a claim). But in many areas abroad there is actual and really dire hunger, even famine. There are clear ways we can help such people, and that is what we should do. Prison can be taken as thickly walled structure with barred windows, but there are other, more hidden, prisons. Teachers are faced daily with students who are locked in a prison of ignorance. An inability to read, for example, will limit a person’s freedom enormously. If a person’s God-given gifts are not identified and developed by parents and teachers, that person’s life will be horribly damaged. Refugees, of whom we have heard a great deal recently, are strangers in a new land. How have we welcomed and helped them? Clearly that is what God wants us to do. So, expanding those questions that God will place before us really can challenge every one of us and prompt us to do what is right and just right now, when we can. That is how we avoid being lumped with the goats! And then we will hear those golden words:
Come, you who are blessed by my Father.
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. Matthew 25:34.
Apse of the Basilica of San Clemente al Laterano, 12th century, Rome, Italy.
At the base are 12 lambs representing the 12 apostles, six emerging from Bethlehem on the left and six from Jerusalem, all walking towards the Lamb of God in the center. It is our job to follow them emerging from wherever we live.