This November has been unusual in that on three Sundays, the normal cycle of liturgical celebrations has been interrupted with beautiful feasts. All Souls Day was followed by the dedication of the pope’s cathedral, and we end the liturgical year with the celebration of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.
The Solemnity of Christ the King used to be observed on the last Sunday of October as a way flowing into All Saints. The saints are those who looked at the world around them, decided to follow Christ, rejecting other standards, and grew so closely to their King that all who follow Christ could venerate them as truly holy.
This year, the Gospel chosen for Christ the King is Jesus’ famous final judgment discourse from St. Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus indicates that at the end of time the Lord will separate sheep from goats. The sheep are those who have conformed their lives to Christ so closely that they lived the corporal works of mercy in feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty. The goats are those who chose another path.
At first glance the analogy is condescending. God sees His people as sheep or goats? They aren’t the most intelligent animals, but their innate dispositions reveal Jesus’s point. Goats are notoriously independent animals, often wandering into harm’s way without knowing it. Sheep are communal animals that prefer to walk and remain with their shepherd and the other sheep around them.
God as a final judge through Jesus may also seem unappealing in a world obsessed with negating all judgment. “Don’t judge me,” we often hear. In the Scriptures, however, judgment indicates an adopted standard. The Book of Judges celebrates Samson because he would not forsake God in the midst of godlessness. The same Book describes Deborah as a judge who led God’s people against the tyranny of a marauding king. Both adopted and lived the standard of God’s Covenant.
Jesus did teach His followers not to judge when it means passing ultimate sentence on the eternal disposition of another. “Stop judging, and you will not be judged,” Jesus taught. Strangely, that seems to be the one judgment our society will still accept. Each time a beloved celebrity dies voices assure us that their souls are in heaven.
For believers, judgment doesn’t pass sentence on another, but rather looks at the world and picks the standard to which we subscribe. Thankfully, the Lord assumed our humanity to show that through His grace His people can be righteous. Each sacrament is meant to help us judge wisely like Samson and Deborah. The Eucharist Christ left us might be called the sacrament of judgment in as much as believers look around the world and choose to follow the standard of the God with whom “nothing will be impossible,” even the transformation of bread and wine into the Sacrifice of the Cross. It really is a sacred mystery.