Scripture Readings, Nov. 22, 2020

Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, Year A

Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17

Psalm 23:1-6

1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28

Matthew 25:31-46

We worship Christ-poor. In his very poverty lies our hope. He calls us to become poor with him and then to look out for our own – that is, the poor. And as we do, we grow in the freedom and true joy of the children of God. It’s that simple, and that challenging, all at once.

I must admit that between the bitter political divisions marking our nation in these days and the recent release of the McCarrick Report detailing grotesque and systemic failures of leadership in our Church, it has been easy to feel rather hopeless of late – spiritually lost at sea.

Then Psalm 146 fell in my lap again as it had this summer. And after that, the readings for this Sunday’s Feast of Christ the King. Both invite us to place our only hope and thus find our true joy in Christ-poor.

Psalm 146 is a psalm of praise. It exhorts us quite squarely to “Put no trust in princes, in mortal men in whom there is no salvation. Take their breath, they return to clay, and their plans that day come to nothing.” (Psalm 146:3-4) Neither Joseph Biden nor Donald Trump nor Theodore McCarrick nor the Pope himself can offer us salvation. It is Christ alone who has that gift to give. For that reason, “He is happy who is helped by Jacob’s God, whose hope is in the Lord his God, who alone made heaven and earth, the seas and all they contain.” (Psalm 146:5-6a)

When we place our trust and hope in God and not in men, we find ourselves happy again, because our foundation is no longer on the vaporous plans of men who come and go, but on the one who made the very ground upon which we all stand. And he’s not going anywhere.

Notice that the Psalm calls on “the God of Jacob” – Jacob, whose name meant “supplanter” or “over-reacher.” He was another man pursuing his own schemes, who then had a run-in with God. As he wrestled with God in that famous scene, he was wounded, and in being wounded found it wise to surrender to God, and in surrendering received God’s blessing and a new name: “Israel” or “he who wrestles with God.”

Omnipotent as he is, God condescends to wrestle with us, each caught in our own schemes and plans for our life, our world, and how we think it all ought to be. In fact he wants us to wrestle with him, because just like any child wrestling with their father, we soon discover that we can’t win. This wounds us, but in that very wound, we discover the wisdom and joy of surrendering to our Father, who in fact loves us and wants nothing more than to pour out his blessing on us, wounds and all.

This discovery of our own poverty is perhaps the first step in opening our hearts to true Christian joy, because it allows our happiness to be found in God rather than in our own schemes. And this God, Psalm 146 proclaims, loves the poor – he loves us. “It is he who keeps faith forever, who is just to those who are oppressed. It is he who gives bread to the hungry, the Lord, who sets prisoners free, the Lord who gives sight to the blind, who raises up those who are bowed down, the Lord who protects the stranger and upholds the widow and orphan.” (Psalm 146:6b-9)

This week, the Church closes its entire liturgical year by reflecting on this mystery that Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, identifies himself not with “the sleek and the strong” (Ezekiel 34:16) but with those least among us. (cf. Matthew 25:40,45) Through the prophet Ezekiel, God promises that he himself will come to shepherd his flock because of the failure of the shepherds. (cf. Ezekiel 34:1-12) And when he does, he will seek out the lost, bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, heal the sick, and destroy the sleek and the strong. (cf. Ezekiel 34:16)

Of course, we know that he fulfills this prophecy in Christ, but when he comes, Christ then takes it further. It is not enough for him to shepherd his sheep in justice and mercy from on high. He actually becomes a member of the flock – a lamb – and a poor, naked, imprisoned, hungry, thirsty one at that. He identifies with us in every way, and then asks us how we’ve cared for him.

He does this because love is mutual, and Christ wants us to learn it among ourselves. Since for many reasons we find it easier to love God than our fellow man, God becomes man so that we can learn to love each other. It is not enough for us to recognize our own weakness and cry out in trust to our loving God. We must learn to hear the cry of those in need around us and extend to them the Father’s love, like the good shepherds he has always wanted his people to be. As we learn this, we begin to taste the Father’s joy, which is to love the poor.

In the latest chapter of our broken world, we’ve been told that the pandemic may cause us to have to “cancel Thanksgiving” or even “cancel Christmas.” I submit that this may be the year we actually rediscover them both in truth, since what have we to be grateful for if not God’s faithfulness to those who are bowed down? And what is Christmas if not a quiet, humble tribute to Christ-poor?