THE lections for this Sunday’s feast remind us that Christ’s kingship stands in contradiction to this world’s conceptions of status and power. They also assure us that every exercise of human power will ultimately be held to account by him.
Ezekiel addresses the strong and powerful who have “butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide”. The repeated failure of Israel’s rulers to protect the poor vindicates the Lord’s warnings to the people when they first wanted an earthly king (cf. 1 Samuel 8.10-18).
God’s promise here is that he will judge these oppressors. As in the days of the Judges, he will once again “be the shepherd of my sheep” (v.15). The Lord goes on to declare that he will “set up” over Israel “one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them”. As Robert Jenson observes, it is in Christ the King — both the Son of David and the Son of God — that these promises are fulfilled (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Ezekiel).
Jesus’s teaching on judgment likewise occurs in a context where injustice and oppression seem to have the upper hand. For the poorest and most vulnerable in particular, Christian teaching on the Last Judgement “is not primarily an image of terror, but an image of hope” (Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi: On Christian hope).
Our Gospel reading comes immediately before the events of his Passion. Just after it, Jesus is anointed in Bethany by an anonymous woman: in the same act, she anoints him on the head like a king, and prepares him for his burial. Here, too, we see the authority and sacrifice of Christ intertwined (Matthew 26.6,12).
In his final piece of teaching, Jesus repeats Ezekiel’s assurance that the unjust powers which seem to dominate will be held to account. He pictures the Son of Man returning in glory to judge “all the nations”. As in Ezekiel, he is pictured as a “shepherd”. But Jesus declares himself more than simply a judge. He is also present in each of those who are hungry or thirsty, a stranger or naked, sick or in prison.
The sixth-century theologian Epiphanius Scholasticus explains that Jesus “hungers not in his own nature but in his poor. . . The Lord, the one who can liberate every person, is not in prison in his own nature but in his saints.” This was the status of most of the disciples he gathered in his earthly ministry, and likewise in the Primitive Church (cf. 1 Corinthians 1.26-31, 1 Peter 2.21-25, James 2.5-7). Jesus did not just call into being a Church with a heart for the poor, but a Church with the poorest at its heart.
Our Gospel calls the Church to be a body which both manifests Christ’s vulnerability and poverty within its inner being and recognises and serves him in all who are in need. St Teresa of Calcutta declares that the Church must “see and adore” the presence of Christ in “the lowly appearance of bread” and of “the poor”.
Jesus’s words to Saul on the Damascus road also declare his presence in his vulnerable body. In persecuting the Church, the apostle is persecuting Christ (Acts 9.4). This revelation shapes Paul’s theology. We see its outworking in our epistle, in which he speaks of the kingly reign of Christ and of the Church as “his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all”.
Our lections hold together the poverty of Christ with his exalted status as the king of all creation. They hold together the same qualities of poverty and exaltation in their teaching on the Church.
To emphasise the glory of the Church while forgetting its call to be cruciform leads to a demonic parody of the gospel: the enthronement of this world’s values and powers in the place of the Crucified One.
By the same token, if we emphasise the poverty and vulnerability of Christ while forgetting his power, our practice becomes “functionally atheistic”. It will be anxious and ego-driven, because it is no longer grounded in his transforming work (cf. Sarah Bachelard, The Ego-driven Church: The perils of Christian activism). In a time of great challenge for the Church, this feast invites us to meditate on our true source of hope, so that our response can be both confident and faithful — whatever the years ahead may hold.
WITH this column, Canon Angus Ritchie completes the three-year cycle of Bible readings. His successor is to be the Revd Dr Cally Hammond, Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.
Cally Hammond studied ancient history and literature before her ordination in 1998. She served as a parish priest in Bedfordshire before her appointment to Gonville and Caius, where she teaches Latin, Greek, and early Christian history. She has published a trilogy of books on prayer (Passionate Christianity, Joyful Christianity, and Glorious Christianity), and a study of how words work in worship (The Sound of the Liturgy), all with SPCK. Her new edition and translation of St Augustine’s Confessions was published by Harvard in the Loeb Classical Library series in 2014-16. She gives lectures and leads retreats introducing people to Augustine, and encourages people to learn from his love of scripture, his prayer life, and his personal dedication to God. Her study guide, Augustine’s Life of Prayer, Learning and Love: Lessons for Christian living, is published by the Bible Reading Fellowship. She also has an interest in the words used in Christian worship, and enjoys repurposing ancient Christian poems and prayers for use in chapel services.