By Corrine Winter
This past Sunday, the Church celebrated the feast of Christ the King — the last Sunday of the liturgical year. The phrase “Christ the King” conjures images of power and grandeur. The “Last Judgment,” to which we often refer as well at this time of year, is depicted by Michelangelo, among others, as a scene of awesome power and the stern condemnation of sinners.
Who is Christ the King? And what is the nature of his kingdom? At times, Christians seem to be tempted to view it as a safe haven for all who claim the name of Christian. Some, although this is not a Catholic perspective, have even described it as a kind of exclusive group including those who “are saved” and barring those who are not. There was a time when many Catholics simply equated the Kingdom of God with the institutional Church — an identification that was explicitly modified at Vatican II. There the Church was called “the kingdom … now present in mystery (LG n. 3,)” and was said to “subsist in the Catholic Church (LG n. 8.)” Clear delimitations may seem reassuring. One can easily tell who does and who does not belong.
But the readings for the Sunday provide a collage of images, not all of which fit our usual associations. The first reading speaks of God as a shepherd who seeks out the lost. The second reading refers to Christ as the new Adam in whom resurrection is promised to all. He has a kingdom, which he hands over to God after destroying “every sovereignty and power.” And the Gospel portrays him as a judge — but as he describes the criteria for judgment, he identifies himself with “the least of these,” with those in need of food, drink and shelter; with those who are ill and in prison.
So it seems that those who belong to Christ’s kingdom are not, or at least not necessarily, the wise, the strong and the insiders. Through the work of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, the kingdom beckons and welcomes those who have been lost, beaten down and overwhelmed.
To belong to the Kingdom involves doing the same — clothing the naked, feeding the hungry…
St. Irenaeus, a third-century bishop of Lyons, spoke of salvation as “recapitulation,” the restoration of creation to the goodness that marked its origin as told in Genesis I. That restoration begins with the Incarnation when full humanity and full divinity are in one person. Jesus the Christ is the message of salvation — of our call to full communion with God. He is also the one in whom that fullness will be realized and all evil will be driven out. Contemporary theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar reads Irenaeus and others as suggesting that possibly the condemnation to come will be of evil itself and not ultimately of any persons. He reads the Gospel as a call to hope for exactly that outcome. Von Balthasar is not a radical “liberal.” In fact, those inclined to such labels generally view him as a “conservative.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that Catholics believe in the eternal reality of hell as the freely chosen destiny of any who willfully turn away from God and persist in that choice “until the end (CCC n 1037). The Catechism immediately goes on to affirm the universal salvific will of God and the Church’s constant prayer that all will be saved.
The Catechism describes the message of the Last Judgment and of God’s Kingdom as a call to conversion (CCC 1041) and, citing the Vatican Document on the Church, says of the Kingdom of God: “At that time, together with the human race, the universe itself, which is so closely related to humanity and which attains its destiny through them, will be perfectly re-established in Christ (CCC 1042, LG 48).”
Thus, the feast of Christ the King is a time for hope and for conversion. It is not ours to wonder who is part of the Kingdom and who is not, but to examine the multiple parables and teachings of Jesus concerning the Kingdom as a call to new life — a new life offered constantly and urgently in Christ to all creation.
(Corinne Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)