Friday, November 21, 2008

Lectionary Notes

Some Notes for
The Last Sunday after Pentecost:
The Reign of Christ
Sunday 23 November 2008.

On the Last Sunday of the Church Year we celebrate Christ as King. Although the BAS uses rather an impersonal title for this feast, the meaning is no different, as can be seen from the Collect, which speaks of Christ “our Lord and King” and of course from the Gospel which speaks of the Son of man as the King in judgment. “Reign” after all means “kingly rule”.
Christ the King is the most recently established of the feasts of our Lord, having been instituted by Pope Pius XI (Achille Ratti) in December 1925. A brief history may be found at The original explanation of the feast, and of the meaning of the title King as given to Christ, may be found in Pius XI’s encyclical Quas Primas of 11 December 1925, at
In the three year cycle of the Lectionary, the gospel readings chosen for this feast look at the kingship of Christ in three ways. In Year A, this year, the passage tells of Christ’s coming to take the royal judgment seat and settle all creation under his gracious and loving rule; in Year B the gospel is John 18..33-37, in which Christ stands before the judgment seat of Pilate, who asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?”, and we hear the reply, “My kingdom is not of this world.” In year C the gospel is Luke 23.33-43, which shows us Christ on the Cross, that most mysterious throne. It is the request of the thief, Dysmas, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”, which points to the truth of this scene.

Almost every word of the readings for this feast might provoke a comment or a train of thought, so to keep these notes within manageable and useful limits, we will abandon the method of writing a note on each passage. For this, the RCL commentary from the Diocese of Montreal provides excellent introductions and notes on the eeadings for this feast, and I commend them to you. An examination of the “clippings” page will repay the time, if you can give it. See
Here, now, are a few points that arise from reading these passages.

Sheep and Shepherds ....
The image or theme of sheep and shepherds unite the first reading, the Psalm and the Gospel reading, while the judgment of the Gospel passage is foreshadowed by that in Ezekiel, “Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.” The RCL notes point out the close link in ancient Middle Eastern thought in general and in Biblical thought in particular between the ideas of king and shepherd.
Perhaps the most important verse about shepherds in today's readings is Psalm 100, verse 2: “Know that the LORD is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” The Bible’s declaration that the Lord is our shepherd is rightly beloved by all, for it is a word of comfort and hope in a world which often seems indifferent at best. But is this declaration that we are his sheep equally well-loved? Let us ask ourselves what are its implications: and more particularly that “we are his”? How does this square with the independence and autonomy that people so often pride themselves on?
In this connection we may also ask whether the fierce loyalty to the doctrine of Creation we so often hear about is matched by an equal loyalty to the doctrine that one is a creature.
... and goats
John Chrysostom noted that the distinction between sheep and goats was that sheep were used “to denote the unprofitableness of the one, and the fruitfulness of the other, for sheep are greatly productive in fleece, milk, and lambs.” Whether Chrysostom was being entirely fair to the goats is hardly the point here
It is much more important that we remember that it is not our job to say who are sheep and who are goats. Remember that both are surprised by the judgment. In The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis, the end of the world and Last Judgment of Narnia are described in a way that brings out the fact that we do not know who will be saved. At the end, all the creatures of the world of Narnia come running "up to the doorway where Aslan stood." As they came right up to Aslan (who represents Christ) and looked in his face some responded with fear and hate; these went to the left and disappeared into his shadow; the others "looked in his face and loved him" ;these passed to his right through the doorway. But, as Lewis writes,
There were some queer specimens among them. Eustace even recognized one of the Dwarfs who had helped to shoot the Horses. But he had no time to wonder about that sort of thing (and anyway it was no business of his) ...
Although the Bible clearly works in distinctions: good and evil, light and dark, left and right, sheep and goats, and many others, it is not for us to make the distinctions (cf the Parable of the Tares among the Wheat, Mat 13.24-30). It is for us to show love and kindness to all.
This, of course, brings us back to the fact that we are God's and not our own. When we are all subject to judgment, there is no time to be condemning our fellow sheep, or hiding the very goatish points in our own characters/
By the way
The Epistle passage from Ephesians does not fit into the sheep and shepherd theme; rather it is a prase of the exaltation of Christ as over all things and the head of his body, the Church,

The RCL notes make it clear that there is no one interpretation of this passage that is universally accepted: some take the nations to mean all peoples of the earth, both Gentile and Jew; others to mean only the Gentiles. It should be noted that in the Catholic tradition, the passage is taken to be about the General Judgment of all people of the world.
As a general rule, we Christians should hear all the gospel passages about judgment as being addressed to us. Regardless of questions raised in commentaries, when we hear a reference to what is done or not done to “the least of my brothers and sisters”, we know that we are being called to examine how we behave to those around us, and whether we see Christ in the deprived and downtrodden. A good rule of thumb is “Passages about judgment are always addressed to me”
The Gospel states that the Son of man comes in glory for judgment; but his identification with the poor and oppressed makes it clear that he has never really been away. Compare how the Lord identifies persecution of his disciples as persecution of himself in Acts 9.5. We cannot think that he is far away, but here in mystery, and the “coming” will be the manifestation of his present rule.
We should notice that the judgement is not about what we feel, or think, of “these least” but about what we do to them. But perhaps we should not think of this story as being about Judgment Day and not about today. The lesson to be learned is to to realize that when we see someone in need, we see Christ, and that that is the moment of judgment. How can we make this real for ourselves?
An interesting and fresh interpretation of Bible stories can be found in the late mediaeval mystery plays, which present popular dramatic versions of the whole history of salvation . For a general introduction to these plays, with good links to further information, see In the Mercers’ play of the Last Judgment from the city of York we find the words of the King to the righteous set like this:

Jesus: When I was hungry, ye me fed;
To slake my thirst your heart was free;
When I was clotheless, ye me clad;
Ye would no sorrow upon me see;
In hard prison when I weas stead.
Of my penance ye had pity;
Full sick when I was brought in bed,
Kindly ye came to comfort me.

When I was will and weariest lost
Ye harboured me full heartfully sheltered, cordially
Full glad the were ye of your guest,
And plained my poverty piteously; lamented
Believe ye brought me of the best quickly
And made my bed full easily; comfortably
Therefore in heaven shall be your rest,
In joy and bliss to me be by

To their question, when did we see thee hungry, came the reply

Jesus. My blessed children I shall you say
What time this deed was to me done:
When any that need had, night or day,
Asked you help and had it soon;
Your free hearts said rhem never nay,
Early ne late, midday ne noon,
But as oftsithes as they wold pray, often
Them hurt but bid, and have their boon

A modern English version of this play may be found at From there you can find links to the other

Finally we may notice the difference in the way the King speaks of the reward of the righteous (verse 34) and the punishment of the unrighteous (verse 41). The first are “blessed of my Father” and invited to a kingdom “prepared for them from the foundation of the world”. The others are called “cursed”, but not “of” or “by my Father”; perhaps it was their own inhumanity that cursed them. Again, the fire was not “prepared for them”, but “for the Devil and his angels”, and it was not prepared “from the foundation of the world”. As one commentator put it, “The kingdom was prepared for the righteous, but not the fire for the unrighteous.” These verses ought to be taken into account when the Last Things are to be considered.
Next week a new Church year begins with the First Sunday of Advent/

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