The official hymn of my alma mater, Wycliffe College, opens with a line that is startlingly efficient in its forthrightness and its strangeness: “King of Love, O Christ, we crown you/Lord of thought and Lord of will….” (#451 in our blue hymnal) The concept of Christ’s Reign can be foreign to those of us in western societies at the end of the modern era. If you prioritize individual thought and choice, then the notion anyone as “Lord of thought and will” is offensive, understandably. If you emphasize personal agency and discernment while seeking to understand your vocation within the community of God’s people, then it can be difficult, at best.
We don’t really have much of a concept of “reign” or “kingship” in contemporary democracies. In Canada we do have a monarch, but she’s a nice, politically powerless nonagenarian across the Atlantic who we can remember as much or as little as we want. Our system of government is intended to poise a fine balance between sharing power among various cabinet ministers and other parliamentarians and provincial legislators, and consolidating power enough to get responsive programs and services to people in an effective way. Most cherished of all, our constitutional entrenchment of rights and freedoms can be seen as a decisive chapter in a long and painful history that includes the fights for women’s suffrage, Indigenous self-determination and equal access to marriage for same-sex couples. In these and many other areas, that historical struggle is ever ongoing.
And the Feast of the Reign of Christ shines so brightly because this struggle is ongoing. The readings for this coming Sunday present us with another, dare I say apocalyptic, image: not a violent conqueror but a serene yet diligent shepherd. This shepherd has faithfully led the flock to the green pasture at the End of the Age. Now he serenely sits down to diligently distinguish those who are part of the flock that followed him there, and those who want to harm the rest of the sheep. Through the prophecy of Ezekiel, God promises to be that good shepherd: “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.”
I don’t think it’s helpful right now to take this judgement between “sheep” and “goats” (as Matthew’s Gospel puts it) as a sort of “bean-counting” between righteous individual people and unrighteous. Whether or not that’ll happen isn’t for us to say, and at any rate, it’s been so abused and obscured by those who are afraid of people who are different, so often used to draw dividing lines to protect “us” from “them.”
I think we should rather take this judgement as God’s decision to uphold “sheepness” over “goatness;” his promise to embrace our vulnerabilities, welcome us and others in love, and to banish hate and fear itself. His promise to then provide us with the strength to follow this shepherd–to embrace and welcome others as he does–as part of his flock.
Christ our King offers us the patterns of thinking and habits of willing that enable us to love and serve others, patterns and habits that have the power to displace our fear, bitterness and despair, if we submit (another difficult word) to being a part of his work of welcoming, healing and gathering all people together in love. To be sure, this includes constitutional equality, rights and freedoms, fairness and justice, clear leadership and legal accountability. But it goes beyond that, involves the work of gathering and forming a community that flourishes in its creative diversity, in its mutual, compassionate listening and its commitment to a common life.
Jesus completed this work on the Cross, when as the Sacrificial Lamb he drew all people to himself. Only this Suffering Servant is worthy to open the seals of time, worthy to be “Lord of thought and Lord of will.” Now he invites us to be part of his task of making this tangible in the world today, through his Holy Spirit. This is what it means for God to offer us the gift of agency and discernment, the gift of our wondrously diverse vocations amidst the human family, the very gift of identity and selfhood. May we cherish the Reign of Christ as the very gift of God’s own love, which welcomes all, heals all and includes all.
The hymn concludes: