Today, we celebrate the feast of “Christ, King of the Universe.” It’s a pretty lofty title for a carpenter turned itinerant preacher who died the grisly death of a state criminal. Jesus is portrayed any number of ways in the Scriptures. Today’s readings highlight two in particular.
In the first reading, we hear that the Lord will come as a shepherd to rescue, bind up and heal the sheep. In the second reading, Paul exalts the risen Christ in king-like terms: Christ will destroy every sovereignty and power, and after subjecting everything, He will hand the kingdom to his Father. In Matthew’s Gospel, Christ refers to Himself as both king and shepherd AND includes one more identity, that of “the least one.” This last role seems to be a source of confusion for both the righteous and the damned. They ask Christ: “ When did we ever see you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, ill or in prison?” Being one of the least ones is one of Christ’s secret identities.
Hidden identities have a rich presence in literature and film, and I personally find these stories hard to resist. They run the gamut in terms of period, style and narrative. Consider Cinderella, Twelfth Night, and Harry Potter; or Psycho, Back to the Future and You’ve Got Mail. The list is long and wide ranging. I experience delicious moments as a reader and audience member when I know more than the characters do. I relish observing how everyone treats the character with the hidden identity, and typically, I smugly opine, “Oh, if they only knew what I know!!” I think of poor Lois Lane! How embarrassed she’d be if she knew Clark Kent was Superman. And what about Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz? Would she have still gone through all those trials to reach the Great and Powerful Oz if she’d glimpsed that old guy behind the curtain before setting off down the yellow brick road?
Jesus lets us in on His secret though. He tells us how to recognize him, and that He won’t be in the guise of the powerful, sleek and strong. Nope, I know He is the homeless man selling roses at the Storrow Drive exit off the Pike. He’s that single mom with three kids and a job as a home health aide trying to get her GED. He’s the non-verbal, 6-year-old boy in the wheelchair waiting for adoption whom I read about in the Sunday Globe.
We are called to be shepherds to others just as Christ shepherds us – to rescue those who are lost or have strayed, to give pasture and rest to the weary, to bind up wounds, be they physical or emotional. Christ is moving about the world, often looking nothing like us but disguised, for example, as the addicted, uneducated, homeless, jailed, food insecure. Shouldn’t we be tripping over ourselves to tend to Him, to get to know Him, to treat Him with deference and respect? If we manage to make it as shepherds in this life, Christ promises us the kingly reward of eternal life.
So how can we make a habit of seeing Christ in others, particularly those who don’t look like us, think like us or live like we do? Prayer and contemplation certainly help. Getting to know the Lord better and deepening our relationship with Him makes it easier to recognize Him in unfamiliar faces. When you know someone really well, you can just tell it’s them, right? Even a good costume doesn’t mask their identity from you. Aunt May knew Peter Parker so well she perceived he was Spider Man. I can recognize my husband from fifty yards away just by his walk. God is hidden in plain sight. We just need to remove the veil of distractions and everyday expectations for the Mystery to be revealed.
Knowing ourselves well also helps us to recognize that Jesus is standing before us clear as day. So, who are we… really? Mothers, husbands, colleagues, neighbors? Yes, but none of those are our identity. They are roles that define our relationships in the world. Our core nature, our true identity is that we are each a unique creation of a loving God, and it gives shape to those important roles we play in our families and society. Knowing our true nature helps us recognize the primacy of God in everyone else. As the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr writes: “Love is our deepest identity and what we are created in and for. To love someone ‘in God’ is to love them for their own sake and not for what they do for us. Only a transformed consciousness sees another person as another self, as one who is also loved by Christ, […].” How well do you know yourself? Are you able to view your roles through the lens of this identity of love? Can you discern it in others when your paths cross?
Now, you may have noticed that I didn’t talk about that final, formidable and uncompromising separation of the sheep and the goats in the Gospel. It does strike fear in my heart to think I could possibly end up with the goats, but fear, I realize, is a product of the human world. In Christ the King’s universe fear doesn’t exist, there is only love. Sin, simply put, is a rejection of love. So, to end up on the side of the sheep rather than get stuck with the goats, I must continually tap into my true identity. As I go through my day, I must make it my mantra: choose love.