Readings: Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17; I Corinthians 15: 20-26, 28; Matthew 25:31-46
I suspect that at one time or another we have all seen film footage of those unforgettable scenes of jubilation and celebration as French, Dutch and Belgian civilians rushed into their often war-devastated streets to greet the liberating Allied Troops entering their town or city in the final days of the Second World War. And whereas certain areas of liberated Europe were left physically unscathed by the conflict, other regions had to endure great destruction as the German forces stubbornly resisted and slowly retreated. People in these latter areas might, at times, have wondered if the German occupation were not preferable to the devastation occurring in the bloody process of being liberated. Accordingly, it is only after the Allied victory that these suffering people were able to fully appreciate what they had been liberated from. But in order to be liberated it was initially necessary to submit to the incursion of a foreign force trusting that the Allied occupation would be temporary and that their sovereignty would soon be restored.
In an analogous way the establishment of the Kingship of Christ within our hearts follows a similar difficult and usually painful pattern. For our hearts too–whether we realize it or not–are occupied territory still under the sway of evil forces bent on our destruction and eternal servitude. And thus Jesus can insist: Amen, amen I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin. Describing the same slavery, Saint Paul laments: I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want. And thus oppressed by this bitter servitude we turn in desperation to the Christ who promised that if the Son sets you free then you will be freed indeed.
Now if there is a spiritual D-Day in the heart of the Christian, then it is surely the day of our baptism when our fundamental alienation from God is overcome and the seed of eternal life and eternal liberation is sown. However, like the landing on the beaches of Normandy, baptism is only the beginning of what, for most of us, is a bitter and long campaign. As with so many campaigns there are both victories and defeats, advances and retreats. And like occupied Europe with its resistance fighters, our effort to free ourselves will have only limited and temporary success is we are not assisted by those heavenly allies at whose head Christ the King, the Victor over sin, death, the grave and evil.
However, these seemingly insignificant resistance efforts on our part, while not achieving the definitive victory, are crucial not only in signaling our resolve to not give up, but also by indicating our openness to being liberated by our victorious King and Lord. This is necessary because being freed initially requires what seems to be the surrendering of our freedom and sovereignty and thus we hesitate and at times even resist submitting our will and choices to the divine will because we don’t yet fully trust its wisdom and fundamental goodness. Like those long, dark, five years of European occupation, our own time of struggle includes moments when we feel abandoned or when the battle undertaken on our behalf seems to be doing more harm than the evil it is purporting to destroy. This is the time for summoning any remaining reservoirs of faith and hope and reminding ourselves of the Lord’s promise expressed so reassuringly in our first reading: I will rescue [my sheep] from every place where they were scattered when it was cloudy and dark. The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, and the sick I will heal.
If we do entrust ourselves to the Good Shepherd and allow him to begin rescuing us and freeing us, we will reach the crucial moment when we know that there can be no turning back. For, as painful and difficult as the struggle has become, returning to what we once were and surrendering anew to the bitter yoke of sin is no longer an option. This turning point is reached because slowly–sometimes ever so slowly–we begin to sense small areas of our hearts and lives being freed from alien occupation and enslavement as we begin to taste some foretaste (however slight) of the freedom Christ’s kingship promises. And so, some habitual pattern of sin, some self-destructive sequence of behaviors, loses its destructive hold over our lives as we begin to choose and act more freely and more in keeping with our true dignity as God’s beloved children. These initial installments paid towards our still-to-be-achieved full freedom then serve to bolster our hope and courage in persevering in the struggle.
And looking at those who have attained to this full freedom of the sons and daughters of God–that is, the saints–we see the establishment of the kingship of Christ in our hearts, while initially calling for submission and the giving up our self-will, leads to its being restored to us in a purified and even divinized form. For as Christ becomes King in our hearts, we are gradually empowered to see with Christ’s eyes, and in assuming his divine perspective are united with Christ in such a way that, in the words of William of Saint-Thierry we not only [freely] will the same thing, but now possess the inability to will anything else. And thus, if your heart is still oppressed and, like the darkest days of Europe, still under the cruel domination of the enemy, take that step of trust and submit your life and heart anew to Christ the King. For despite the illusory promises of the Evil One who promises freedom, he is, in the words of the Lord, nothing but a thief [who] comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy. In contrast, submitting to Christ our King unites us with the one who came so that [we] might have life and have it more abundantly. And although in our struggle towards V-Day there is a good chance that, like so many in Europe, we won’t experience our final victory in this life, yet, in the words of a wise Desert Father, even if we cannot [yet] enter the Promised Land, it is better for our bones to fall in the wilderness than for us to turn back to Egypt.