Back Where He Belongs
Solemnity of Christ the King. Fr Toby Lees faces the challenges of ‘lockdown Christianity’.
One of the better slogans I’ve seen recently said, ‘We talk about putting the ‘Christ’ back into Christmas, but how about putting the ‘Christ’ back into Christian?’
It seemed a particularly pertinent slogan for what we might call ‘lockdown Christianity’ where an enormous amount of the life of faith is being lived out online . . . and I’m very conscious of where you’re reading this right now!
From my experience, Christianity online – much like in society more generally – tends to be pretty moralising. The days of the dictatorship of relativism are gone and any infringement of the law is condemned and made as visible as possible.
Many of the things condemned I think are worthy of condemnation, even if I don’t agree with the style and manner. But there are a great deal of issues which get called to our attention, many of them a long way from any sphere of influence we might have, and it can get pretty tiring condemning everything that needs condemning, and might not leave time for prayer or for action.
My main worry is that lockdown Christianity, or internet Christianity more generally, risks becoming a purely intellectual or notional Christianity, a species of Christianity which is essentially an assertion of the natural law under a different appellation. And this danger is not the exclusive preserve of ‘left wing’ or ‘right wing’ Catholics (objectionable as those terms are, they do describe a reality) it spans all of Catholicism. You can have people all around the world condemning Joe Biden’s lamentable public stance on abortion (look I’m doing it now) or the travesty of the number of people on the streets in abject poverty, saying the government must do more in one of the world’s riches countries (there I am, at it again)!
There is a very real danger that our faith loses its relational aspect and we forget that not only are we called to do good things, and not just to add our voices to the campaign for them, but that we also forget that we are called not just to be good, but to be holy. Christian morality is primarily relational, and it is about entering into an ever-deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, and about how this relationship transforms us. Prayer and the sacraments are essential for this work of God in us, and not just good deeds. But, during lockdown, it can be very easy to be stuck in one house all day, but with a mind all over the place, a mind that never stills to rest in God, and thus, does not allow God to rest in me and being to rule me.
But to be ruled by Christ is essential to the life of a Christian. One of the reasons we celebrate this great Solemnity of Christ the King at the end of the liturgical year is to remind us that Jesus Christ is the end of our lives. By baptism, Christians have been incorporated into His Body, and the task of our lives is to cooperate with His grace, such that it transforms our intellect, our will, and our passions: this is what it means for Christ to be truly King. It is not primarily about laws and statutes, or whether we can create a theocracy, but about each of us being ruled by Jesus, such that we become like Him.
It’s easy to read today’s Gospel as being simply about the duty of Christians to minister to the poor and to carry out the corporal works of mercy, and we can miss that it is phrased in profoundly relational terms. The importance of feeding the hungry or clothing the naked, in each instance, is because this action is being done to Christ. So it is not just about a general obligation to feed the poor, although you do not have to look far in the gospels to find that obligation, in fact, you don’t even have to read past the Old Testament to find it. The importance in this Gospel is that it is being done, in each case, to Christ.
And this poses a question. Who are ‘these least of my brethren’? Because whilst every human person is created in the image and likeness of God, not every person has been conformed to Christ, become an alter Christus, by baptism. And, furthermore, Jesus is speaking about the judgement of the ‘nations’ in this passage, and this term refers to the Gentiles, i.e. those who are not already part of the House of God.
And so it seems this passage is not about how Christians treat one another, although that should be better than it is. And it’s not about how Christians treat all peoples, although we have room for improvement on that front too. It is about how the non-Christians treat the Christians.
And this has, at least, a couple of implications. First, it says something about the possibility of salvation outside the visible Church, as well as the very real possibility of hell. But, secondly, it poses the very real question to me, ‘If I care about the salvation of others, am I helping them to see Christ in me?’ So perhaps, our concern this Advent really should be about putting the ‘Christ’ back in ‘Christian’.