'Then the king will say to those at His right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world...' -- Mt 25:34

This Sunday, we celebrate the solemnity of Christ the King. It's the last Sunday of the liturgical year. As in the weeks leading up to this great feast, the readings this week have a message for us of preparation, vigilance and where we ultimately are headed. The choice before us, simply put, is between heaven and hell, between eternal life and eternal punishment.

In Sunday's Gospel (Mt 25:31-46), Jesus tells a parable representing the final judgment, the definitive separation of the sheep from the goats. After the Lord separates them, He explains that those who attended to their neighbors actually cared for Him by providing food, drink, clothing and hospitality.

Likewise, those who neglected their neighbors unwittingly overlooked Christ Himself. The neighbor in question is defined as "the least of these my brethren."

The contrast between the fate of the sheep and the fate of the goats is stark. The Lord's words bring clarity about the consequences of our neglect: "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels." This is sobering, to say the least.

All surprised
One curious detail is that both the goats and the sheep show surprise at their fates. Thus, there is no subjective self-assurance upon which salvation depends. What we have before us are actions born of faith in Christ's Word -- or nothing. There is no middle ground; nor are there any excuses. Our responsibility can't be overlooked.

We are not on our own, however. God is giving us what we need in order to respond to Him. This is emphasized by the first reading (Ez 34:11-12,15-17).

God, speaking to His sheep, shows how involved He is in their lives. They can do nothing apart from His help and guidance, though they don't necessarily recognize it. He explains it like this: He, the shepherd seeks us out. He binds up the crippled; He strengthens the weak; He keeps the strong healthy. In short, He makes us capable of following Him and doing what He asks. He does not leave us to ourselves or our own devices.

We, for our part, must become sensitive to His providence and care. That doesn't make us less "independent" or "self-sufficient," for these are illusions that blind us from recognizing God's role in our lives. Living in the light of God's providence, on the contrary, makes us humble, grateful and ready to serve.

Serve the least
Who in our lives is "the least?" It's the person who most needs attention. Look at those closest to you and ask yourself, "Does my treatment of this person measure up?"

We won't always have time for such examinations of conscience. St. Paul tells us (1 Cor 15:20-26, 28) that we will all die. Before that, let's make adherence to God's Word primary.

Paul says, "For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet." There are areas of my life that are inimical to Christ's kingship. We must do something about them, such that Christ truly reigns as the king of our hearts.

We shall, in the end, be raised up again with Christ. That moment will be glorious for those who are faithful to Christ the King. He will invite them into the eternal dwelling places; He will welcome them. He will know them by name, for they will have served Him faithfully, sometimes without knowing it.

What a wonderful surprise that will be. May you receive it.