Quite a few years ago I was listening to public radio and I heard a speech given by an anthropologist to the National Press Club. He told a very memorable story.
He noted that one of the topics of Anthropology is what makes us human or, in other words, what separates us from the animals. The speaker listed a number of traits like opposable thumbs, the ability to read and write, evidence of have a sentient self-awareness. But he noted his studies did not lead him to believe that this was the key trait that separated humans from animals.
To stress his understanding of what makes humans human, he told a explained the following: We have fossilized human bones that show clear evidence of major fractures and breaks that have healed. This is significant because a bone heals through rest and immobilization. That means that if a human was to heal from a broken leg, he or she would need other humans to provide food, shelter and safety from the many dangers of the prehistoric world.
Having never found such evidence among the fossilized bones of animals, this led the scientist to conclusion that compassion is what separates us from the animals. It is what makes us uniquely human. Only compassionate beings would tend to another being that was injured; sharing food, risking personal safety for the good of another.
Today is the last Sunday after Pentecost. This means it is the last Sunday of the Church Year. It is the Church’s New Year’s Eve, of sorts. Our readings, sermons, prayers, feast and fasts come to a culmination today. What is the focus of our liturgy this morning? The reign of Christ, today is the Feast of Christ the King.
And what does the Church call us to consider on such a pivotal Sunday? What is the key trait of the reign of Christ? The source of Christ’s reign is not military power. It is not economic power. Nor is it political power. The source of the kingdom of Christ is compassion.
Our Gospel reading today tells us this quite clearly, In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, our Lord paints a vivid picture of love and gentleness in action. In a master stroke of storytelling, he sets up a perfect parallel between the righteous and the wicked, the blessed and the cursed. The sole difference between the sheep and the goats is compassion.
Both saw the poor, the hungry, the thirsty and imprisoned. But the goats responded in apathy and selfish negligence. The sheep responded with compassion.
That is the source of our Lord’s reign. His power is his love. His might is his gentleness. His currency is compassion.
Our readings, sermons, prayers, feasts and fasts bring us to this point today. Here on the cusp of a new year, here on the edge of before and after, we have a glimpse of eternity. It is a glimpse into the eternal reign of Christ; and the simple point of our readings this morning is that our Lord reigns with, by, and through compassion.
When have we seen the sick, the hungry, the thirsty or the imprisoned? The question is not so much when, for we have all seen the least of these among us. The question is not when we have seen them, but when have we noticed; and when we have noticed, when have we acted?
Just after Adolph Hitler invaded Denmark, he decreed that every Jew be readily identifiable by the wearing of Star of David armbands. But the Danes would have none of this dangerous and evil decree. Only hours after the decree became public, Danes of every religious background were wearing Star of David armbands. Even the King of Denmark, Christian the Tenth, wore one, declaring his solidarity with the Jews by calling himself Denmark’s first Jew.
This solidarity, this compassion, had its full fruition when, as the Nazi extermination of the Jews ramped up, the Danish people mobilized, and in a single night in 1943, ferried the entire Jewish population of Denmark across the sound to safety, sparing them from certain and brutal deaths.
The Danes saw the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned in their fellow citizens who happened to be Jews. Like the anthropologist’s thoughts from discovering evidence of healed broken bones among fossils, the Danes showed that compassion separates us from the animals, even when the animals are humans themselves.
The Danes saved thousands of people. Our prehistoric kin perhaps saved only a few. But both discovered the meaning and depth of the value of being human, of being gentle, loving and kind even against dire and distinct odds.
The true power and gift of being human is compassion.
It is no wonder that compassion is so central to the reign of Christ. In it we find ourselves closer to God, above and beyond our broken selves and touching briefly the hope that there is more to life than living, or even survival. There is love. There is the source of all love, Christ the King.