Thursday, February 23, 2006

Judge of the Living and the Dead

One of our preparatory Sundays for Lent is that of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). If we haven’t heeded the call to repentance on the previous Sundays, the Church gives us the “bottom line,” the outcome of our repentance—or lack of it.

If you read the liturgical texts for Vespers and Matins of the Sunday of the Last Judgment, you’ll get the clear impression that no one gets away with anything. These Offices have not submitted to the scalpel of post-Vatican II political correctness; they do not manifest “sensitivity” to the updated outlooks of “Easter people.” They are filled with lamentations and cries of woe, while unquenchable fires roar in the background, and the “worm that dieth not” is prepared to devour the unrepentant. Yet it is also filled with recourse to the divine compassion, with confidence in God’s love for mankind, while still begging Him to place us with the righteous elect and not with the unregenerate damned.

Now I don't have a particular affinity for fire and brimstone, but I rather eagerly prayed the Office this time around. It’s a bracing tonic, a wake-up call, something we all need to hear, at least from time to time. It’s not the whole of the Gospel, but the whole of our lives are leading up to that decisive moment, and if we end up on the wrong side for that Final Separation, then we have completely missed the reason for our existence, and we’ll have a really long time to think about it.

Many people these days have lost the sense of sin, believe in a “non-judgmental” God (though that’s not the One of Scripture and Tradition), and are generally heedless to the call to repentance, not believing in the consequences thereof. But I’d rather believe the truth, even if that makes life a little harder. I’d rather confess my sins and do penance than believe that God doesn’t bother with such things, as if all things are going to turn out well in the end, no matter what. But there’s a great difference between not admitting sin because you believe God is merciful, and admitting sin for the very same reason. The sin that is forgiven is the one that is confessed, the one for which there is genuine repentance. Mercy is only granted to the one who knows how desperately he needs it.

There are many prayers in the Liturgy, for both priest and laity, in which we beg that our offering of the Sacrifice and reception of Holy Communion will be “without judgment or condemnation.” It’s not without reason. St Paul said that the Corinthians were sick and even dying because of unworthy reception of the Body and Blood of Christ (1Cor. 11:27-30). We must live with the awareness that our lives are going to be judged, that there are definite standards that we are expected to meet, that there are heavenly consequences for doing good and hellish ones for doing evil.

It’s rather strange, perhaps, that after preaching rather forcefully on this mystery—reiterating the Church’s faith and pointing out the error of those who don’t even believe that Christ is coming again as Judge—I experienced a temptation about that very thing. As the Liturgy went on, I became distracted by the thought: “After all that, is He really going to come at the end to judge us?” Instantly, the choir and the entire congregation sang out: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead!” We happened to be singing the Creed at that moment, and it jarred me, for I was listening to the tempter more than to the Liturgy and wasn’t paying attention to the words. But at the very moment I entertained my foolish question, it was immediately countered by the profession of faith of the great assembly. The Lord was not going to let me stray for a second! Then, I looked back today at the word I noted from my morning's Bible reading, and I saw: "they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken" (John 2:22).

He doesn’t want anyone to doubt the truth of his words in Scripture, especially when concerning such an essential and crucial matter. It’s good to hear the hard word about the great and fiery judgment, if that will keep us on the straight and narrow. In the final analysis, salvation is the only issue, and everything in our lives must (directly or indirectly) lead us toward that end—and woe to us if we move in the other direction! So hear the word of the Lord, know that there will be a final reckoning, and do whatever it takes—for Heaven’s sake—to secure your place at the right hand of the Awesome Judge!