By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
In Advent we meditate on the coming of Christ. Traditionally, we contemplate not only his coming at Christmas, but also his second coming at the end of time – his coming “in glory to judge the living and the dead” (as we say in the Nicene Creed).
This impending judgment might scare us somewhat, but the more we live the more I think we can actually long for it. To be sure, at least if we’re thinking clearly, we wouldn’t long for final judgment from a self-righteous assurance of our own worthiness. But we can long for it, I think, from a deep desire to see the truth shining in all its brilliant and satisfying clarity. We suffer today from so many lies, and our desire for final judgment can grow the more we sense the distress of living amid such deception and injustice – the more we long for truth.
When I talk to people on just about any side of any debate, many can admit that it is hard to know what to believe. Institutions of culture, media and government have major crises of credibility, and, sadly, not even the Church is excepted. This means that, no matter what we, our friends and family think about the social, political and religious issues facing us, the one thing we can all do together is pine sincerely for that great and final day when God will set us all straight. Maybe the next time we debate anyone about anything we might invite that person to finish the argument by praying the Our Father, and thus by crying together Thy Kingdom come…
Judgment is probably one of the most misunderstood dimensions of the Gospel. Some people try anxiously to mute this promise of God as much as possible, and even oppose it to his mercy, as if a merciful judge simply would not judge at all. However, such an opposition can’t possibly be true, for we wouldn’t understand God’s mercy if we did not first grasp the complete gratuity of his decision to spare us despite our unrighteousness. Examining our consciences in view of final judgment should lead first to contrition and then to peaceful trust. We must see how undeserving we are before we can grasp – and then delight in – divine mercy.
Moreover, final judgment – or the definitive unveiling of the truth of all things – offers the blessed assurance that what we do matters. We are, all of us, in every word and deed, becoming what we will one day be for eternity.
Finally, if we are ever tempted to separate mercy and justice, we might consider how ‘merciful’ it is to look into the eyes of those who suffer horrible things at the hands of their fellow men and women, and then insist, “There will be no justice for you.” Make no mistake: God is coming to save those who love him. Jesus makes this clear at so many moments in the Gospel: “And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night?” (Lk 18:7).
Remembering God’s merciful judgement will give us a healthy fear of him. This is not the anxious fear that belongs to the slave subject to a capricious master, but the thrilling wonder that belongs to those who sense the awesome power of God, whom no one can deceive or control. This holy fear is so right and healthy. Undoubtedly, a major cause for our distress today is the eclipse of God in our society, the atheism that in a practical way can reach even Christians. The Second Vatican Council decried atheism as “among the most serious problems of this age” (Gaudium et spes 19). Of course, salvation is still possible, as the Council says, for “those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life” (Lumen gentium 16). Nevertheless, the Council is talking here about those who strive to live a good life, that is, those who humbly subordinate their desires to the transcendent Truth and Justice that they follow in their conscience – those who live, at least implicitly, before a final Judge. The Council is not suggesting that we take for granted the salvation of those who do whatever they want with no regard for any norm beyond their own self-centered wills.
In this season of expectation, let us long for Christ to come. Let every disappointment of our world only increase our love for God and our desire to see his Kingdom manifest among us. He will one day come and illuminate all things. Let us prepare ourselves by following our conscience, confessing our sins, and casting ourselves peacefully into his merciful arms.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving.