The Day of Judgment
This first stage of Advent, from Dec 1-16, prepares us not for Christmas but for Jesus’ Second Coming and his Final Judgment. The readings and the prayers say nothing about a baby in Bethlehem; they speak rather of justice will be meted out to the wicked and mercy to the righteous. We’re not talking sleigh bells and Christmas trees but apocalyptic judgment and a world remade in the image of God. The prayer over the gifts, for example: “O Lord, since we have no merits to plead our cause, come, we pray, to our rescue…” And the Preface: “We watch for that day to inherit the great promise in which we now dare to hope.” The first reading: “Not by appearance shall he judge: he shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth and slay the wicked.” And the Gospel: “Repent, …you brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Even now the ax lies at the root.” Trees that bear no fruit will be cut down and thrown into fire.
Certainly everyone fears judgment. Even in our “enlightened” and “liberated” society, or perhaps especially among people that ignore the existence of a Divine Authority, people sense that man’s injustice cannot go on forever. But if God is not my judge, then no one is my judge. So people avoid judgment in cases of obvious wrongdoing—they hire lawyers to contest simple traffic tickets and insist on their innocence in cases of even grave crime. You just need the right lawyer—remember the OJ Simpson case, or the many corporate fraud cases such as Enron and Worldcom. “I did nothing wrong” insisted President Clinton in the Monica Lewinski affair. You will hear people say “I left the Church because it is so judgmental.” “No one can impose their morality on me.” We all pretend that somehow we will escape judgment, and many go so far as to pretend that God and natural law do not even exist. But as one of my seminary professors said, “you can’t break the natural law; you can only break against the natural law.”
The Winnowing Fan
Advent, like Lent, is a season to prepare for the coming of Christ by confessing, and submitting to, his divine judgment. That judgment is fearsome, for it submits itself to no human appeal. That judgment is also our only hope, for it decisively corrects human error. There will come a day, the last of human history, when God will right this tilting ship. There will come a time when the wolf will be the guest of the lamb, and the child will play by the cobra’s den—when children will play next to buildings that were once abortion clinics. There will come a day when “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the water covers the sea.” That day will surely come, for God has promised it, and his promises are sure. But it will come only after the judgment, because divine mercy comes to us only through divine justice. Is Jesus a meek and mild baby in the lap of his maiden mother, Mary, or is Jesus a terrifying Judge coming on the clouds with fearsome power? He is both: for the faithful, Christ’s judgment is mercy; for the unfaithful, his judgment is swift and terrible justice.
We will all be threshed
“All Judea and the whole region” were rushing to John the Baptist by the River as they “acknowledged their sins.” God’s judgment is a threshing, a separation: he will separate wheat from chaff. The chaff he will burn and the wheat he will gather to himself, into his barn (heaven). John asserts that “His winnowing fan is in his hand….” A winnowing fan was a pitchfork that a farmer used to toss the mixture of wheat and chaff into the air, so that the wind could blow away the chaff while the heavier grain would fall to earth. It is said that a friend is one who separates wheat from chaff in the one he loves. And yet this separation, while a necessary dynamic of friendship painfully shakes us up.
God threshes every man, shaking out our sins like a man shakes out a dirty rug. He is doing that already, for purgatory begins now, in this life. Let God thresh and winnow you. “Take what he gives, and give what he takes, with a big smile,” in the words of Mother Teresa. A saint is simply one who submits herself to the threshing judgment of God, who does not resist when she is tossed about by divine providence, who allows herself to be purified of her chaff. Trust the Lord’s threshing of your life, for He knows what he is about.
The Immaculate Conception
Today is the patronal feast of our Nation, the Immaculate Conception, although we will celebrate it tomorrow so as not to displace a Sunday. Our Lady is the only daughter of men that did not need to be threshed, because she had no sin. And yet God did thresh her: he led her through trial, sorrow, confusion, and darkness. Like Jesus, she experienced the full weight of sin’s consequences, even though herself without sin. If even she patiently underwent this threshing, cannot we also patiently accept God’s disciplines in our lives? With her, we gladly offer difficulties, aches and pains, perplexities, weaknesses, and darkness. We allow God to winnow us, so that we may be gathered into his heaven with the Immaculata and all the saints, for he is the judge, the just judge, living and reigning forever and ever. Amen.
We have entered the fifth week of Lent—in the older calendar, “Passion Sunday.” According to a more ancient tradition, the four-week season of Lent ends as the two-week season of Passiontide begins today. But even in the newer form of the Mass, from today the readings focus on Our Lord’s approaching suffering and death rather than the Lenten themes of sin and conversion. Both forms also use the Passiontide Preface (or, the Preface of the Holy Cross), rather than a Lenten Preface, in these last two weeks. The Crucifix may be covered from today until Good Friday, and statues until the Easter Vigil. Today is also known as “Judica” Sunday, because the introit or entrance verse comes from Psalm 42, the same verse used for the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar. “Judica me Deus, et discerne causam meam de gente non sancta.” Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against a godless people. These words stay on Our Savior’s lips throughout his Sacred Passion. Tu Deus fortitudo mea, “you O God are my strength”—Jesus clings to this psalm as he endures the outrages of wicked men.
Finally, until the 1940s a second collect prayer for the Pope was said on Passion Sunday. Since the third century, the Bishop of Rome would offer a Mass at each of the 50 or so “station churches” in Rome, to show his paternal solicitude for the various parishes of his Diocese. Over the centuries, the tradition of offering Mass in one of these ancient parishes on each of the 46 days of Lent developed. The station church visited on this day, Passion Sunday, is San Pietro in Vaticano, St. Peter’s Basilica, the home of the Popes since 1377. It is our joy to pray for the Pope today, on the day of his Station Church, especially as our new Pontiff prepares to take formal possession of his office at his Installation Mass on Tuesday.
Our Gospel is taken from St. John Chapter 8, which begins with the women taken in adultery, which is the Gospel for the Ordinary Form today. Jesus pardons the woman, who would have been stoned to death by Jewish law, but he also tells her to sin no more. This act of forgiving sin, which we Catholics take for granted every time we enter a confessional, seemed to blast a big hole right through the Old Covenant, although in reality Jesus was fulfilling rather than detracting from the Mosaic Law. It drove the Pharisees and legal scholars to fury against Jesus. They accuse him of everything under the sun: You are a Samaritan (that is, a heretic). You are insane. You are possessed. Jesus patiently, but firmly, corrects their absurd charges, but finally speaks the one word that is sure to get him killed, the unspeakable tetragrammaton: I AM. It is the Name that Moses heard on Mount Sinai, the name Yahweh. “Before Abraham came to be, I AM.” So Jesus declares his eternity and his divinity. He leaves no room for equivocation: either he is a madman, claiming to be divine, or he is all that he says he is: the eternal consubstantial Son of God. Immediately the Jews picked up stones to kill him.
Jesus is obliged to hide: Jesus abscondit se. Consider the indignity of having to run and hide. The Lord of Lords and King of Kings, having pronounced his divine Name, must dodge his enemies and hide behind a tree or down some dark alley. He doesn’t have to hide himself, of course, but his hour has not yet come. In obedience to his Father’s plan, then, he does what puny human beings often have to do: he runs and hides. He hides the way Adam hid behind a tree after he had sinned. The Christ did not sin, but he knows the shame we all feel when we must hide ourselves. Our frail humanity must often hide or flee certain evils we cannot prevent. Inevitable human misunderstandings, awkwardness in certain social situations, and the consequences of our own miserable sins all require us to flee and to hide. Every morning when we put on clothing, we are hiding our bodies from shame and embarrassment. When we enter the confessional we hide our sins from others (and sometimes even from the priest, depending on how we make our confession!).
We long to be free of shame; we yearn for a day when we will no longer have to run and hide. But that day is not yet here. For now, we must endure our shame, and we enter into Our Savior’s humiliation before men. His shame, freely chosen, will heal our shame. Through his stripes, in his blood, we are healed. We enter into this time of Passiontide, heedless of the shame, with Christ our Lord.
Homily: On the Armor of God and on our Impossible DebtExtraordinary Form Homily Oct 21, 2012
21st Sunday after Pentecost
Taking up the Arms of GodEphesians 6:10-17 Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens.
We are in our third week of the Year of Faith. St. Paul’s Epistle today declares that we do not contend with the powers of this earth, but with the powers of the air, with the ruler of darkness. We fight against the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, but it the last of these that we often forget, for like the air he is generally invisible. We are acutely aware of worldly power, and the upcoming national election postures itself as simply a contest between two men. But the battle is more than with the World. We are painfully aware of the powers and weaknesses of the flesh, and daily we battle our own lusts, impulses, and compulsions. But the struggle is more than with the Flesh. We fight Satan, day in and day out, though we seldom reckon the magnitude of his influence.
St. Paul clearly defines it for us: “our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness…”
We must engage the powers of this present darkness both defensively and offensively. Defensively
, we resist in the “evil day” by girding our loins with the belt of truth, by strapping on the breastplate of justice, and maneuvering the shield of faith. Our faith must be without gap, consistent, and whole, if it is to defend us against the thrusts of the Evil One. Offensively
, we shod ourselves with the gospel of peace so as to engage the enemy quickly, and we take into our hands the sword of the spirit, which is the Word of God. No political means, no human means, can win the present contest. We must vote our faith, and we must struggle to overcome carnal vices with brilliant virtues, but ultimately our contest is fought between the powers of the air. We can only prevail by taking on Christ’s armor, his weapons, for the battle is his.An impossible debt Matt 18: 23-35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.
The Gospel teaches us a similar lesson about our absolute dependence on God’s power. Let’s try to understand the story: a man owes 10,000 talents—it’s an astronomical figure, in today’s currency, about four billion dollars. It was a debt simply impossible to pay off. This is what the first servant owes his master, and the master forgives the entire debt. We owe God a debt that can never be paid. But he cancels it, with a wave of his hand in blessing. That servant then bumps into a fellow servant who owes 100 denarii—about $5000 in today’s currency. If someone owed you $5000, you would want to get it back, and that kind of debt can be paid back with time and patience. But the first servant will “hear none of it.” He wants his money back immediately. So what does God do to the unrelenting first servant? He throws him in jail, until he would pay off his entire debt—which he never will. He is consigned to an eternal hell, because he did not forgive his brother “from his heart.”
If we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us, and we all have debts to him we can never pay back. The only way to get to heaven is to humbly receive his gift—the cancelation of our entire debt, which makes us forever beholden to him. Then we must likewise cancel the tiny debts others owe us. This means forgiving, from the heart, an ex-husband, an employer who did us great harm, an employee who cheated us, etc.
In this year of faith, let us imitate the Woman of Faith, who received the Incarnate Word, and in her turn gave all that she had back to God. She gave back all that she had—can we not give back at least a part of what we have been given?