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.
Divine Mercy Sunday
Blessed John Paul II declared today Divine Mercy Sunday when he canonized St. Faustina Kowalska in the Jubilee year 2000: Dominica Secunda Paschae seu de divina misericordia. Jesus told Sr. Faustina (from her diary): “I want the image [of my divine mercy] solemnly blessed on the first Sunday after Easter, and I want it to be venerated publicly.” At the end of Mass, we will venerate the image and pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, in obedience to Christ’s words. “Every soul believing and trusting in My mercy will obtain it.”
Just a note on the Second Reading before we reflect on the Gospel. “I, John, your brother, who share with you the distress and the kingdom, … found myself on the island called Patmos because I proclaimed God’s word.” I detect a self-deprecating irony in John’s tone—how did I get here? No matter, God’s will is perfect. At George Washington University this week, a kind, hard-working Catholic Chaplain named Fr. Greg Schaffer finds himself the center of acrimonious contention because … he gently told a Catholic student who came to him for counsel that that he should not live the “gay lifestyle.” This student and his male consort are mounting a media campaign to banish him from the University for “proclaiming God’s word.” But like St. John, Fr. Schaffer does not seem to be upset about it. The Risen Christ stood before John and assured him: “Be not afraid. I am the first and the last; once dead, now I am alive forever. I hold the keys to death” and life. Be not afraid.
The apostles were afraid. They were afraid of Jesus, whom they betrayed, and they were afraid of the temple officials, who sought to wipe out any remaining disciples of Jesus. The apostles thought that Jesus would be angry with them—wouldn’t anyone think that? We think that God gets angry at us when we betray him. But Jesus shows, again, that his thoughts are not our thoughts. God does not seek vengeance; he brings peace, and bestows mercy. His first words to his friends—for they are still his friends—are “Peace be with you.” He comes through the locked doors of their fear and regret to assure them: You have nothing to fear, either from me, or from the world outside this Upper Room. I am here. We forget, as those Apostles forgot, that his mercy endures forever. His love is an infinite abyss. Oceans of mercy and rivers of grace flood the world after his Resurrection. Jesus wants us to venerate the image of Infinite Mercy today, one week after Easter, so that we grasp the full effects of his Resurrection. “Pax vobiscum” Jesus says, and then shows them the wounds of his love for them.
Thomas had not been with the others on Easter night, and he refused to let go of his disappointment at how things turned out on Good Friday. And so, a week later, that is, today, Divine Mercy Sunday, Jesus appeared again to give his Peace a third time. Then, to Thomas directly, he says: Come here, my son. Do you need another proof of my mercy? Put your hand into my side. I am not angry with you—but I do want you to surrender to my love. And Thomas did surrender: “My Lord and My God.” It is said he traveled as far as India, repeating those words to the ends of the earth, and was martyred in Madras. 2000 years later, Indian Christians name their children Thomas, and many of the Indians I have known radiate the faith given them by the once-doubting Thomas so long ago.
Forgiveness of Sins
Notice one last point: Jesus consecrates and sends his apostles out that Easter evening specifically to forgive sins. “As the father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them…” He ordains them so that they can administer his mercy through the forgiveness of sins. Before we can receive the Eucharist, before we can even believe in the Gospel, we need to be forgiven. Even the most hardened atheist, the most insouciant secularist, knows he has sinned. Only God can pass through the locked doors of our post-Christian fear—that of having to live in our own depravity, with no one to forgive us. The Church must persist, as did Jesus, in bringing mercy to those who do not believe.
Blessed John Paul II said on this feast day in 2001: “Jesus said to Sr Faustina: "Humanity will never find peace until it turns with trust to Divine Mercy". Divine Mercy! This is the Easter gift that the Church receives from the risen Christ and offers to humanity.” With Our Lady, the Mother of Mercy, our life, our sweetness, and our hope, let us be apostles of mercy to the world.
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.