Saturday, October 27, 2012
The Lord: Chapter 53, “Judgment”
The end of the world. The final judgment. The idea that God could suddenly pull the final curtain on us all is not a pleasant one. Maybe that’s why it’s the butt of so many jokes, the subject of cartoons. And the idea that God will judge each of us, one lamb at a time (Matthew 25:31–46), is, well, medieval, right?
There was a moment when the end of the world seemed as inevitable as dinner when Dad got home. We huddled in silence with our parents around the crackling Magnavox black-and-white as Sander Vanocur reported on the Cuban missile crisis. I bet you remember it too, my dear friend.
I was a sixth-grader then, still just innocent enough to think that if the world were going to end, I had better do my homework. Because I went to Sunday school, and I had learned that God might judge me.
Now? Well, mostly I’ve forgotten: both the bomb, which is still very much with us, and the possibility that someday I might be lined up with all the other lambs and goats.
“No one discussing Christian truth today,” Romano Guardini writes, “can speak as Christians were privileged to speak in earlier ages—in simple self-understood trust. The words we use and the thoughts among which we must move have been changed and devalued.”
I love the word privileged in that first sentence. It’s a knife thrust at our modern self-satisfaction, our certainty that with science and technology and liberal thinking our world grows inevitably better, our experience richer, more privileged. Thank God we don’t live in the benighted Middle Ages. Think of the diet, the sanitation, the plague, the ignorance! One of my favorite book titles is We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—and the World’s Getting Worse by James Hillman. Someone should write a companion volume titled We’ve Had Four Centuries of Enlightenment—and Who Turned Out the Lights?
We think that if the world ended, it would be explainable scientifically: through nuclear chain reaction or global warming, fire or fire. Christians living a thousand years ago were privileged to think differently. There was something fundamentally flawed with the world, and one day God would put it right. We’d all be given our just deserts.
Today, we think we can argue, fight, or spend our way out of this denouement, that humanity can solve its fatal flaw before it’s too late, so eat drink and be merry.
“As long as you did it for one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it for me,” Jesus says in the passage from Matthew. Guardini explains the criterion of final judgment this way:
“Everything a man is and has, what he does with it, how he acquits himself of his everyday duties—all this will be presented at his judgment. He will be judged with justice and love; the real measure of that judgment, however, is his love of his fellow men, which is love of Jesus Christ. . . . Not love, then, is the measure, but that love which is directed to Jesus Christ. He is Measure and Measurer.”
One chilling, vital thing all the Bible stories tell us about the end of the world: “It will come suddenly. Like the thief in the night, the master from his journey, the bridegroom from the wedding.”
But again we have lost our privileges. Two thousand years have passed, and in another two months or so we will (probably) have survived yet another prophecy of the end of the world, the Mayan. Contemporaries of St. Paul thought the world might end next week. Now we’re projecting it out a few centuries to a time when global temperatures converge to a level uncomfy for life. There’s still plenty of time to eat drink and be merry.
This is the beautiful, terrible urgency of the privilege of being seriously Christian: “Whenever the end comes, it will be ‘soon.’ And people will say: ‘Now? Why now? We have scarcely begun to live! We haven’t done any of the things that must be done, if everything is not to be lost! We have negected the essential!’ Always it will be: ‘We have neglected the essential!’”
At our ripe age, my friend, isn’t it time to ask what’s essential? And start doing it? Because even if it doesn’t come for the world, it will come for us soon enough. I have a physical exam Monday morning. What might the doctor not tell me?
Be well, my good Christian friend,