Sunday, November 23, 2014

Judgment Day

On this annual celebration of Christ the King, the Church challenges us to contemplate Christ’s return in majesty - his coming again “in glory” (as we say all the time in the Creed) “to judge the living and the dead.”

Traditionally, we speak of two judgments – the general and the particular. Like Michelangelo’s famous fresco in the Sistine Chapel, today’s gospel [Matthew 25:31-46] portrays a final, general judgment, which we associate with the end of time. Yet, that final, general judgment will just ratify and confirm the particular judgment of each one of us at end of our individual life. Likewise, that particular judgment just confirms each one of us individually in the kind of life we have been living on earth - in the kind of person you and I have become over the course of our life.

Around the end of World War II, the British author C.S. Lewis wrote a short story, The Great Divorce, a fantasy, in which the narrator finds himself at a bus stop in what resembles a rather dreary, 1940s English town in apparently perpetual drizzle. There he joins a group of quarrelsome, grumpy ghosts on a bus trip to the outskirts of heaven, where they are to be offered yet one more opportunity to leave behind the sins that have kept them trapped outside.

The narrator then listens in on a series of conversations between the bus passengers and some representatives from heaven - people they previously knew in life, who now try to persuade them to change. One of them poignantly pleads with one of the visitors: “Could you, only for a moment, fix your mind on something not yourself?”

Overwhelmingly, as in the Gospel account we just heard, the visitors obstinately seem to remain forever focused only on themselves. As one of heaven’s residents explains to the narrator (who is understandably perplexed by the visitors’ behavior): “There is always something they insist on keeping … There is always something they prefer to joy.” That is why each one becomes, as one of the heavenly figures explains, “nearly nothing,” that is “shrunk, shut up in itself.”

Lewis was just writing a novel, of course, a work of fiction. But, like the Gospel’s judgment story, it illustrates the connection between what we believe and how we live. And it dramatically captures how my own choices and actions here and now can either unite me with others or cut me off from others. Both the novel and the gospel illustrate how the person that I am going to be forever is the person I am presently in the process of becoming – by how I am living here and now. What I do with others, how I live with others, my actions, my relationships, my whole life matters. Each one of us is the story of a lifetime. And it is, of course, a process – a lifelong process, in the course of which each one of us experiences his or her own particular set of challenges and opportunities. And, just like with the servants in the parable we heard last week, the gifts God has given us to work with can be multiplied many times over by going beyond ourselves and joining with others here and now in this world, which we have been entrusted to love and care for, and in our life together as his Church. As Pope Francis has reminded us, defeatism stifles [EG 85], whereas God’s love summons us to mission and makes us fulfilled and productive [EG 81].

Homily, Solemnity of Christ the King, Saint Anne, Walnut Creek, CA, November 23, 2014.

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