September 18, 2009

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Despite our sins, we have hope in God’s mercy and love

When we think about the Last Judgment, there are two extremes we need to avoid.

The first is the idea that the end of time will be a terrible experience in which an angry God dispenses punishment. This image was created by artists to emphasize the more frightening aspects of our belief that Christ will “come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” Actually, this wrathful image conflicts with the portrait of Jesus that we find in the Gospels. God is a God of mercy and compassion, not a God of vengeance.

But the opposite view is also wrong. The Day of Judgment will definitely call us to accountability.

As Pope Benedict XVI tells us in his encyclical letter “Spe Salvi” (“Saved by Hope”), “From the earliest times, the prospect of judgment has influenced Christians in their daily living as a criterion by which to order their present life, as a summons to their conscience, and at the same time as hope in God’s justice” (“Spe Salvi,” #41). We believe that Christ will come again as judge, but we have hope in his mercy and love.

The world we live in today has lost sight of the Last Judgment.

This may be one reason why many Catholics no longer feel the need to confess their sins regularly. We have lost sight of the fact that we are responsible for how we live, that one day we will be asked to render an account.

But the Last Judgment is not just for individuals. On the last day, the Lord will determine the fate of the universe and of history. On that day, when time as we know it is transformed into eternity, God will draw all things to himself. What is good will be retained and renewed in the light of Christ. What is evil will be cast into the darkness of eternal death.

“The image of the Last Judgment is not primarily an image of terror but an image of hope,” Pope Benedict writes. “For us, it may even be the decisive image of hope” (“Spe Salvi,” #44).

Why? Because God’s justice is also mercy. As the Holy Father says, “Both these things—justice and grace—must be seen in their correct inner relationship. Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right” (“Spe Salvi,” #44).

So we should not kid ourselves. We will be judged. And our sins will be punished. But the good we have done will also be rewarded, giving us a source of profound hope and the promise of lasting joy.

The Church teaches that death is the decisive moment for us. When we die, the choices we have made during life will define us.

Basically, we have only two options in the way we live: We can choose Life (love and truth and goodness) or we can choose Death (hatred, falsehood and self-centeredness). The reward for choosing Life (God) is heaven. The punishment for choosing Death is hell.

But as Pope Benedict tells us, neither extreme is normal. “For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul” (“Spe Salvi,” #46).

Most of us long for God in spite of the fact that we have made many poor choices and have repeatedly fallen short of the standard set for us by Christ, who is the way, the truth and the life.

There is hope for us—even after death. That hope is found in the Church’s consistent teaching on purgatory. We believe that individuals who die, but who are not yet ready for the joy of heaven, undergo a form of purification that allows us to atone for our sins and to prepare for the Last Judgment.

No one knows the exact form that this purifying experience takes. But we believe that “in order to be saved we personally have to pass through ‘fire’ so as to become fully open to receiving God and be able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage feast” (“Spe Salvi,” #46).

The Lord has told us that he is preparing a place for us in heaven. In spite of our sins, for which we remain accountable, we have hope in God’s love and mercy.

That’s why we pray for one another, the living and the dead, and why we continually ask God to forgive our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Now, and forever, Amen. †

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