September 18, 2020

Sight Unseen / Brandon A. Evans

When the final trumpet blows

Brandon A. EvansThere will one day be a trumpet blast that none will be able to ignore, and whose melody will usher out this old, tired universe and welcome a new heaven and a new Earth.

When the shock of the Final Judgment passes and the blessed find eternity opening before them, all manner of things will be different; all manner of things will be beyond our pale expectations.

One thing we can count on, the late C.S. Lewis noted, is that “there will be surprises.”

Despite the wonders of heaven, Lewis was not talking about what we will find there, but rather who. And in doing so, he cut straight to the heart of a seeming paradox in Christian thought.

It is the paradox formed in the eyes of the icon of Christ the Pantocrator: one side the face of a harsh judge, the other, the softness of a merciful savior.

That line between justice and mercy rips back across the ages and even through the very saints of the Church: one who seeks to find their spirituality in either grim rigors or childlike joy can easily find both.

Indeed, sometimes it can seem like those saints cannot agree on whether or not everyone is skating right on the edge of hell, or whether the mercy of God makes broad the narrow path with only the easiest of asking.

Even in the life of he who brought the two together, we see the constant derision of the small, hidden faults of the religious class and the wide, sweeping mercy offered—sometimes before conversion—to the greatest of the outwardly sinful.

In our day, the Church stands before us with both a catechism full of rules and at the same time prayer books full of grace.

The solution to the dichotomy goes straight to the human heart, and there finds its peace. In the heart lies the true source of our actions, our inactions, our virtues and our sins, hidden from all but One. It is in that secret place where heaven and hell are decided.

The quote earlier by Lewis about surprises is part of a broader discussion in which he reminds people that it is intentions and decisions of the heart that are how we will be judged, not simply by exterior actions. He goes so far as to say that a man raised in cruelty may find that acting once in kindness, in the smallest of ways, is worth more than a saintly man who gives his life for another, or that the one who faces a lifelong, trivial phobia has more mettle than a soldier deployed to war.

He even insists, against what many Christians think, that sins of the flesh are among the least offensive to God because they are the easiest to commit, while pride and hatred are despised by him the most because of their depth, calculation and vicious obstinance.

If those things seem shocking, it is worth remembering that they were not written by Lewis in some random letter or a speech given where he may have exaggerated, but as part of his famed book, Mere Christianity, considered to be one of greatest testaments to Jesus Christ written in the 20th century.

What he wrote can be difficult to wrestle with. After all, in every story you have ever heard in which the villain is redeemed in the end, there is always some bold gesture on their part—some grand deed and great work that makes known their goodness, often to the giving of their life.

But the redemption did not occur at that moment, for there was always, just before, some small kindness, or pity, or revelation; some epiphany that shone in our villain’s mind and lit across their eyes. It was there, and not later, that they were saved.

Our God is a God of surprises, not the least of which is that the very holy may find the path to hell very broad and easy to fall into, while the very sinful may find opportunities for salvation hidden in nearly every moment of their life.

So I would offer a word of caution, and a warning, to those of us like the elder brother of the prodigal son: those who have blinded themselves to mercy by justice, who speak only of obligations and see only moral failures, who pride themselves on earning everything they have and deride the gifts freely given to the undeserving; who search out every speck of error and have no patience to abide the ignorant, the unlearned and the fallen.

When the final trumpet blows and the gates of heaven are opened and you look to either side at those marching into that shining kingdom with you:

I hope you like surprises.

(Sight Unseen is an occasional column that explores God and the world. Brandon A. Evans is the online editor and graphic designer of The Criterion and a member of St. Susanna Parish in Plainfield.)

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