I thought I’d share a final “Advent-ish” type meditation for these last few hours of Advent. It is traditional to preach in Advent on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. This particular meditation is about judgment.
The Advent season collect makes it clear that at the last day, Jesus will come in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead. He came quietly the first time. Next time he will come in such a way that no one will miss it. Next time he is going to judge the living and the dead. Next time we are going to find out who ends up in heaven and who ends up in hell.
It is a mistake to think of judgment as coming only at the end of the world. Judgment does come then, of course—the General Judgment of all the world, but judgment also comes at the end of our lives—the Particular Judgment, also called the Personal Judgment, when our lives will be weighed in a balance at the moment the soul separates from the body. At that moment we will be judged, and souls that are perfectly pure will be admitted to the Presence of God; souls that are in a state of mortal sin are sent to eternal punishment, and for most of us, it will be determined how much purgation our souls will need before we’re fit for heaven.
Judgment is not limited to the end of time or the end of life, however; judgment is coming this evening when you go to Christmas Eve Eucharist—the “ChristMass.”
The judgment that Jesus will bring at the end of the world will not be substantially different from the one you will experience this evening.
But perhaps you didn’t know that you are facing judgment in the Mass.
You are judged, first of all, by the Summary of the Law. Jesus tells us that God’s standard for our behavior is that we love him and love all our neighbors just as we love ourselves—all the time, no exceptions. When you measure yourself by that standard, you experience God’s judgment.
Then come the lessons — the collect, the epistle and the gospel. Do you live up to that which the collect prays? Do you understand the epistle and the gospel—and do you live by what they say? Measuring yourself by the lessons is a further experience of the judgment of God.
The most explicit judgment will come later on when the celebrant recites the conditions under which you can presume to come to the altar rail to receive Holy Communion. In addition to having been baptized and confirmed, you have to repent of your sins, you have to be in love and charity with everybody else, and you have to intend to lead a new life. The new life is the life you live in obedience to God’s commandments rather than in slavery to your own self-centered whims. Presuming to receive Holy Communion without meeting all five of these requirements is committing the mortal—deadly—sin of sacrilege.
That is what judgment is. The judgment at the end of the world is going to take place after an extremely dramatic light show and the raising of all the dead people out of their graves in new bodies, and it is going to be in front of the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ come back to earth in the flesh and on the clouds—the same Lord who is going to be looking you right in the eye. The judgment at the end of the world is going to take place under far more exciting circumstances than we have here—but it is going to be fundamentally the same sort of judgment.
The question at the last judgment is the same as the question the Prayer Book service asks, “Did you keep all God’s laws perfectly?” The only honest answer is, “No. I did not.” The judgment on everybody is the same. There is no way to escape the truth. We can not evade the judgment. The verdict on everyone is, “Guilty as charged.”
We can’t say, “But look at all the good I did.” We won’t be allowed to blame it all on our parents, or our spouse, or on the fact that we thought God didn’t really mean it when he said to go to Mass at least every Sunday and Holy Day and pray and read the Bible every day. Our favorite rationalizations and self-delusions and denials are just not going to work. The issue will not be, “Am I guilty?” You are guilty, I assure you. The issue at the particular judgment will be “are you in a state of mortal sin?”
That is what you are getting in practice for at every Mass on every Sunday and every Holy Day, whether you realize it or not. We say it in the confession when we acknowledge that our bad behavior has provoked most justly God’s wrath and indignation against us. And then we ask God for mercy, and we claim it with confidence “for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake.”
The judgment at the end will be like the judgment now. You are here to get ready for the end. You are here to get used to facing the judgment of God.
It is convenient that when we talk about judgment we use the words “general” and “particular.” What makes it convenient is that these are the same words we use about confession—and coincidentally enough, about sin. There is a general judgment, and a particular judgment. Just as there is general confession and particular confession, and just as there are general sins and particular sins.
In the Mass we have the general confession, of course, at every Sunday Mass (and some places even at weekday Masses), for our sinful nature, our sinful tendencies, our sins of a general type.
But we also have private confession, too, for those sins that are not just general, for those “particular” sins of a mortal nature. For those sins that if left alone would be mortal—that is, would be the death of our souls and send us to hell, a hell that we would have chosen by not going to confession and taking care of those sins that are not just general tendencies. The wonderful mission of the Church is to reconcile human beings to God. The way we are reconciled to God is by God’s forgiveness, by his grace, and the wonderful gift the Church has to offer the world today is the gift of forgiveness.
The sacraments are the “medicine of immortality.” Just as the Sacrament of the Eucharist feeds our souls, so the Sacrament of Reconciliation heals our wounds. It is typical of our times that we think only of Eucharist and not of Reconciliation, yet we are not called to think only of feeding and not of healing. Are you ready for judgment? Are you ready for Christ’s coming? Don’t let that day come “suddenly like a snare.” Come to Jesus.