The Last Judgment, Michelangelo 1541, the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City State.
Jesus said to his disciples…. “People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” Luke 21:26-27.
Words highlighted in red are links to supporting materials.
One imagines that Michelangelo’s masterwork, shown here, is a pretty accurate depiction of the popular idea of The Last Judgment. Compare this picture to the passage above, taken from today’s gospel, and the parallel seems to be clear. One thing it clearly is not, and that is, it is not a presentation of the cool, calm and collected picture of a stable in Bethlehem with ox and ass in the background, shepherds and kings in the foreground gathered around a gentle mother nursing her newborn baby! So we have two pictures then, one showing the First Coming of the Lord, and then the scary Second Coming amid clouds and thunder. And this is the beginning of Advent, the run up to Christmas! The First Coming was the culmination of the centuries of waiting for the Messiah to arrive, popularly thought at the time to be more like the Michelangelo picture above, and our own centuries of waiting for Jesus’ apocalyptic words to become reality. I’m sure we would prefer it to be more like the First Coming, completing the reversal of popular imagination and the realities envisioned by God, one peaceful and dignified, and the other, calamitous and terrifying, instead of the other way round.
Looking at all three readings today might provide some balance however. Jeremiah’s words provide a peaceful and secure setting, a prophesy that the One who will come will provide safety and justice in the land. That is more like a Christmas setting! The Christians in Thessaloniki, to whom Paul was writing in today’s second reading, were urged to love one another and, indeed, love all, which will strengthen their hearts in holiness, befitting the moment when the Lord Jesus will return. Then Jesus gives us the daunting image of the Final Judgment, but it is tied to the preparation we can make before it comes upon us. There is, he is saying, a clear way we can confront this finality with success. No “carousing and drunkenness” for one thing (another Christmas image?), and we must not wrap ourselves up in daily anxieties which blind up to a greater, and more important reality. We each of us have to find a way to be ready for this promised event at all times, to have a kind of fire alarm in our hearts whose battery is never dead. We are always encouraged to check our house fire alarms each time the clocks change; perhaps we Christians could do the same each Christmas and Easter with our own spiritual alarm. Are we ready for that daunting event? If not, if we have not been loving and active in our Christian vocation, then it is time to change, while we have the time!
Of course it is easy to say nothing has happened in 2000 years, so why bother? The chances of this thing happening in our lifetimes is, to say the least, remote. That is almost certainly true, but there is one reality which is 100% certain: our own death. There will come a moment when each one of us will be called, ripped perhaps, from this life. Sometimes it is known when this will happen, quite often not. In either case we have to be prepared, and today’s readings suddenly spring into vivid life, calling for real action on our part. Jesus could well be preparing us for that individual moment when he comes to take us from this life to another more glorious – or not. How about that for a Christmas message? St. Paul writes to tell us that he has done his best to let us know what should be done in preparation. And this is by no means all doom and gloom. To love God, one’s neighbor and oneself is hardly a recipe for gloom; rather it is a recipe for a full and happy life, a “feel good” life if you like, which calls for sacrifice of course, but which makes us truly God-like, generous, active, spiritually healthy, content and, when Christ comes, arms will be open and welcoming on both sides. How about that as a picture for the start of the Christmas season?
Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem, Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, Yamoussoukro,Côte d’Ivoire.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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