The day of reckoning

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The Gospel readings these past few weekends have been or will be about fire and brimstone awaiting those who make bad choices and stick with them. Our Lord did speak about consequences following Judgement Day. However, where exactly does that imagery of eternal torture fit with my image of a loving God? 

Pondering fire and brimstone, I looked up the derivation of brimstone. It has to do with the smell of burning sulfur. I remembered a teaching assistant of mine. We were teaching chemistry to a group of gifted students. He had worked up this demo of burning sulfur. The tremendous fire was over in a split-second leaving a blackened lab bench that required many hours for him to clean it all up. He had gleefully asked, “Wasn’t that wonderful?” All I remember was turning away from the ugly mess. 

A loving God can use the fire and brimstone imagery as an attention grabber or wake up call. I think something akin to that immediate repulsion where we turn our mind away from the disaster and mess is what Our Lord is really trying to convey to us with those tales of Judgment Day. The question “What do I need to do to avoid that fate?” leaves the heart open to reflection and deepening our understanding of what it means to live each moment of our lives within the wisdom of the greatest Commandment (Mk 12: 28-34; Mt 22:34-40). 

Sometimes we seem to get gleefully caught up in the flash, but not the substance of Judgment Day. When one feels hurt or afraid, in our human frailty, the idea that at the end of time “Somebody is going to get it real good” can be so tempting. So long as that naughty list does not include oneself or those one loves, us humans seem all too ready to add others to that list. Even worse, we often apply our personal biases so as to add certain innocent people to that judgment list. 

Even the briefest examination of the Gospels reminds us that God is about conversion of heart. Jesus is always reminding the disciples and us that each and every one of us humans is a child beloved of God. When 10 lepers are healed it is the foreigner who returns to thank God (Lk 17: 11-19). The Prodigal Son returns home apologizing for his atrocious behavior and ready to beg for sustenance. His loving father runs out to greet him on the road (Lk 15: 11-32). At the end of the discussion of the greatest Commandment, Jesus patiently awaits the scholar’s discovery of just who was the traveler’s neighbor (Lk 10: 25-37). 

A priest once shared an alternative vision of Judgment Day with a group of us young adults. Really it is not unlike what Dickens shared in the character of Jacob Marley in “A Christmas Carol.” Father had asked us to close our eyes and imagine being at Judgment Day. A movie of our life passes before us. For each scene, we are conscious of what we had chosen and why. Above that though is another consciousness. It is the thoughts and emotions of those with whom we dealt each moment of that movie. Father’s idea was that the pain we might feel at Judgment Day was the pain we had knowingly or unknowingly inflicted upon others throughout our lives. 

It was a gentle invitation to exhibit self-restraint instead of choosing to hurt another. Father also reminded us of the importance of forgiveness and mercy. In many cases we had the option in this world to say “I’m sorry” and try to begin to make amends before even reaching the day of reckoning.  

Another part of the discussion that will arise from watching one’s life movie will be the realization of what one did or did not do with the many gifts God had entrusted to oneself. My image of God is not a God of lists. Judgement Day is not simply a mathematical sum of one’s bad and good actions. God will adjudicate in His own manner. I am not afraid because I know that the patient and loving God Who awaited the scholar’s discovery of the meaning of the parable of the Good Samaritan and its application to his life is the God who will be there beside me the day of reckoning. 

As we move towards Advent, let’s reflect upon our journey then take the time to analyze where we are with the sharing of our gifts. Let’s find a talent to further refine in perhaps a new way. I imagine each of us has one or more gifts we may never have even touched. Look around. There will be a new and exciting opportunity. 

I will close with a saying on a bracelet a friend had shared with me. It says, “One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure it is worth watching.”

Anchor columnist Dr. Helen J. Flavin, Ph.D., is a Catholic scientist, educator and writer.


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