By Father Joseph
We’re only about a week away from Lent, and so the Church is getting serious about our preparation, placing before us the ultimate consequences of our either doing God’s will or failing to do it.
Johnny and Mary Mullins are here with us today, to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary, and we might wonder why God has arranged for the Gospel of the Last Judgment (Mt. 25:31-46) to be read on this happy occasion! But perhaps this is appropriate after all. In a sense, every major decision we make in this life is made as before the judgment seat of God, because we are striving to do his will, and we seek his wisdom and his blessing upon our vocations, for we do not want to do anything that would displease Him. The prayer that we priests pray before each Divine Liturgy, which in the version we use here says we come before his awesome altar, reads, in another version, that we come before his awesome judgment seat every time we offer the Holy Sacrifice. So we all stand before God in the events and decisions of our lives, hopefully so that we will find ourselves standing without blame before his judgment seat at the end of our lives.
This Gospel is not readily accepted by some, especially non-Catholics. I’ll have to give some background here. I read an article in a recent issue of Christianity Todaythat just confirms what kind of errors people can fall into when they separate themselves from the Spirit-guided teaching authority of the Catholic Church. I would hardly have been able to believe this if it had not been confirmed by people I know who have personally experienced it. The issue is this: many Protestants focus much more on the words of St Paul than they do on the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ! The article recounts the experience (which is evidently quite common) of a man who, in growing up, almost never heard a sermon on the Gospels, only on the epistles of St Paul. Then, when he eventually entered a seminary, the great problem was how to fit the teachings of Jesus into the theology of Paul. Does something seem wrong with this picture? Um, I think we’re supposed to realize that St Paul was a servant of Jesus, that Jesus is the eternal Word and Wisdom of God, and therefore that everyone else has to fit into what Jesus has said. The Catholic Church has always given priority to the Gospels for precisely that reason, and it should be a no-brainer that the words of Jesus are absolute truth and can never be subordinated to the words of any of his disciples, and any interpretation of the epistles cannot be legitimately employed to minimize the force of Jesus’ own words. Of course, all of Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and if one accepts the writings of St Paul in their entirety, instead of focusing only on certain passages that deal with salvation through faith, then Jesus and Paul are quite compatible indeed, as the Church has always held.
So what does all this have to do with the Gospel of the Last Judgment? It is something that Protestants don’t want to hear, and I’ve experienced this in conversations: Jesus explicitly states that salvation and damnation depend on what we do, not merely on what we believe. He says that if we see Him in others and minister to them accordingly we will be welcomed into Heaven; if we don’t, we will have to go to Hell. He does not present faith as the criterion for salvation, nor prayer, nor anything at all except love—love which is expressed in practical ways, meeting the urgent needs of our fellow human beings, for Jesus’ sake. Let us remember that these are the words of the Son of God, and as such they are absolutely, unequivocally true. If St Paul hadn’t been embroiled in controversies with those who insisted that Christians must obey all the precepts of the law of Moses in order to be saved—and hence had to overemphasize certain counter-arguments—there would never have arisen the falsely-perceived opposition between the teachings of Jesus and Paul.
Let us then try to understand more fully the meaning of Jesus’ teaching about what makes for salvation and what makes for damnation, for there is no more important issue than this for our eternal destiny.
First of all, we can say that in the Christian life love presupposes faith. If we don’t have faith in Christ, we are not going to accept that He identifies with the poor and needy, and we are not going to serve them for his sake. So if we don’t begin by believing that Christ is the Savior of our souls, who died and rose to forgive our sins and to open the gates of Paradise to those who would follow Him, we’ll never even get onto the narrow path to the Kingdom of Heaven. But merely believing these things is only the beginning of our life in Christ, and it does not guarantee our salvation. The whole faith/works controversy is really a non-issue for the true Christian. Instead of opposing faith and works, we should simply affirm that if faith is true faith, then faith works. Genuine faith is applied faith, it is faith that proves itself by practical expressions of it. Even St Paul, in the very epistle many use to insist on salvation by faith alone, says that the only thing that “is of any avail,” is “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6).
This is why Jesus presents love as the criterion for our judgment, and hence of our eternal destiny. Scripture is very clear on this: if we believe in Jesus, we will love Him. To love Him is to keep his commandments. If we read the Gospels—and the epistles as well—we will see that keeping his commandments entails doing good to our brothers and sisters for his sake. If we fail to do good to others for his sake, we will lose our immortal souls forever. Jesus gave a concise summary of what is necessary for salvation when He was asked what one must do to inherit eternal life: love God and love your neighbor (see Lk. 10:25-28).
So let us look at this love which is the chief criterion for the judgment of our lives before God. According to St John, if we say we love God, but do not love our brothers and sisters, we are liars (1Jn. 4:20). And according to both St John and St James, if we say we believe in God and love our brothers and sisters, but do nothing of a practical nature to help them in their need, we are frauds and not headed for eternal life (1Jn. 3:17-18; James 2:14-17). Therefore it is clear that love is a matter neither of words nor of warm feelings, but rather of deeds. If love is not manifested in deeds, it is not love at all; it is a sham, it is self-deception.
That is why Jesus gave very practical examples of how we are to be judged. He doesn’t say: you didn’t have warm feelings for Me, you didn’t speak sweet words to Me. Rather, He says: you didn’t feed Me when I was hungry, or give Me drink when I was thirsty, or take care of Me when I was sick. It is fine to have warm feelings for Jesus and to speak sweet words to Him—but not as a replacement for the demands of true Christian life.
Jesus identifies with everyone who is an “other” in our lives, especially those who stand in need of our practical expressions of love. And He gives a teaching that we don’t usually like to hear, and quite quickly forget even when we have heard it: “What you do to these, you do to Me.” These brothers and sisters of Jesus, with whom He personally identifies, begin with those closest to us, but include others as well. For married couples: the way you treat your spouse is the way you treat Jesus. For families: the way you treat your children, or the way you treat your parents, is the way you treat Jesus. For monks: the way you treat your brothers is the way you treat Jesus. We can always have a “yes, but…” answer for this, but I don’t think “yes, but…” is an acceptable response at the judgment seat of Christ.
Then there are others who really may need to be fed, clothed, and taken care of in their basic needs. Since we live in an affluent society, these are often far from our notice, yet through modern means of communication they lay at our gates like Lazarus at the gate of the rich man. How can we say no to a starving child in Haiti or Sudan or India? We are saying no to Jesus. So we must be generous. We obviously cannot solve the crisis of world hunger or disease out of our own meager bank accounts, but we can always give more than we are comfortable giving, for Jesus is going to ask us if we fed and clothed Him in his poor brothers and sisters, and He will demand an answer.
If we have no material means at all, we can pray and sacrifice for the least of Jesus’ brethren. Not just perfunctory prayers, but prayer from the heart, prayer through which we feel the anguish of those who are suffering, and offer this to God to win blessings for them. If we pray for the hungry we should also fast, so we know what it is like to be hungry, at least for a time, and so our prayers will be more heartfelt and fruitful. This is faith working through love, and this is love that is genuine because it is expressed in deeds, and therefore it will rank us among the blessed of the Father, whom Jesus joyfully invites to inherit the Kingdom prepared for us since the foundation of the world.
The three main pillars of Lenten observance are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. I’ve already recommended them all as ways of living our faith, of loving in practice. But works done merely to satisfy a requirement, or which are done grudgingly or self-righteously, are not expressions of faith working through love. Perhaps this is what St Paul was opposed to, and Jesus was as well. We are not saved merely by placing this or that act in order to make God indebted to us, so that He is then required to reward us. No, the works we do flow from our faith in God and from our faithfulness to the Great Commandment: to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbors as ourselves. So our attitudes and motivations will also be brought before the judgment seat of God. No one pulls the wool over God’s eyes, for He is the Searcher of Hearts, and that is precisely what He is going to do on judgment day. He’s going to look at what we have done, and also at why and how we have done it. He’s going to see if our treasure, and hence our hearts, have been with Him in Heaven, and if we have proved this by the way we have lived. Only then will we be invited to share in eternal life and joy.
So let us take the message of this Sunday seriously, and as we enter the final week of preparation for Lent, let us reflect upon the words of the Son of God and put them into practice. Let us not be like those who ignore them or reduce their significance for our salvation, simply because they prefer certain passages from St Paul! There is no opposition between faith and works, but rather the true life in Christ is faith working through love.
By Fredi D’Alessio
And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” (Mt 22:37-40)
In a previous writing View from the Top), I quoted a reflection by Pope John Paul II on praying the Rosary, which succinctly presents us with the domestic and foreign policy we are called by God to embrace:
The Rosary is also a prayer for peace because of the fruits of charity which it produces. When prayed well in a truly meditative way, the Rosary leads to an encounter with Christ in his mysteries and so cannot fail to draw attention to the face of Christ in others, especially in the most afflicted.
How could one possibly contemplate the mystery of the Child of Bethlehem, in the joyful mysteries, without experiencing the desire to welcome, defend and promote life, and to shoulder the burdens of suffering children all over the world?
How could one possibly follow in the footsteps of Christ the Revealer, in the mysteries of light, without resolving to bear witness to his “Beatitudes” in daily life?
How could one contemplate Christ carrying the Cross and Christ Crucified, without feeling the need to act as a ‘Simon of Cyrene’ for our brothers and sisters weighed down by grief or crushed by despair?
Finally, how could one possibly gaze upon the glory of the Risen Christ or of Mary, Queen of Heaven, without yearning to make this world more beautiful, more just, more closely conformed to God’s plan?
All of the ‘fruits of charity’ above – products of our “encounter with Christ in his mysteries” – must not be allowed to perish. They become useless if stored away. We must give them away by living them out in our daily lives – by acting upon the desires, resolves, feelings, and yearnings which they evoke. It would be helpful if we include the Holy Father’s reflection as part of our intentions when we begin to pray the Rosary. We must make them our own, and because we must have an intimate knowledge of ourselves, it would also be helpful to examine our progress.
As individuals we may feel incapable of doing great things. If we agree with Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, “We can do no great things; only small things with great love”, we can begin to give serious consideration to the question of what we can do in response to the call to love.
Needed first, perhaps, is an increased spirit of joy. An Advent meditation suggests that in order to cultivate a joyful spirit, we must first reject self-pity. It goes on to say “the daily news reports can be toxic. Too much exposure to the woes of the world can be damaging to your mental health, as well as your spirit of joy”, and suggests we limit our television viewing. There are many good reasons for us to limit that very intake, but doing so in order to shield ourselves from the woes of the world may actually leave us committing a deplorable act of self-pity.
We cannot empty ourselves of self-pity by focusing on ourselves, by turning our backs on others or burying our heads in the sand. We cannot risk deceiving ourselves into believing that if we do not see the horrors which many of our brothers and sisters throughout the world are daily confronted with, they are not happening. That is to inadvertently risk exempting us from caring enough about their plights to help. Surely if members of our immediate families were suffering, we would not risk ‘tuning them out’ so that we would not have to suffer with them. Shall we then tune out any others? Rather, we need to tune ourselves out and tune the world in.
God arranged for us to be on this earth during these times – times in which technology enables us to be informed about what is happening to our brethren all over the world. In many ways, perhaps there isn’t enough coverage of the most serious woes of the world.
We should share in the sorrows of those who are suffering. We cannot allow ourselves to be overcome by sadness, but we should be appalled when others suffer due to injustice, negligence or contempt. Being emotionally deaf, dumb and blind to the world will not bring us joy. In order to answer the call to love, we must balance our emotions – not bury them or hide from them. We would do well to develop a deeply devotional prayer regimen on our neighbors’ behalf with the hope that one day we may share their joys.
To avoid cultivating a selfish joy, we must respond to the simple call to love. Then, merely seeing a smile on another’s face could bring us immense joy, especially if circumstances have prevented this person from smiling for a very long time.
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back’. Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed mercy on him.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Lk 10:29-37
In the Peace Prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, we ask God to make us instruments of his peace in sowing love, pardon, truth, faith, hope, light, and joy. We also ask that we have less concern for our own feelings and more concern for the feelings of others. We acknowledge that it is in giving that we receive, in pardoning that we are pardoned and in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.
Certainly we are confronted with many obstacles that limit and conflict with our ability to respond to the simple call to love. We should ask Our Lord daily, perhaps during our Communion prayer, to remove from within and about us everything that is an obstacle to our sanctification and in conflict with his Holy Will.
One very prominent obstacle that hinders our response is resentment. This feeling of ill will is toxic to the ‘fruits of charity’. This lingering anger chokes our hearts with living thorns, so that when the seeds of the fruits of charity are sown among those thorns, they prove unfruitful. Resentment needs to be conquered by the very love – the antidote – that it has grown resistant to. Although it may seem nearly impossible to overcome, it isn’t; we can chip away at resentment one Rosary bead at a time.
These actions will also bring forth a greater response to the call to love:
* To become more conscious of the feelings of others and, in being less defensive of our own, to open our hearts to them.
* To become more thankful for our possessions and, in being less attached to them, to share them with others.
* To become more thankful for our talents and, being less selfish with them, to use them in our service to others.
* To become more aware of our shortcomings and, being less judgmental of others, to pray that we are not put to the test.
* To become more aware of and empathetic to the problems of others and, being less focused on our own, to more greatly empty ourselves of self-pity.
* To become more helpful to others and, while being less expectant of our receiving in return, to purify our intentions.
* To become more informed about ways to help in our parishes and communities and, being less preoccupied with our own interests, to participate in some and truly improve life for those around us.
In all of the above we will find opportunities for fulfilling those corporal and spiritual works of mercy to which He calls us: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, burying the dead, counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, admonishing sinners, comforting the afflicted, forgiving offenses, bearing wrongs patiently, praying for the living and the dead.
When we serve our sisters and brothers we serve God:
Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” (Mt 25:34-36)
Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me… Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me. (Mt 25:40,45)
In the Penitential Rite we confess that we have sinned in what we have done and in what we have failed to do. May we strive to shorten both of these lists.
In responding prayerfully, actively, joyfully to the simple call to love, we cannot fail to “make this world more beautiful, more just, more closely conformed to God’s plan”.
As individuals we can do little things with great love, and as a nation we can do greater things with great love. We can be a great people – people of truth, light, forgiveness, joy, life, peace, faith, hope, love – people of God.
Originally published at TCRNews.com
MESSAGE OF HIS HOLINESS POPE JOHN PAUL II FOR THE CELEBRATION OF THE WORLD DAY OF PEACE 1 JANUARY 2004
Christians know that love is the reason for God’s entering into relationship with man. And it is love, which he awaits as man’s response. Consequently, love is also the loftiest and most noble form of relationship possible between human beings. Love must thus enliven every sector of human life and extend to the international order. Only a humanity in which there reigns the “civilization of love” will be able to enjoy authentic and lasting peace.
At the beginning of a New Year I wish to repeat to women and men of every language, religion and culture the ancient maxim: “Omnia vincit amor” (Love conquers all). Yes, dear Brothers and Sisters throughout the world, in the end love will be victorious! Let everyone be committed to hastening this victory. For it is the deepest hope of every human heart. – JOHN PAUL II