|Christ the Judge, detail, Sistine Chapel|
Heaven is above all yet: there sits a Judge / That no king can corrupt. ― Katharine in Henry VIII
I have a Jesuit brother who is known for saying to members of his community, “I’m judging you right now.” It is a self-deprecating jest, with the humour coming from the contrast between the rigour associated with judgement and his otherwise pleasant demeanour. In other words, the joke relies upon our perception of judgement as a negative thing.
However, in the Bible, and especially in the Old Testament, judgement is viewed in the opposite way. An entire book is about heroes who are called “judges”: the Book of Judges tells the stories of men who were sent as champions of justice, peace and order in the Land. Judgement, in general, is eagerly awaited by the Israelites. In the Psalms we find countless instances of prayers for God to come as a judge. “Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth,” says the writer of Psalm 96. How many of us today would “rejoice” before judgement?
The difference in perception comes about, I think, because we tend to equate judgement with condemnation. The Israelites, however, saw judgement as vindication. Psalm 96 continues: “He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness.” In other words, it is the cry of the oppressed amidst corruption for an honest judge who will finally come and set things right. I am reminded of the film In The Name of the Father. Loosely based on true events, it tells the story of a group of people who are wrongfully convicted of carrying out a deadly IRA terrorist attack. For fifteen years, they languish in a English gaol, doing what they can from the inside to drum up public support for their cause and to have their case properly heard. They greatly desire judgement: not the wrongful judgement they were given, based on fear and scapegoating and propped up with shoddy evidence and perjury, but real judgement. Like the poor widow of Luke 18:1–8, they know that only if they can have a proper trial will they be saved.
This is a helpful lens through which to look at the apocalyptic readings we had at the end of Ordinary Time and are having at the beginning of Advent. Though it is their images of calamity and tribulation that captivate our attention, these are the birthing pangs of the just judgement. The real message is that there is a day―a day which is already arriving―when justice will be inaugurated. Thus, the gospel reading from this past Sunday, speaking of the apocalypse, tells us, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Of course, one of the main reasons for apocalyptic prophecy and preaching about the day of judgement is to help us to examine our consciences. Am I one of the poor and innocent who would be vindicated if judgement arrived? Or would I be one of the oppressors who would be justly condemned? Am I fighting to get the poor widow a fair hearing, or am I cosy with the wicked forces that are the instruments of her oppression? “Be always on the watch,” Jesus says, “and pray … that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”
All of the foregoing would be incomplete, however, without realizing that it is only with Jesus’s gospel that the fullest meaning of our judgement is revealed. For how could any of us “stand before the Son of Man”, given that none of us has always been the nail rather than the hammer? “Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping?” It is only through the Paschal Mystery that we can be confident to “stand when he appeareth”. For it is not our righteousness that will be judged, but our faith in the one who guarantees righteousness in our stead. Only through the cross of Christ can we rejoice in true hope at the words of the psalmist: “The judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”