When we look at Advent, we seem to be looking at two things at once. We are looking forward to Christmas, to the coming of the Lord as the infant Jesus, and all that the idea of God as an infant evokes, ideas of humility and obedience, romantic thoughts of Baby Jesus, Mary mother mild, Joseph, and the animals around the manger. These are pleasant images, happy images. At the same time, we look to the coming of Christ in glory to judge the world. The wicked will burn in unquenchable fire. Here we have a different sort of image, images of judgement, wrath, and fear. These images are not so pleasant. Looking at both of them at once, I come out spiritually cross-eyed.
When John the Baptist talks about this harsh and fiery judgement, he talks tough. "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come. Even now the axe is laid to the roots of the trees; Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." It comes suddenly, like a burglar breaking in, or the householder who returns unexpectedly to find his servants living it up with his steak and best wine, using the best china, crystal, and silver. It comes ruthlessly, like Jesus when he finds the fig tree without fruit when he's hungry for a fig, so he curses the tree, and the next day it is dead and dried up. His pitchfork is in his hand to clear the threshing floor, and when he's done, there will be nothing left. The grain goes into the silo and the husks are burnt. And that's that!
At the moment of judgement, it will all be over. We had our chance, and we either took it or we didn't. It's too late now. The moment of judgement is the last moment of time, of that sequence of events that makes up our life, of all our choices for or against God's will, of all the movements of our hearts toward or away from God. At this moment, at the sudden summing up of our lives, the meaning and value of all that we have done is made clear to us, we stand naked before our God, and the secrets of our hearts are revealed.
So there it is, that day of wrath and doom impending, sudden, ruthless and final.
Ah, but the judge. Who is the judge?
The babe of Bethlehem is the judge of wrath. And now our eyes begin to uncross, and the reality begins to come into focus. What God could judge us, what God has more power, more understanding, or a better right to judge us than the Incarnate Lord?
That's the good news! We know our judge. A prisoner awaiting trial worries about what kind of judge she might get. We know our judge. Our judge said to the woman taken in adultery, "Let one who is without sin cast the first stone." Our judge is the good shepherd who knows his sheep, who went in search for the lost sheep, the judge who "Suffer the little children to come to me." He healed the sick and forgave the sinners. He came to sinners, not the righteous, not to the whole but the sick. He is the one who laid down his life on the cross to take our sins away, and who heals, feeds and forgives in the sacraments.
This life and work of this Human Lord is the judgement. There is a final judgement to come, a conclusion, but the judgement has already begun in our own meeting with the living Incarnate Christ. We meet our judgement when we meet Christ. When we hear the Gospel read in the liturgy, or when we read the Word prayerfully, we meet Christ himself. When we pray, when we watch our hearts and lives and come to know Christ within us, we meet Christ himself. And in our reaction, we are judged. Do we submit ourselves to that judgement, or do we turn away to some private judgement of our own? Do we follow Christ, or our own preferences? Do we hear and obey the word of God, or do we reinterpret it, write over it, so as to do our own will? Will we be gradually converted and increasingly conformed to the life of the Lord, or are we so full of ourselves that there is no room for the Lord's life in our life?
We are judged by the quality of our conversion to the living Lord. All whom we meet meet the Lord in us, and judge him by our conversion to him. As Christians, we meet others in the name and power of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is seen in the world as he is seen in us.
And here is that fearsome judgement again. What I have just said makes me tremble with fear. These moments of encounter with Christ are like that day of wrath and doom impending. They are sudden--they do sneak up on you--and ruthless--like being caught red handed at something--and final--once you get the message, it is perilous not to act. All these moments are the beginning of that great day of judgement. Like a woman in childbirth, we struggle in pain.
But once a child is born we forget the pain because of the joy. The child that is born is the babe of Bethlehem come to be born in our hearts. Our judge is a lover, his justice is mercy. In our encounter with the Lord, we meet one who loves us with a love so rich and full that all the love we can fantasize is nothing compared to it. When we meet that love, we find ourselves looking into the eyes of one who sees us as we are, with our faults and sins, and says, "Take my life into you and start over. My life is yours, go ahead and live it." And in that love we find the power to offer to others that same forgiving love.
Well, I'm not doing too well describing the love and forgiveness of our judge. Maybe my eyes aren't quite uncrossed yet this morning. Let George Herbert, who saw it more clearly, have the last word:Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, the ungrateful? Ah, my dear.
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth, Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says love, and taste my meat.
So I did sit and eat.