Who will be able to resist the day of his coming? Who will remain standing when he appears? For he is like the refiner’s fire and the fuller’s alkali. He will take his seat as refiner and purifier; he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and then they will make the offering to the Lord as it should be made.
Malachi 3: 2-3
And they were all astonished. At that instant Zechariah’s power of speech returned and he spoke and praised God. All their neighbors were filled with awe and the whole affair was talked about throughout the hill country of Judea.
Luke 1: 63-5
On December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. This event was heralded by the academic Francis Fukuyama and many others as “the end of history,” that is “. . . the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” As we approach Christmas of 2016, however, we see a strengthening authoritarianism and plutocracy in Russia, the growing destruction and repression of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the clinging to power whatever the cost of Joseph Kabila and other African despots, the growing xenophobia, inequality, and isolationism in Western Europe and the United States, and the increasing power of fundamentalistic ideologies in Israel and the Middle East in general. Today we read of the increased threat of a nuclear arms race between the former “superpowers,” one which threatens to be even more expansive, given the spread of nuclear weapons, than that of the mid to late 20th century. Rather than “the universalization of Western liberal democracy,” we seem to be entering an age of the growth of authoritarianism, repression, plutocracy, and oligarchy.
We seem to live in a time, hardly new in human history, that is best understood in light of Nietzsche’s “will to power.” In Beyond Good and Evil, he writes: “A living being wants above all else to release its strength; life itself is the will to power.” There is no question that our desire for power is a strong human motivation, in many ways, if we look at our current geo-political reality, it is apparently the primary one. Today’s readings, however, point to a greater and more determinative human disposition: responsibility.
A distinguishing characteristic of all the authoritarian personalities that dominate our current politics is a sense of self-encapsulation, of a type of narcissism. The first person singular dominates their discourse. They almost never speak of their responsibility to and for others, to their own people, to the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants, or to the sovereignty of a Divine reality. If some do speak of the latter, it is to a divinity of their own making and that serves their own quest for power and domination.
In today’s readings we are reminded of the truth of our accountability to that which transcends us. When faced with a clear manifestation of Divine intervention, that is in the return of speech to Zechariah, his neighbors are filled with awe and fear. When God manifests to us, we are always “put in our place.” Since we typically live in the arrogance of our own power, this experience tends to frighten us. As Zechariah’s neighbors, we look to each other to make sense of what is happening. In our fear and awe, we cease to behave as autonomous and self-ruling and turn to each other for sustenance and understanding. We realize that we can only make sense together of what is beyond us.
In the reading from Malachi, we hear of the judgment that comes with the Lord’s appearance. We no longer “remain standing’ in our own pride and self-sufficiency when we are called to an encounter, to judgment with the truth. That judgment is to be like “the refiner’s fire and the fuller’s alkali.” What is arrogant in us will be burnt away and what is false in us will be cleansed. Today’s scriptural message is a difficult but a most necessary one for us. Finally, be we leader, dictator, or citizen, we shall have to meet our responsibility. Our sense of the breadth of our own power is largely illusion. Our true strength lies not in imposing our will on others and the world but on being responsible to it and to the One who is our creator and our life.
To all appearances power wills out. To cite but the most obvious of examples: Crimea has been annexed, Aleppo at the cost of thousands of lives and the destruction of a monument to human civilization has fallen, the Democratic Republic of Congo is, yet again, on the precipice of chaos and despair, the establishment of illegal settlements on the West Bank continues unabated, and it appears as if the United States is about to withdraw from agreements to respond to climate change and to escalate nuclear expansion and proliferation. So it would have appeared at the time of Jesus’ coming that the absolute power of Rome was to remain uncontested and eternal. Yet, at some point, our own power fails us, and we are each and all called to account.
A mentor and teacher would frequently ask the question: “What kind of a being is it that has to continually remind itself that “the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours?” It is one who tends constantly to forget that our life, at its heart, is a responsibility to another and for others. This living in forgetfulness is what makes judgment terrifying for us. To make a space for the Lord to enter requires of us a reformation and a reorientation of our will to power. It is to learn and to live out that deepest human potency that lies in our ability to be responsible to and for the truth of things. It means that we use whatever we have and are for the sake of the others. The kingdom and the power and glory are God’s, not ours.
Today’s reading from Malachi concludes in the following way: “Know that I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before my day comes, that great and terrible day. He shall turn the hearts of fathers towards their children and the hearts of children towards their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a curse.” (Mal. 3: 23-4) One of the greatest symptoms of irresponsibility is the refusal or inability to turn our hearts towards our children. How is it possible for a dictator to bomb hospitals and schools where our children reside? How is it possible for an plutocrat to enrich himself at the expense of his children’s future? How is it possible for the government of the richest and most powerful nation on the planet to fail to do everything possible to preserve life on the planet for our children? It is only possible because of the hardness of heart born of narcissism and self-aggrandizement. The moment will come for each of us when we shall have to face the truth of judgment, and in that judgment we shall be asked if we cared about and for our children.
To be blinded by our own desire for and sense of power is to suffer, in the words of Pope Francis, from “the deception of alienation and estrangement.” Our greatest alienation and estrangement is that from our true self and so from God. The greatest damage and havoc is wrought by those with power who are alienated and estranged from themselves and from God. The greatest healing is brought about by those who know who they are and what their lives are for. This is why the Fundamental Principles exhort us to serve the recollection and reintegration of others.
It is through your life of gospel witness
lived in community with others
that God desires to manifest
care and compassionate love
to those who are separated and estranged,
not only from their neighbors,
but also from their own uniqueness;
to those who suffer
from want, neglect, and injustice:
the poor, the weak, and the oppressed
of this world.
To live, as we do, in the faith and the truth of the Incarnation, requires of us to pray that we may live in awareness of judgment from moment to moment, that we may know, heed, and act out of our responsibility toward God’s desires for our children and all. Our measure is not our fame or our control or power over others, it is rather our ability to respond, from the truth of who we are, as “faithful servants” to the will of God for the world and to the needs of others.
We read of “reaping, the harvest, the crop”, but also of “testing the quality of grain, of the grapes”. Namely, the Pope explained, “after the end there will be judgment. We will all be judged, each one of us will be judged”. Therefore, “it is good for us to think: ‘What will that day be like when I am before Jesus’, when the Lord will ask me for an account of “talents that he gave me”, or “how my heart was when the seed fell?”. Recalling the “parables of the Kingdom of God”, the Pontiff proposed some questions to ask ourselves: “How do I receive the Word? With an open heart? Do I let it grow for the good of others or keep it hidden?”. This examination of conscience is good and useful, because “we will all be judged” and everyone will find himself “in front of Jesus”. We do not know the date, but “it will happen”.
Even in the Gospel, taken from a passage of Luke (21:5-11), we find advice in this regard from Jesus himself, who exhorts: “Do not be deceived!”. What deception is he referring to? It is the “deception of alienation”, the Pope explained, “and that of estrangement”: the deception for which “I am distracted, I do not think, and I live as if I were never going to die”. However, he asked, “when the Lord comes, who will come like lightning, how will he find me? Waiting or in the midst of so many disposals of life, deceived by things that are superficial, which have no transcendence?”.
We are therefore faced with a real and true “call from the Lord to think seriously about the end: about my end, the judgment, about my judgment”. In this regard, the Pope recalled how when we are children we go “to catechism” class, and are taught “four things: death, judgment, hell or glory”.
Of course, some might say: “Father, this frightens us”. However, Francis replied: “It is the truth. Because if you do not take care of your heart”, and “you always live far away from the Lord, perhaps there is the danger, the danger of continuing in this way, far away from the Lord for eternity. This is very bad!”.
Pope Francis, Homily, November 22, 2016