“People will collapse from fear and from dread of the things that are coming upon the inhabited world. For the powers of heaven will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great glory. When all these things start to happen, stand up! Life up your heads, because your liberation is coming near!”
Luke 21: 26-28
I often ponder the words of one of my wisest teachers who would ask the question, “What kind of a creature is it that must keep reminding itself that ‘the kingdom, and the power, and the glory are Yours‘?” For me, this question captures, as no other, the nature of the great human conflict between the Christ form and the pride form in us. Our life is a constant struggle between devotion to God’s glory and the enhancing of our own, between an obedient participation in creation and an assertion of our will out of a self-centered perspective.
It would seem, for example, as if the great crisis and so call of our time is the threat to our planet and our existence posed by human-caused climate change. It is impossible to think of a more stark choice of choosing life or death for the generations to follow than the choice currently before us. In fact, our very sense that we have a choice is symptomatic of our pride. As Pope Francis has told us, we have been given by God “a common home.” What is asked of us is that we prove ourselves good stewards of that gift. Yet, we behave as if we are not stewards but owners. We mistakenly believe that we have the “right” to do what we wish with our planet, mindless of the place that is ours in creation. We live as if all creation, including the resources of the planet themselves, are given to glorify us. To know our place in the world and in the design of God would, in itself, lead us to live in harmony with the reality of the earth, each other, and all creation. One of the dismissals at mass enjoins us to “glorify God with your lives.” Our true place is where every thought, word, and deed of ours gives glory to God by thinking what is to be thought, speaking what is to be said, and doing what is to be done. What makes us most fully human is our capacity to be responsible, to respond to what the moment calls for.
For it is only in harmony
That you will grow,
That your community will grow,
That the love of God will grow in your world,
And that the kingdom of God will grow to completeness.
So, today we are summoned to reflect on the time of judgment, in both its individual and universal senses. What we term judgment in our tradition exists in some form or other in all the great wisdom traditions. For example, Hinduism speaks of the law of karma. The Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University describes the Hindu vision as follows: “In Hinduism, karma is the force of retributive justice that compels believers to behave righteously according to Dharma—the moral order of the universe.” To speak of God’s glory in creation is to understand that there is a moral order in the universe to which we are responsible. Thus, judgment is “the retributive justice” that is the result of our actions. Precisely because everything is connected, our actions redound on all of creation, including ourselves. Our planet is revealing this truth to us day by day and moment by moment. We have behaved irresponsibly in its regard, and now we are experiencing its consequences. What we are sadly learning, however, is that the blindness of our egoism knows no bounds. We refuse to learn and so the results of that refusal become ever starker.
We are also continually experiencing judgment at the individual level. Many years ago I experienced a time of depression, largely the result of loneliness. This was the great fear of my young life as an only child. In midlife adulthood, that fear, with the death of my father, seemed to have become more and more realized. I remember vividly the simple and straightforward response of one to whom I was relating my experience. She said to me directly and simply “Connect.” I was seeking relief from loneliness but not acting when possible to increase and deepen my connection to others. It was not that friendship was unavailable to me; it was rather that I was not behaving like a friend. I realized, at this moment of judgment, the truth of Martin Heidegger’s description of the structure of care. We must care if we are to feel cared for. What we experience is the result, the fruit, of our own behavior. The reality of judgment, of karma, is not highly mysterious. It is omnipresent in our experience.
In the gospel today, Luke has Jesus teaching us: “When all these things start to happen, stand up! Lift up your heads, because your liberation is coming near!” Judgment is earth shattering, but it is ultimately liberation. As long as I lived out of my self-centered demands of the world to care for me, I was bound by my own spiritual ignorance. To be encapsulated in myself certainly would lead to a sense of isolation and loneliness. The shaking of my world occurred when my own selfishness was revealed to me. Knowing now more of the truth, I was liberated to make a different choice.
At the universal level, our world is constantly challenging and calling us to respond. What we call “news” is in itself a revelation of our failure to care and so a summons to make new choices and to respond more faithfully to our role as stewards of creation, as shepherds of being. This is, perhaps, even more difficult for us today than in the past. Not so long ago, an individual person’s experience of the world was quite circumscribed. That is, the encounter with the wider world was mediated through the very specific and limited situation of the moment. Thus, one’s response to the world consisted in responding to the call of the situation at hand. The call to glorify God, although never easy to live out, was at least clear and immediate to us. Now, on a daily basis, we hear the news of the suffering and trials of the inhabitants of the entire globe. We see on our computer or television screens the desperation of so many of our fellow human beings without immediately recognizing how it is that our ways of living and choices in life have contributed to this. It raises the question of whether our minds now receive more information than our heart has space or capacity to respond to.
I experienced this tension acutely in December of 2004. On December 26, I received word that my mother was dying, and so that night I began the vigil by her bedside. On that very same day, an earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Indonesia resulted in the deaths of at least 228,000 persons. The next morning one of the nurses came through and said something to me about how such a tragedy and so many deaths relativized the dying of my mother. I can still remember my feeling of outrage. And yet, my mother was dying at the age of 89 and after suffering from the progressive deterioration of Alzheimer’s Disease for nearly 20 years. She had a full life, and the suffering, especially of her most recent years, was coming to an end. Yet I wanted and demanded recognition of her death and, perhaps even more so, of my loss. I wasn’t interested in “relativizing” that personal loss, even in the face of such a global catastrophe.
There is a great danger in our exposure to so much of the world’s suffering of what is sometimes called “compassion fatigue.” When overwhelmed, it is perhaps merely human to experience a withdrawal into our own worlds and a closing down of our own hearts. We have much to learn about how, in a time of such a massive quantity of information, we are to be responsible. Certainly we are still required to exercise responsibility in the immediate situation. I could continue to accompany my mother, as best I could, on her journey to the next life. I could not accompany the hundreds of thousands in Indonesia who had lost home and family. And yet, their reality and suffering was also a call to me, a call to respond in some way. It was, at the very least, a call to the vigilance to which Jesus calls the crowd in these teachings about the end time, an awareness of the fragility of all life and of our dependence on God at every moment.
These thoughts today summoned up in me a poem of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins reminds us that beneath the surface and the struggle, both successful and unsuccessful, to be responsible, we are what Christ is, because Christ is what we are. When the fire of judgment purifies away all the surface dross of our lives, what shall emerge is the diamond that is Christ, that is us. While being called to be responsible, to seek to glorify God in our actions, we are but a “poor potsherd.” Yet, in Christ we do and shall always glorify God. This is the great mystery. For all of the sin, uncaring, and evil in us and in our world, there remains the truth of which Julian of Norwich speaks, “God made it; God loves it; God cares for it.”
from “That Nature Is a Herclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection”
. . . Million fueled, nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest to her, her clearest-selved spark
Man, how fast his firedint, his mark on mind is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indignation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disserveral, a star, death blots black out; nor mark
Is any of him at all so stark.
But vastness blurs and time beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, joyless days, dejection.
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; worlds wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ