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11/26/17 Solemnity of Christ the King - Fr. Reggie

We all know and believe that Jesus will "come again in glory to judge the living and the dead."

We affirm that belief each week when we pray the Creed.

But it is possible that we have not thought deeply enough about the meaning of this final Judgment. For example, we know that God is infinitely merciful. But in today's Gospel, Jesus welcomes some people into his eternal Kingdom, but others go off to eternal punishment. It is hard for us to understand fully how God's mercy can go together with eternal punishment, but we can understand it partially.

Today's Gospel passage can help us. When Jesus addresses the first group of people, the ones entering heaven, he says to them: "Come, you who are blessed by my Father..." But when he addresses the second group, the ones entering eternal punishment, he says to them: "Depart from you, you accursed." Notice how the blessing received by the first group came from God ("blessed by my Father"), but the curse received by the second group did not ("accursed"). The second group purposely and freely chose to live their earthly lives egocentrically. They didn't enter into a friendship with God, because they didn't want the lifestyle of love and self-giving that goes with it. For their entire lives they resisted and rejected God's many invitations - the voice of conscience, the teachings of the Church, the example of believers, the lives of the saints, the beauties of creation. They freely chose to live separate from God. Now, after lives like that, would it be merciful for God to force them to spend eternity in his presence? No - it would be cruel.

Hell is not God's creation, it is the creation of those who feely and consistently choose to live without God.

One way to understand this is to think of a normal, healthy family. In a healthy family, the parents are very concerned about the well-being of their children. They worry about all the bad things that might happen to their children. And so, in the early years they protect their children from harm and teach them to be careful, good, and smart.

As the children grow up, the parents have two choices. The first choice is to gradually give the children more freedom and responsibility, as corresponds to their age. But this is a risk. There is a chance that the children will abuse their freedom, as the Prodigal Son did, and do damage to themselves.

The second choice is to put the children in straight jackets and control absolutely everything that happens to them: force them to eat only the most nutritious food; watch only good quality entertainment, have contact only with good people, never be exposed to temptations or dangers. This way, they completely minimize the risk of injury, hardship, or youthful mistakes.

The only negative aspect of this choice is that the children are no longer being treated as human beings.

Which choice is more loving, more merciful?

Clearly, gradually giving the children more freedom and responsibility is the more loving thing to do, even though it involves a risk - the risk that the children may abandon their parents altogether, in fact.

God is our Father. He loves us too much to put a straight jacket on us; he loves us so much, that he is even willing to let us go, if we so desire.

That's why the existence of Hell doesn't contradict God's infinite mercy.

The Last Judgment has at least two very practical consequences for our day-to-day lives.

First, it means that our decisions, even the small ones, really matter. In the Sistine Chapel in Rome, where the cardinals meet to choose the next pope, there is a monumental painting of the Last Judgment by Michelangelo. One of the reasons that painting was put there, back in the late 1500s, was to remind the cardinals that they will to have to answer to God for the choice they make of the next pope. We too are going to have to answer to God for how we use the gifts he has given us: for self-indulgence, or for self-giving. Our choices and efforts in life matter to God; they have a lasting impact, for good or evil; they really do mean something.

The second consequence has to do with suffering. The world is full of apparently meaningless suffering: innocent children being kidnapped and sold into slavery, entire cities collapsing in earthquakes, good people being cruelly oppressed. Each one of us experiences at least some of this suffering in our own lives, often in hidden ways. But this suffering is not the end of the story; injustice does not win. The promise of the Last Judgment is Christ's promise that all things will in the end be set right, justice will be done, all that has been wrongly destroyed will be fully restored. God really is the Good Shepherd, as today's First Reading and Psalm tell us, and he really will lead his followers out of the valley of darkness. This is why Pope Benedict, in his second encyclical, called the Last Judgment an "image of hope."

In a few moments, when we pray the Creed, we will formally profess our belief that Christ, the eternal King, will come again to judge the living and the dead.

When we do so, let's do so with confidence, promising to live each day walking close beside our Good Shepherd, Christ the King.



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