On the television show The Apprentice, the aspiring business men and women are set tasks and then made to account for the success or failure of the project to Lord Sugar, who sits in his judgement seat in the board room. Nothing escapes his scrutiny and his judgement. In the end he has the power to retain them or expel them from the board room with the words ‘you’re fired.’
Our ancestors in the faith in the Middle Ages regarded God in a similar way: they lived in fear of the threat of divine judgement. Churches were dominated by scenes of the Doom, the Last Judgement, when the living and dead were judged and pulled up to heaven by angels or dragged down to hell by devils. The great challenge of medieval life was how to reach heaven and avoid hell.
Advent reminds us that God is our judge, but to be our judge is more than just about passing sentence. For judgement is also about improvement. The comments of the judges on programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing aim to improve the dancers’ performances. If they just said every dance was ‘fab-u-lous’, then the celebrity dancers would not learn how to improve.
We must not take advantage of God’s merciful nature, being merciful to us even when we do not deserve it, forgiving us even before we ask. Jesus taught us to call God, ‘Our Father’, but this father is firm but fair, and has high expectations of his children.
The description ‘God-fearing’ has fallen out of fashion, but it is an excellent attitude of faith: to be fearful of God, not terrified, but mindful of his immensity and authority and of how small we are in comparison. St John XXIII once said how difficult he found it to sleep in his first weeks as Pope, until his guardian angel told him in a daydream, ‘Giovanni, don’t take yourself so seriously.’ And since then he was able to sleep fine.
God-fearing people live their lives in the light of Christ, that Paul speaks of. Everything they do and say can be exposed to the light of God’s judgement with no cause for shame. They commit no misdeeds concealed by the cover of darkness.
At our School Masses we have been looking at the parable of the talents, how we have all been given talents that we can employ in God’s service, for the good of others as well as ourselves. When Christ returns we will have to give an account of what we have done with what we have been given. At one Mass, when I said to the children that Christ could return at any moment, a gust of blew the door shut, which emphasized that that moment could be now.
Advent brings a sense of urgency; we need to be about the Lord’s work now for he could indeed return at any time. Christians have been waiting nearly two thousand years for his return, and unfortunately that sense of urgency which the early Christians possessed has diminished. I doubt if any of us get up in the morning and wonder whether Christ will return today, but for the early Christians this would have been a pressing question.
St Paul tells the Christians in Rome, that ‘the time’ has come, the day of reckoning draws ever closer. Later he says we will all stand before the judgement seat of God. Each of us will be accountable to God.
Spanish shops and businesses are obliged to display prominently a notice that declares that they have at the disposal of the customer a ‘libro de reclamaciones’ , a complaints book, and if you are not satisfied with the service you have received, you can demand it and file your complaint. In my tiem there I have never seen one requested, and I imagine there would be a great drama if it were ever asked for. If there were to be such a book with our name on it, would it declare all the complaints God has against us, would it record all our sins? No, for those sins for which we have truly repented would be erased. But those sins which we have not repented and confessed, those sins for which we have not atoned, would still be recorded. Yet more glaring might be the sins of omission, those things that we have left undone.
Advent is a time for us to examine ourselves and our consciences, to confess and make amends. Advent arrives with a warning: not to procrastinate, we need to look at what the Lord wants us to do, now.
We must stand ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour we do not expect.