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Friday, December 3, 2010

Are We Really "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"?

I chuckle when I read about some of arguments concerning the separation of Church and state that I read either on print or online, especially where public education is concerned.  I find it funny because one of the texts we were required to read in school was Jonathan Edwards' troubling sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." 

When I first read the piece, I found it very difficult to take.  Of course, as a young Catholic school graduate (8th grade), the work was quite scary and rather graphic.  Edwards describes man as being some sort of a spider dangling from God's fingers, waiting to be hurled into Hell.  But, as a Calvinist, Edwards was merely stating his own belief, which, obviously, does not reflect what the Church teaches.

Now, nearly 25 years removed from my first reading of the text, I look at it from the Catholic perspective.  The Church teaches us that Hell is a reality.  In fact, it is part of the four last things:  Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. Jesus talks about the never-ending fires of Gehenna.  There is that real possibility that one could very well go to Hell.

However, the possibility is not God's choosing.  It is ours.  Even though Jesus repeatedly warns us about Hell, it is not based on wrath, but rather on love.  He does not want to lose us.  In fact, in St. John's Gospel account of the Last Supper, Jesus prays that his followers will be with Him always. In contrast, Edwards goes on for several paragraphs about the Lord's wrath.  It's the classic fire and brimstone material.  But, there is something missing.  Nowhere in his sermon does one get the idea (at least, I don't) of God's passionate, immense and powerful love for man.  The God who made us in His image and likeness loves us more deeply, more profoundly than we could ever know.   His love reaches its ultimate fulfillment when He sends his Word to become incarnate and be born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jesus.  And, as the text of Eucharistic Prayer IV reminds us:

For when the hour had come for him to be glorified by you, Father most holy, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
That love compelled Jesus to offer Himself as the True Lamb, the True Sacrifice of Atonement that freed us from the power of sin and death.  It is that divine Love and that divine Mercy that saw the crowds jeering at Him while He hung on the Cross that compelled Jesus to forgive them because they were bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh.   

But, even on the Cross, Jesus does not force us to come to him.  His love, more powerful than a magnet, could not attract the first thief to Him.   The magnet hit an immovable force that could only foster contempt and disgust from the one hanging to Jesus' left.  On the other hand, the second thief, St. Dismas by tradition, could not resist the immense love and mercy emitting from Jesus.  He willingly chooses to acknowledge Jesus as King.  St. Dismas also acknowledges his sin; yet, he unapologetically asks Jesus to remember him.  He wants to be with Jesus.  The Jesus that St. Dismas encountered was not the angry God preached about by Edwards.  Jesus was not reminding St. Dismas of the evil that he had done.  He was not waiting to hurl the poor thief down into the abyss of damnation.  He looked at St. Dismas and promised that the the thief would be with Him in paradise.

It utimately boils down to a choice.  The first thief chose to despise Jesus.  He flat-out rejected the mercy and the love that Jesus was ready to offer.  St. Dismas, on the other hand, readily chose to be with Jesus, mindful of his own sins, but still desiring Jesus' love and mercy. 

In this holy season of Advent, the Church's liturgy devotes the first two Sundays to looking at the Second Coming of Christ.  This Sunday, during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we will hear St. Matthew's account of St. John the Baptist calling the people to repent, to convert.  Some could very well make the argument that the Baptist is using a tactic similary to Edwards' approach, with the graphic imagery of the winnowing fan and the burning of the chaffe.   However, I believe that there is a deeper meaning here. 

At the judgment, all of the secret thoughts of our hearts will be laid bare. We will be like the two women who stood before King Solomon each claiming to be the mother of a newborn boy.  When Solomon offers to split the child down the middle and give each woman half, the first one tells him to go ahead and do it.  The second woman pleads for the life of the child.  Thus, the true mother was revealed because of the choices that were made.  We, too, will have to make a choice, the most important decision of our lives.  We will be faced with the true nature of our hearts.  We will have either borne good fruit or bad fruit.  We will be either wheat or chaffe.  It is not so much the Lord's winnowing fan that will be pushing us towards life (Heaven) or death (Hell).  We will stand before Him and see God as He really is and we will see ourselves as we really are.  If we have made an earnest, yet imperfect, effort to love, then, we will find ourselves open and attracted to that same magnet of love and mercy that drew in St. Dismas.  We will ask Jesus to admit us into His Kingdom because we love Him.  However, if we have shunned Him in this life, if we take on the attitude of disgust and loathing that the first thief displayed, then, we will reject Jesus.  We will not want to enter into that Kingdom of love and, instead, condemn ourselves to a lifeless existence in Hell.

God loves  us too much to want to lose us.   That same call to repentence and conversion that St. John the Baptist made to Ancient Israel still holds very true today for the New Israel.  Every day is a call to conversion, but, the message takes on a greater urgency during Advent.  Just as the Baptist offered a baptism of repentence for the forgiveness of sins so as to prepare Ancient Israel for the Messiah's coming, the Church offers the cleansing spiritual waters of the Sacrament of Penance, the means of forgiveness of sins, to prepare the New Israel for both the continuous coming of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist and His final return in glory. 

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