View all Novenas | November 3, 2023
Part 4 – God the Son – Week 8
Part 4 – God the Son – Week 8
He will come again to judge the living and the dead
Ratzinger’s reflection on the meaning of the last judgment brings his Christological section of Introduction to Christianity to an end. There are, he tells us, two intrinsically related aspects to the dogma: on the one hand the fact that we will, in fact, be judged and that our freedom therefore is therefore authentic, real, the carrier of true responsibility. On the other hand, he adds, we cannot forget that the person judging us is not an indifferent, far-removed eternal principle or even simply an omnipotent God. Rather it is Jesus Himself – our friend, our brother, the one who was born, who suffered, who died, who rose, and who ascended for us, the one who – as we have discovered throughout this entire section – is defined as the Christ, as the one who is, in His deepest being, ‘God with us’ and ‘God for us’.
“Anyone who entrusts himself to faith becomes aware that [two sides to this dogma of the last judgment] exist: the radical character of the grace that frees helpless man and, no less, the abiding seriousness of the responsibility that summons man day after day.
Both together mean that the Christian enjoys, on the one hand, the liberating, detached tranquility of him who lives on that excess of divine justice known as Jesus Christ. There is a tranquility that knows: in the last analysis, I cannot destroy what he has built up. For in himself man lives with the dreadful knowledge that his power to destroy is infinitely greater than his power to build up. But this same man knows that in Christ the power to build up has proved infinitely stronger. This is the source of a profound freedom, a knowledge of God’s unrepentant love; he sees through all our errors and remains well disposed to us. It becomes possible to do one’s own work fearlessly; it has shed its sinister aspect because it has lost its power to destroy: the issue of the world does not depend on us but is in God’s hands.
At the same time the Christian knows, however, that he is not free to do whatever he pleases, that his activity is not a game that God allows him and does not take seriously. He knows that he must answer for his actions, that he owes an account as a steward of what has been entrusted to him. There can only be responsibility where there is someone to be responsible to, someone to put the questions. Faith in the Last Judgment holds this questioning of our life over our heads so that we cannot forget it for a moment. Nothing and no one empowers us to trivialize the tremendous seriousness involved in such knowledge; it shows our life to be a serious business and precisely by doing so gives it its dignity.
“To judge the living and the dead”—this also means that no one but he has the right to judge in the end. This implies that the unrighteousness of the world does not have the last word, not even by being wiped out indiscriminately in a universal act of grace; on the contrary, there is a last court of appeal that preserves justice in order thus to be able to perfect love. A love that overthrew justice would create injustice and thus cease to be anything but a caricature of love. True love is excess of justice, excess that goes farther than justice, but never destruction of justice, which must be and must remain the basic form of love.
Of course, one must guard against the opposite extreme. It cannot be denied that belief in the Last Judgment has at times assumed in the Christian consciousness a form in which, in practice, it was bound to lead to the destruction of the full faith in the redemption and the promise of mercy. The example always adduced is the profound contrast between Maran atha and Dies irae. The early Christians, with their cry “Our Lord, come” (Maran atha), interpreted the second coming of Jesus as an event full of hope and joy, stretching their arms out longingly toward it as the moment of the great fulfillment. To the Christians of the Middle Ages, on the other hand, that moment appeared as the terrifying “day of wrath” (Dies irae), which makes man feel like dying of woe and terror, and to which he looks forward with fear and dread. The return of Christ is then only judgment, the day of the great reckoning that threatens everyone. Such a view forgets a decisive aspect of Christianity, which is thus reduced for all practical purposes to moralism and robbed of that hope and joy which are the very breath of its life.
[Instead], the real emphasis of this article of the Creed becomes evident [in the fact that it is Jesus who will judge us]. It is not simply—as one might expect—God, the Infinite, the Unknown, the Eternal, who judges. On the contrary, he has handed the judgment over to one who, as man, is our brother. It is not a stranger who judges us but he whom we know in faith. The judge will not advance to meet us as the entirely Other, but as one of us, who knows human existence from inside and has suffered.
Thus over the judgment glows the dawn of hope; it is not only the day of wrath but also the second coming of our Lord. One is reminded of the mighty vision of Christ with which the Book of Revelation begins (1:9-19): the seer sinks down as though dead before this being full of unearthly power. But the Lord lays his hand on him and says to him as once in the days when they were crossing the Lake of Gennesaret in wind and storm: “Fear not, it is I” (cf. 1:17). The Lord of all power is that Jesus whose comrade the visionary had once become in faith. The article in the Creed about the judgment transfers this very idea to our meeting with the judge of the world. On that day of fear the Christian will be allowed to see in happy wonder that he to whom “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given” (Mt 28:18) was the companion in faith of his days on earth, and it is as if through the words of the Creed Jesus were already laying his hands on him and saying: Be without fear, it is I.
- Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2004 , 324-327.
What have I learned about Jesus in these last two ‘novenas’ based on the Christological section of Introduction to Christianity? This is perhaps a good time to take a look back at the principal themes we have covered and which are all connected: 1) Jesus’ identity as the Christ, or in other words as the God who is with us and for us; 2) how this is revealed in the mysteries of His birth, passion and death, descent into hell, resurrection, and ascension into heaven; 3) and what this means for me in my life as a person searching to be fully and perfectly loved. What lessons does the Lord want to teach me about Himself through all we have discovered? How can I apply it to grow in my relationship of faith, trust, and love with Him?