“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive his reward according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil.” There are many such familiar words recited at funerals. Other phrases are equally ominous. The Last Judgment scene written in Matthew and painted on canvas in the Sistine Chapel stops us in our tracks. We know that each of us will be standing there one day just waiting for that gavel to come down on us. Scripture has numerous references regarding this final moment as we think about the “thief coming in the night” stealing us away to the judgment seat or “two women grinding corn; one is taken, one is not.”
| At the Last Judgement each will receive what is his due. Planet Art photo
As we ponder the Last Judgment title, a recommendation might be to focus not on the word “judgment,” but on the word “last.” Last gives the moment a totally different perspective and outlook. It can mean the final one in a series, so look at the concept of standing before the Lord to be judged and accountable as this is, finally, the last time to be judged. It turns ominous feelings into joy; it changes a gavel to a key to the kingdom.
A lifetime of being judged, critiqued, challenged for what we did or did not do, is now at its final time. Those many moments prepared us for this moment, and it is a relief that it is finally over.
Think of all the times in life that the gavel of judgment came down. One communal reckoning where “misery loves company” is the annual day of reckoning of April 15. It is a day that we “pay the piper” — or at least Uncle Sam. We are held accountable. It is a day so dreaded that many wait until the last day to hold themselves accountable, possibly hoping against hope that the real and final Last Judgment will occur before April 15 just to avoid this yearly ritual. Most people lessen the pain of April 15 by holding themselves accountable every time they are paid. If we wait until the very end of the year to be accountable for the whole year at once, it would be like going to confession once each year trying to remember all we did all year. It is easier to remember a month’s worth of sins and have 12 mini-judgments, 12 mini-accountabilities rather than one big one.
Another judgment moment which is dreaded constantly is that annual physical. The day of “physical reckoning,” unlike the fiscal reckoning above, does not have a set day. The downside is it is easy to forget, easy to think you need not worry about holding yourself accountable for your physical well-being. When left to our own devices to be accountable, it is easily ignored until that day comes like a “thief in the night,” and that heart that was not checked or that pain in the side we ignored is now forcing us to be held accountable — leaving us with the thought “I should have cared for this earlier.”
There is no escaping being held accountable — it will occur one way or the other. We procrastinate our physical reckoning as it is not easy being that vulnerable in front of someone. When we say “laying ourselves bare” — we are! It is often said that we leave the world as we enter — naked. Standing before God naked and wishing, like Adam and Eve after their sin, to hide is what we want to do. But there is no hiding. We stand there vulnerable. It is not fun, allowing our doctor to see how we are truly, and it is often not a pretty picture. This physical reckoning is a necessary evil. If the Last Judgment has an aspect of every moment of life being revealed, this physical reckoning is every inch of us being revealed. The probing that God does in our life pales in comparison to the probing that the doctor does.
Have you ever had an “employment reckoning” moment. Many professions call them 360 — when everybody around you is allowed to judge you. Your peers, your subordinates, your bosses, your friends and enemies all share. Not only do they say what they have always wanted to say, but they are given permission to do so, and for the most part, you may not even know who said what. They get to throw the sticks and stones that break you and, contrary to the popular children’s jingle, “names do hurt.” In some religious circles, this is the “chapter of faults.” Everybody gets to weigh in, sharing how they perceive you. They hold a mirror in front of you and let you see yourself as they see you. This is not fun at all. This makes the Last Judgment seem like a piece of cake. I think I will take my chances with God — He might temper His perception with some mercy.
| Last Judgment Fresco, Trinity Cathedral, Pochaev, Ukraine, Dimitry Design/Shutterstock.com
Another day of atonement in our professional world is the financial reckoning (aka audit). April 15 is annual, with its monthly or bi-weekly mini-reckoning where you pay up. Though April 15 is tedious and as certain as death, at least it’s not too punitive. Physical reckonings occur when you muster up the courage to make that phone call and just do it. These “financial reckonings” come upon you when you receive that phone call that you are to be held accountable for someone else’s money. Or, in the case of banks, when the auditors walk in the door with no advance warning. Their coming is always looming out there, never sure when — but you get that feeling that it has been a while since the last one, so it might be coming soon. No matter how hard one tries to be ready by doing our due diligence — we are never totally ready for these. It is similar to being the accused in the courtroom when the prosecutor has you on the stand for all to hear and see, and notes are being taken to document the testimony. You are asked to defend every detail, being accountable for every process, every finding, and though you may be the type who crosses every t and dots every i — auditors know how to find that uncrossed t — that undotted i. If we think the doctor’s probing was a bit much, the doctor’s finger in places we don’t put our own fingers, these auditors are pros at probing. They can find the proverbial needle in the haystack. If Christ begins to point out every beggar we ignored, every homeless person we did not house, every hungry person we did not feed, we may as well send ourselves to hell and save Christ the trouble of judging us.
The list can go on. I have had sacramental books reviewed to assure that entries are being made in a timely manner. Outsider auditors check processes and files to assure that parishes and the diocese itself are compliant for the protection of children. Students take comprehensive exams, dissertations are defended, applicants are screened to separate the chaff from the wheat, the good from the bad. It is lifetime of accountability. It never ends. Hopefully the constant critique helps in the molding and shaping of who we are. This critique and chiseling away at our character and its flaws, makes us a better person. We are called to love God with whole heart, mind, soul and body. The checkups, the audits, the probing, are like the hammer and chisel on stone, chipping away at what is seen to allow the potential to emerge. All this means that, when we do stand for the finale of all judgments, we are as perfect as we are going to be. Hopefully perfect enough.
Imagine life without all the checkups and probing. On the one hand, it sounds great and freeing. But, if you had to do all reckonings at once standing before God, it would be a bit overwhelming. You certainly don’t want the Last Judgment to be the First. Then it could be too late to learn from mistakes.
The shorter the judging moment, the better it might go. We all like the short form from the IRS, to be in and out the doctor’s office quickly, minimal surprises of 360. It would be nice to have the Last Judgment be more a grand finale to welcome us into the Kingdom then an ominous judgment.
FATHER CARRION is pastor of the Catholic Community of South Baltimore and the Director of the Baltimore Archdiocesan Office of Cemetery Management. firstname.lastname@example.org