Thursday, November 10, 2011

Jesus Christ: Judge and Savior

November is the month that Roman Catholics remember and pray for our beloved dead. So, I am trying to compose posts this month that deal with some aspect of this important and, I am afraid, disappearing aspect of our faith. Probably because it was distorted so badly, we tend to ignore Purgatory. The distortion of Purgatory was equating it with a kind of temporary hell. Well, linking back to last night's post on St. Francis and suffering, I think it is very often case that mortal life serves that purpose quite well for many people. The reading for Morning Prayer today, from the eighth chapter of St. Paul's Letter to the Romans, highlights this:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us. For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it,o in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God (verses 18-21)

In his second encyclical, Spe salvi, Pope Benedict notes, "Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour" (par. 47). The Holy Father, whose subject in this letter is hope, went on to write,
The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God (par. 47)
Commenting on this more hopeful way of thinking about purgation, theologian Lawrence Cunningham wrote that what he found attractive about this passage is how the pope "re-imagined [purgatory] in the light of Christology," employing "an aspect of Christology not always emphasized: Christ as (just) Judge."

This strikes me as a very good point of reflection as we come to the end of another year of grace, approaching the great solemnity of Christ the King


  1. This is good that some recent theologians have begun to see this again.

    This is not a new idea, though. The Orthodox have held this belief for a long time. St. Isaac of Syria, in the 7th century, wrote that all souls partake differently of the same mystical fire, which he says is God's Love. But because of their spiritual change they are bound to different reactions; bliss for those who are in communion with him, purification for those in the process of being deified, and remorse for those who hated God during their Earthly lives.

    I am delighted to see that the Western Church is beginning to draw again from our Eastern heritage.

  2. Dan:

    If I am not mistaken, the Eastern Churches not in communion with Rome reject Purgatory, at least as a dogma. Building from there it seems to be a uniquely Roman Catholic concern how we conceive of it. Pope Benedict here is not merely discussing how we all somehow partake of the mystical fire of God’s love (something he certainly embraces and that was the subject of his first encyclical Deus caritas est), but how it is Christ Himself who purifies us of all that prevents us from entering into the all-holy presence of the Father after death, thus seeking to better our grasp of Purgatory.

    I don't think I am making too much of an assertion to surmise that some of the same theologians to whom the Holy Father makes reference in this section of Spe salvi have dealt with the problem of existence as unembodied spiritual souls. Between death and the resurrection it seems us, bound as we are by space and time, that the souls of the dead womust “go” somewhere in the interim and there remain until resurrection. Factoring in what we know about the dynamics of the space/time continuum some theologians posit that death-to-resurrection will seem instantaneous, or nearly so, to us. Given the influence of his thought on Ratzinger’s theology, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to see the influence of Newman, especially his magnificent poem The Dream of Gerontius.

    I am planning on posting some more thoughts from Pope Benedict about this late Saturday afternoon.

  3. A Comment sent via email by a dear friend and brother:


    --The long time theologian at Notre Dame, Josephine Massingbyrd Ford (who, by the way is still alive and living as a recluse fairly close to the university proper) once suggested that "Purgatory" is like a mandated continuing education program all of us have to complete at various points in our professional careers. In essence, it gives each and every one of us a last chance to "get it right." Being a teacher myself, this makes a lot of sense to me. I am absolutely sure I have not yet "got it all right."

    --Then there is the story about the seventeenth cetury British iconoclast , Dr. Samuel Johnson. His biographer -- and close confidant -- James Boswell once asked him about the strange concept of "Purgatory" that those who follow the Church of Rome believe in. Legend has it that Johnson replied something like: "Followers of the Church of Rome do not believe that everyone is either a saint or a sinner. They believe that everyone is somewhere in between. Therefore, a belief in "Purgatory" makes perfect sense."



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