The Final Trial

“Doomsday is coming!  Doomsday is coming!” the grim voice intoned loudly from the radio by my Grandfather’s chair.  This dire warning was repeated at frequent intervals throughout the weekend.  I asked, somewhat timidly, what “doomsday” was, and an older cousin gleefully told me about the End of the World.  I remember thinking that the adults were taking it awfully casually, continuing to joke and chat as if there were no big deal.  Even at age six, I thought there ought to be some sort of Preparation for such an event.

We returned home from our visit and the impending apocalypse was momentarily forgotten.  Until the following winter, when my (other) grandfather passed away and I attended his wake and funeral.

I still remember how cold it was that January day, as the drops of holy water froze in mid-air as they were sprinkled on the flower laden casket to be lowered into the ground.  I remember the casket itself, and how the night before at the wake, I had seen my Grandfather’s body, lying stately and still.  I was not disturbed, as some might worry, at seeing his body.  I was, however, secretly unsettled by seeing only half of it.

My instinct to prepare for “the End” again kicked in, and in the weeks after the funeral I would lie in bed after my parents had left the room, solemn and still like my Grandfather, my hands neatly folded above the crease in my sheets and blankets.  I kept these morbid contemplations to myself, until one day my concerns got the better of me.  “Mom, I think I am ready to die,” seven-year-old-me confided to my rather shocked mother.  “Except for one part….Why do they have to cut your legs off?”

If I was relieved to learn that Grandpa’s legs were not missing but merely concealed by the closed half of the casket, I was even more amused to learn, decades later, that the Doomsday proclamations of my childhood memory were in fact nothing more than a radio commercial.  As I grew older, my fear of death was eclipsed by other more pressing concerns—fear of embarrassing myself in public, for example, or of forgetting something necessary and important, like homework or a bathing suit.

The idea of preparation for judgment, however, stuck with me.

“If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”  The bumper sticker asked a question that deeply intrigued me.  I had been fed on martyr stories from a young age (which no doubt played well with my other morbid fascinations) and I knew which side I wanted to be on in the inevitable persecutions to come.

I set about, courageously at times, creating “evidence” that would prove my worthiness to God and man.  At first this meant being good.  Later, it meant good works: standing up for what was right, even when it wasn’t popular, fighting to effect change in the world, advocating for the needy and oppressed.  I adopted many good causes, working tirelessly throughout my teen years into adulthood.  I spent hours volunteering, running projects, making good things happen so that I could be a good Christian.

It is only in recent years that I have been struck by a profound realization: it is not good works that distinguishes followers of Christ.  Let’s be honest—our secular counterparts do many of the same things, and often better (with better funds, with more polish, with further reach).

What distinguishes the Christians is what they don’t do—what they give to God.  I realized this one morning when I was pressed for time with one of my many worthy projects.  I was sorely tempted to cancel my appointment with God, to skip my prayer time, so I would have more time to work on helping out.

But, I realized, if I am really a Christian—if God is first in my life, if I really believe He is in control, then my prayer time “doing nothing” is more productive than my “work time.”  Do I believe this?  Do I live this?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus warns that the centerpiece of the Jewish religion, the glorious temple in Jerusalem, will fall into rubble: “All that you see here–the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”  Jesus doesn’t give advice on rebuilding or making do without.  His only commentary: “Do not be terrified.”  He then warns of false prophets that will come as the end draws near.  His advice?  “Do not be deceived.”

There is no preparation, no list of tasks for avoiding fear and deception.  Only intimacy with Christ can protect us against fear and deception in our lives and hearts.

Final_Judgement_-_Polyptich_of_Apocalipse_-_Accademia_-_Venice_2016_-_crop

Image credit:  © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro /  from Wikimedia Commons

 

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