Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Schindler's List and What Scares Me Most About Judgment Day

When people think about judgment day images of fire, destruction, and worst of all, the wrath of God appear in their mind. On judgment day, they imagine, the "divine gloves" will be taken off completely, and thus no one will be able escape the dreadful fury of God. I do not deny that any of these things will happen, nor do I deny that I am terrified by the justice that is coming upon the world. Nevertheless, there is another kind of fear that overwhelms me when I consider judgment day, one that involves a very different order of trepidation. The event about which I speak is far from terrifying in the traditional sense, and yet has hell backpedaling for all of eternity. Indeed, it is in this same spirit that the Gadarene demoniac once cried out; "What have I to do with you, Jesus Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me!" If ever there were a man that existed for the purpose of taking away torment, it was Jesus. So why would the demon make such an outrageous claim? The answer to this question is at the core of what makes God and His judgment such a remarkably paradoxical event.

During every Catholic Mass, one prayer that is always recited [no matter what the occasion] is what is referred to as the "Sanctus" prayer. What is most interesting about this prayer, at least for our purposes, is that it combines two passages in Scripture that would seem on the surface to be utterly opposed. The first part is taken from the beginning of Isaiah Chapter 6. In this passage Isaiah finds himself caught up to the throne of God. When confronted with the glory of God he says; "Woe is me! I am a doomed man. For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips..." Amidst this terrifying vision, he hears the six-winged seraphs crying out "Holy Holy Holy... heaven and earth are full of your glory... Lord God of hosts (armies)". Bottom line:  if one of the great prophets of the Old Testament is terrified to stand in the presence of God, then common sense dictates that we too should be afraid of this moment.

However, the second part of the prayer is the polar opposite of the former. "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in Highest." This particular verse is taken from the beginning of the passion narrative in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Yet what makes this part of the prayer particularly incommensurate with the previous lines is the fact that at this moment in Scripture God is anything but imposing. He comes not on the back of a giant warhorse, but meekly and humbly on a preposterous animal known as a donkey. If he had ridden into Jerusalem on the back of a duck-billed platypus it could hardly have been more at odds with the Isaiah passage.

This is the God from which the demons run, and the one that I fear most on judgment day. For it is not God's "muscles" that will have us retreating back into the dark of night, but rather his towering tenderness. And it is not his unwillingness to forgive us that will provoke a certain sense of despair within. To the contrary, it will be our unwillingness to forgive ourselves for all the things that we will never again have the opportunity to do (on His behalf). One might wonder how this all works and/or looks in practical terms. And perhaps were it not for a most exquisite scene taken from the film Schindler's List, such a phenomenon might seem incomprehensible. But thanks to the movie, along with an exceptional performance by Liam Neeson, we can catch a glimpse of what it might look like. Yes, there are some who hate God because they hate goodness itself. Yet there are others, I think, who when faced with his incomparable beauty will be tempted to despair for a different reason altogether. These individuals will be tempted to cast themselves down, not because of their hatred of God, but because they will be unable to justify standing in His presence for even one moment longer. They will see all the ways they could have and should have served Him, and find themselves utterly crushed when they realize that they can never go back and change those things. Hence, on that terrible day, it will not be God's vengeance that will provoke us to run from His beneficent arms, but rather a moment of divine self-recrimination, a moment wherein we, alongside Oscar Schindler, cry out from the depths of our being; "I could have done more!" May this sentiment and scene haunt us in such a way that we are inspired to avoid (in as much as it is possible) a similar fate.                      

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