After a stint of several years in Africa, a European missionary went on a home visit and returned after a few weeks with a fine set of colorful posters that he used to illustrate his sermons. As he had hoped, the pictures proved to be a great success. Each Sunday after the liturgy, many in the congregation would linger around the posters and discuss what they had learned.
One day, near the end of the liturgical year, the missionary chose to preach on the end times and the consequences, both good and bad, that would coincide with Jesus' return as judge and Savior of all. He set up the appropriate poster at the door of the church and then went to prepare for Mass. Before long, he heard whoops of delight and laughter, and he turned around to see his congregation standing before the poster.
|Thirty-third Sunday in
2 Thessalonians 3:7-12
Surprised and a little indignant, he called for silence and asked how they could find humor in the prospect of final judgment. "Hell is no laughing matter!" he shouted.
Then one of the revelers took his arm and led him to the poster, saying, "Don't you see, Father? Look! All the people in hell are white!"
Initially, this little anecdote may bring a laugh. But beyond its humor, it points to an underlying notion that has been variously expressed through the ages. When human beings are faced with the fact of the great reckoning to end all reckonings, some of us tend to focus on what might be the outcome for others. The French philosopher John Paul Sartre famously wrote, "L'enfer, c'est les autres" ("Hell is other people") -- and some of us tend to think "L'enfer, c'est pour les autres" ("Hell is for other people")! In his Inferno, the first part of The Divine Comedy, Italian poet Dante Alighieri exercised a similar prerogative in identifying which people would be relegated to which of the circles of hell.
Although the desire to assign places for others in the afterlife may prove tempting, the sacred texts and their authors summon our attention and our energies elsewhere. Do they call us to look within ourselves and find cause to worry about the end times? Do they invite us to forgo criticizing the speck in another's eye while ignoring the beam in our own? Do they urge us against procrastination that keeps us from preparing to welcome Jesus?
In some ways, the living word that guides us all through the liturgical year does indeed offer these suggestions. But more importantly, before any suggestion can be taken to heart or any question truthfully answered, the sacred authors direct believers, collectively and individually, to look at God.
Looking at God does not mean that one must seek out the beautiful vision or await a dramatic theophany. Rather, looking at God means taking a cue from our ancestors in the faith, who learned to discern the face of God by remembering all that God had done for them. God was their creator, protector, provider and guide. God was their liberator and champion, their mother, their father, their brother, their breath. God had been their loving, faithful and forgiving spouse.
Looking at God created an ambience of truth in which they saw not only God but themselves and the fact that their sins had distorted the image of God they were to reflect. Looking at God also kept them from looking at one another with disdain. On the contrary, looking at God gave them a new prism through which to look at others with eyes of sympathy, appreciation and respect.
As we look at God's face as it has been reflected in our own lives over the past year, we also will probably experience the painful truth that we are not all we should be. Nor have we done all that we could do to reflect to our belonging to God. For that reason, the thought of the Lord's second coming among us may fill us with dread and hopelessness.
Nevertheless, we are to leave the judging of ourselves and others to God (Malachi). We are to set aside our fears and speculations; we are not to listen to naysayers or prophets of doom. Rather, we are to persevere in trusting God (Luke).
We are also to busy ourselves with the ministry that Jesus has entrusted to us. Instead of minding the business of others (2 Thessalonians), we are to continue to look at God and struggle each day to give ourselves, our world and all others to God's good keeping.
[Patricia Sánchez holds a master's degree in literature and religion of the Bible from a joint degree program at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York.]