Thursday, November 26, 2015

Mercy and Justice

First Sunday of Advent Year C

As we begin the new Church year, many would be expecting that we would be greeted by positive signs of better prospects for this coming year in today’s liturgy. But instead we are treated to this unnerving discussion of the End. Don’t we have enough things to worry about than to think about the End Times? It seems ironic that the topic of endings should dominate our liturgical beginnings. But this is what the Church wishes to remind us at the very beginning of this new Church year. There will be an End! This much is true: There is an End; just as there was a Beginning. For many, the end seems to be a frightening prospect, the end of joy, the end of a relationship, the end of a lucky streak, the end of life. But for Christians, Advent provides us with a different outlook - the hopeful promise that there will be an end to our sufferings, our woes, our troubles, our anxieties, and an end to Evil.

As much as we want to skip today’s reading with its seemingly foreboding and troubling message and go straight to Christmas, the Church compels us to stay our need for instant gratification and instead invites us to meditate on the End Times. You see, what we believe about the end point for the world affects how we live now. The end provides us with necessary understanding of our present sufferings. Because Jesus promises that after the seemingly catastrophic and never-ending experience of turmoil and troubles comes the glorious description of what truly lies at the end, “when these things begin to take place, hold your heads high, because your liberation is near at hand.” This is what Advent helps us to see. Advent affirms the truth about God’s justice and presence in spite of the apparent absence of justice and divine presence in the world, a presence often called into question by the presence of suffering and evil. 

For those who have been struggling to find an answer to the problem of evil, Advent’s two-fold emphasis on the Lord’s First and Second Coming entails Christ as the answer. Whether in the first century or during our own, the existence of evil alongside all that is good undermines faithful people. This is the perennial paradox of a good God and a hurting world that provides ammunition to unbelievers and acts as a weak spot to those of us still struggling to hold on to our beliefs. The future coming of the Messiah was long thought to be the answer to the problem of evil. Yet, even after Christ’s ascension, the first Christian believers continued to adhere to the Jewish position that the Messiah was the answer to the world’s suffering. They looked to His second coming as the ultimate arrival of justice on the earth.

Therefore, Advent provides us with not only a proper understanding of the mission of Jesus Christ but also his role with regards to evil. Jesus is indeed God’s ultimate justice, a justice that has already been made manifest in his First Coming but will be fully realised in his Second. The two arrivals of Christ to earth are meant to deliver all creation from sin, death and decay. Justice has come to earth and, when Christ returns in glory, perfect justice will be inaugurated. Advent reminds us that we are living in the in-between time. Therefore the season looks back to Bethlehem and forward to the future of a new heaven and a renewed earth.

Here in Advent, we will find the answers to the English philosopher, Hume's, supposedly airtight logic: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? If it is so, then he is impotent. He is powerless!” But Christians will answer, “No! He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” Hume continues with the next lining of argument, “Is he able, but not willing? Then he must be evil.” Our response would be, “On the contrary, God is merciful towards the wicked, and willing that all come to repentance.” Lastly, “if God is both able and willing? Where does Evil come from?” Here, the answer lies in the event of the death and resurrection of Christ, the inauguration of the End Times. Yes, we cannot dismiss the fact that evil is everywhere, but then nowhere more than on the cross, where God himself became its victim. He, more than anyone, bore the evil of his own justice and mercy. Yet it was on Calvary that evil was vanquished. The victory has been won, it is assured but we would have to wait for the End Times when Christ will make a spectacle of all his defeated enemies.

So, when will this happen? In Protestant circles, there is frequent talk about millennialism. Will Christ’s presence on earth be prior to the dawn of that era (premillennialism) or will the millennium begin before Christ’s second coming (postmillennialism)? Jesus’ apparent delayed coming was often explained as a human error, a miscalculation of the calendar. Catholic theology, on the other hand, adhere to amillennialism or a symbolic millennium which is the period of the Church, lasting from the time of Christ until His return at the end of time. In other words, the End Times is upon us. It began with Christ first coming at Christmas and will come to its climax when He comes a Second time. The End Times is both Now and NOT YET.

This tension between the NOW of God’s justice and the NOT YET of our deliverance helps us to understand God’s mercy in this coming Jubilee Year. Mercy can only make sense in the light of justice. Most of us would like to be recipients of God’s mercy. Mercy for us often means justice meted out to others, to the wicked. The trouble with God's mercy is that it often goes out to the wrong people. Judgment is suspended for precisely the oppressors who deserve it immediately. Even the bloodthirsty God of Revelation is not Dirty Harry, daring sinners to make his day, but the Lamb who was slain for the ransom of many. So God mercifully withholds punishment until every chance at repentance and forgiveness has passed. And this causes frustration, suffering, and even death for innocent victims who must wait. To the martyrs who cry, “Lord, Lord, how long?” God answers: “A little longer! Just a little longer but NOT YET!”

Advent is our own month long probation on the lesson of mercy, delivered by people who should not have to endure it, to people who do not deserve to receive it. It is a time for the Church to wake up, sober up, and do its job of going to the ends of the earth, even to its enemies, and letting the Holy Spirit save them through it. And God's mercy is such that apparently even two thousand years' worth of it are not enough to exhaust it. The result of God's extraordinary mercy in withholding judgment is, of course, the very thing that calls into question his existence and his mercy, and that’s the irony of it. Such mercy seems harsh, because it means justice delayed, which often feels like justice denied. But the truth is that Justice is assured; Christ will come again with Justice. In the meantime, our proper attitude as the readings today suggest would be to repent; watch and pray; submit to God and to one another; go and make disciples; bear wrongs patiently; suffer in Christ; conquer by persevering. So be patient, persevere, endure whatever comes your way. “A little longer! Just a little longer but NOT YET!”

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