Shame and The Day of Judgment

During this month of November, the Church’s liturgy (together with nature all around us) invites our hearts to consider the realities of death and judgment – events we prefer not to ponder, especially in our culture of comfort and hedonistic escapes.

The monks of the Middle Ages left us with a haunting, yet stunningly beautiful hymn entitled the Dies Irae, which proclaims that the Day of Judgment is at hand, and urges us to cast our hopes of salvation on Jesus Christ, as he resurrects us and tells the true story of our lives.

In elegant Latin verse, the hymn summarizes that great and dreadful Day: the world as we know it will be dissolved into ashes, the trumpet will sound, and all the dead will be raised from their tombs. Death itself and all of nature will stand agape as the Just One assembles us all before his throne. The written book will be brought forth, in which all is contained, and the stories of that book will be told publicly for all to hear. Whatever has remained hidden will be proclaimed openly. My true story and yours will be told in all fullness

At first blush, the thought of my full story being told for all to hear, full and unabridged, is utterly terrifying. When I tell my story to others, I get to pick and choose what they hear, to keep certain things in and leave other things out, to shade things my way. Not so on the Day of Judgment. My truth is my truth.

But I am learning that, rather than being a day of deep shame, the Day of Judgment (if I desire it) will actually be a day on which I am definitively healed from my shame. The very shame that fills me with dread at the thought of being seen and known is the very shame that needs to be brought to the light of day, indeed, to the light of The Day so often promised in Scripture. Until I am fully seen and fully known, I cannot truly be myself.

Is the Day of Judgment not a Day whose coming we pray for daily? Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come!” Many Christians often pray, “Come, Lord Jesus!” – in words that echo the last words of the Bible: marana tha (“Our Lord, come!”). If he does not come with the fullness of his truth and love, we will never become our truest and deepest selves. We will remain less than fully human.

Shame is a heavy burden, and one with which I am quite familiar. I have spent most of my life finding ways to hide my true self from others. As an infant, as a child, as an adolescent, and beyond, I learned to hide what I was really feeling (shame, sadness, loneliness, or anger). I even pretended for many years like I didn’t have those feelings at all! I learned to be “independent” and self-reliant, pretending like I didn’t need anything from others. Needing others felt shameful. Reaching out for kindness and support felt uncertain and unsafe. And all the while a deep and painful loneliness grew – undetected for many years because it was the ocean in which I was swimming for so long.

In my hiding, I developed a vast array of subtle (or not-so-subtle) defenses that proved highly effective in keeping other people from having access to my truest, deepest self. What a bind that creates! My inner self continues (as God made me) to desire deeply to be seen and known and understood and accepted for who I really am – yet the moment good people actually draw near, I still tend to react in ways that keep them at a distance. I put on one kind of mask or the other, so they can’t see the real me.

Then, of course, there are my many sins – all the ways, over the years, in which I have stumbled in my ungodly self-reliance and self-protection; the harm I have caused to others and to self; the rupture to relationships. There are my darkest or most twisted fantasies – the “if only…” thoughts or urges that I like to pretend are not really there. How could I possibly look forward to those being proclaimed publicly on the Day of Judgment?

The Dies Irae provides the answer to all this anguish after it asks similar questions. What am I to do, poor wretch that I am, in the face of so great a Judge, before whom even the just cannot be secure? Is there anyone who can plead for me on that Day?

Yes. The King of Majesty will plead for me. He freely and gratuitously saves those who desire salvation. He longs to save me.

The hymn proceeds to tell the ultimate story, the definitive story – the story of Jesus, who though divine, freely and willingly emptied himself, became one of us, and saved us in his Passion and Resurrection. When my story is perfectly united to his story, every moment of my life has new meaning. All my masks can be removed and laid to rest, my true self can be seen, and all can hear my full story – a story redeemed and transformed by Jesus. When my story is told, all can hear how Jesus was there at every moment – especially the moments of greatest heartache, heartbreak, and shame, moments in which I was betrayed, moments in which I betrayed others. All the while he was attuning to my heart, and gazing upon me with love and kindness as a beloved child of his Father. He was suffering with me and for me, weeping with me, breathing life into me, and rejoicing with me.

When we talk about dying with Christ and rising with Christ, it is so much more than a cliché! We prefer to compartmentalize, and lock away certain parts of our story. But that means leaving them unredeemed, and it means not being a whole person in Christ. Only when we allow him, the Alpha and the Omega, the true author of all human history, to take authority over all these shards and fragments, can we find ultimate resolution to the discord in our story. That means going down with him into the dark places and allowing him to shine forth with his love and truth. We all have memories in which (if we are honest) we do not truly believe that God is good. Jesus surprises us with the new life of his resurrection, and opens us to be loved even in those memories in which we feel unlovable. We don’t have to hide.

The Dies Irae has many dark notes in it, and is a beautiful hymn. It ends with stunning trust and hope in the one who loves us and so empowers us to be just and holy. Perhaps the book that will be opened on the Day of Judgment will be more like a book of music. Each of our songs will be sung. No doubt, there will be many discordant measures, bearing witness to our darkest days. But if I give Jesus permission to tell my story, it will be a song that gives great glory to God. And all those assembled will only be able to sing a resounding “AMEN!” in response – for he is Truth itself.

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P.S. – This piece by the CBC explores the vast musical influence of the Dies Irae over the centuries.

Come, Lord Jesus!

“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” Countless Christians profess these words in the Nicene Creed every single Sunday. But do we pause to reflect on the reality of Judgment that is coming?

Perhaps we are uneasy or afraid at the thought of all things being laid bare for all to see. As Jesus tells his disciples, “Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known” (Matthew 10:26) – an unsettling thought indeed.

Yet we beg God repeatedly that this Judgment will happen. Every time we pray the Our Father, we beseech Him, “Thy Kingdom Come.”  Or we pray with great longing, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Somehow, this Judgment, painful though it may be, is definitively Good News for us. Rather than dread it, we can learn to hope and long for it, to see it as our one and only way to true freedom.

A wise man once told me, “The truth can hurt, but it will never harm.” An even wiser man once said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

Truth is indeed a central theme in Judgment. Jesus is the just one who will bring forth the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. There will be no shading of the truth on that day, no half-truths or equivocations, no pretending or putting on masks, no selective reporting of the facts. Those are tactics we turn to in our insecurity, but they won’t work on the Day of Judgment. The full truth will emerge.

Paul perhaps puts it best, in his typically confusing way: “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

We will know ourselves as God knows us. Our full truth will be brought to the light of day. Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. He is God’s eternal Word. In the beginning, God spoke that Word, and it was made. On the Day of Judgment, He wills speak that Word in glory. All that is true and definitive will emerge, with all falsehood melting away once-and-for-all.

Thankfully, the full and definitive truth about ourselves includes God’s tender and merciful love for us as his beloved children. He only wants to love us. He is not out to get us. In our distorted view of God, we tend to think that He is trying to trip us up, catch us in our sins, yell “Gotcha!!” and then smite us. Those are lies about God and ultimately lies about ourselves.

Yes, hell is a real possibility. Jesus speaks of it often. But God is not out to get us. Hell is real because love is real. God has created us to love and be loved. That includes freely receiving and freely giving. He will never force us – otherwise it would not be love!

If there is any consistent theme in Scripture, it is that God always respects human freedom. He never makes anyone do anything. He invites and entices. He exhorts and urges. He corrects and chastens. But He created us as free sons and daughters, and desires to save us as free sons and daughters. Our free “yes!” is part of the story. In the end, God gives us what we want. His Judgment lays bare all that we have freely chosen for ourselves. Jesus is God’s Word, and he says “Amen!” to what we have chosen during the time allotted to us.

Thankfully he does not leave us alone and unaided in our exercise of human freedom. We truly share in the death and resurrection of Jesus. His life becomes our life. And the Day of Judgment becomes a Day of Justice. Our King comes to settle all affairs, and to set things right once-and-for-all. Is that not our heart’s deepest longing?

Part of that setting right is the setting free of our own hearts. Our false self must die definitively so that our new self can emerge victorious. That experience proves to be painful and liberating at the same time.

The image offered frequently in Scripture is that of fire. “Our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). His love blazes mightily. The prophet Malachi foretells the great and terrifying Day of the Lord, coming like refiner’s fire. Gold is plunged into the furnace, not to destroy it, but to purify it of all that is not gold. God wants each of us to pass through the fire of Judgment and emerge as his free and glorious children.

When Paul talks about being known as we are known by God, he also says, “Faith, hope, and love endure, these three. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). All else is burnt away in the fire of Judgment, except that which is graced by our union with the Lord Jesus. Earlier in the same letter, Paul speaks of many of us being saved on the Day of Judgment, “but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15). All within us that is wood and hay and straw will be burnt away – our own feeble attempts at self-assertion and self-protection. But the gold, silver, and precious stones will endure – all that we have freely received from God in faith, hope, and love. In the beautiful words of Benedict XVI, the fire of Christ’s love will sear us through. We will become truly and totally ourselves, and thus truly and totally of God.

Come, Lord Jesus!