Advent is a cheerful time. The prospect of Christmas ahead, with all its associations -- Midnight Mass, the crib, presents, carols, family gatherings -- gives a great lift to the heart.
But there is another theme to Advent which is far less congenial: the theme of judgement. Still, this is a reality that cannot be avoided. So we should look at it boldly, and then perhaps it might not seem quite so frightening after all.
Not surprisingly, the thought of judgement makes everyone feel uneasy. Don't we feel the same before symbols of secular justice: police, law courts, judges, magistrates, and so on? If you see a police car when you are driving, don't you instinctively glance at your speedometer? I know I did! So we can expect to feel even more uneasy before the judgement seat of God. Judgement shows up our own dark side, and none of us likes that.
This theme of judgement appears in today's Gospel. 'Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand'. Repentance and judgement go together, because repentance means you are judging yourself, seeing yourself from God's angle, revealing your sins and repenting of them. John the Baptist's preaching was making many people do precisely that. But then the Pharisees and Sadducees came along who John clearly thought were not sincere. So he berates them: 'You brood of vipers'. And he warns them: 'If you are repentant then live appropriately, because the real Judge is coming. He will separate the wheat from the chaff'. You will not be able to deceive him.
We may prefer nowadays to emphasise God's mercy and forgiveness rather than his justice. And that is right; it is what God himself wants. There is plenty in the Old Testament along those lines. That does not however allow us to evade the reality of God's judgement; but it does make all the difference to how we envisage it.
In the Old Testament the image of God judging was based on the way judges operated among the Jews. They did not have our legal structure of accused and defendant, witnesses, lawyers, jury and judge. There was simply the judge, and people who had a grievance came to him to seek justice. The judge would listen to the accuser, the accused and any witnesses, and then make his judgement. The story of Solomon and the two women with the baby is a good example. Psalm 49 describes God's judgement of his people in this way; and there is the same pattern in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 26.
When a judgement is made, what is really happening? Whatever structures the court may have, people are endeavouring to discover the truth. Did the defendant commit murder? Or steal? Or whatever he is accused of? Let's get to the truth of the matter. Judgement is a process of revealing the truth. I guess that usually when we think of God's judgement we are thinking of the courtroom; and that is scary. But instead, try thinking about it as revealing the truth. God knows our hearts, our purposes, our evasions. And we know that he is not ignorant or prejudiced. In fact, you could say that he is prejudiced in our favour.
Perhaps you have heard Elgar's 'Dream of Gerontius', which sets Newman's long poem to music. Immediately after he dies, Gerontius is carried by the angel to meet God face to face; and from one piercing glance Gerontius sees the utter goodness and love of God and therefore knows his own unworthiness. Then, as the angel has said to him, he desires
to slink away and hide thee from his sight,
and yet will have a longing aye to dwell
within the beauty of his countenance.
And these two pains, so counter and so keen,
the longing for him when thou seest him not
the shame of self at thought of seeing him,
will be thy veriest, sharpest purgatory.
So we can think of judgement not so much in terms of the courtroom, but in terms of revelation. It is a meeting with God, in which all the veils are drawn away. And we can see both him and ourselves in the light of truth. And however much pain that may cause, it is a wholesome and healing pain to those who in their deepest heart are open to God. Those on the other hand whose hearts are closed will find themselves caught up for ever in that frustration and anger which Newman and Elgar portray so vividly in the demons.
Judgement in this sense is an integral part of Scripture and of the faith of the Church. But judgement seen as revelation is not reserved simply for the end of life. It can and should be a daily occurrence, through prayer, the sacraments, reading of Scripture, experiencing the love and self-sacrifice of others. So we will find ourselves continually judged and renewed through repentance.