Part I of a IV part series on the Person of God by Fr. Francis Hunolt (1694-1746):
“Venit Jesus, januis clausis, et stetit in medio.–John xx. 26
“Jesus cometh, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst.”
There are two circumstances worthy of note in this visit of Our Lord: first, the manner in which He comes to His disciples; secondly, the object of His coming. “Jesus cometh;” how? Quite unexpectedly, when the disciples in all likelihood were not thinking of Him. He did not even open the door of the room, “‘the doors being shut,” but entered through the closed door, and “stood in the midst,” before they had the least idea of His being there. Why did He come? To comfort with His presence His disciples, who were at the time abandoned, sorrowful, and fearful; and especially to confirm in the faith the doubting Thomas, and bring him back to the right path. Therefore when He had greeted them all with the words, “Peace be to you,” He turned to Thomas and said to him: ” Put in thy finger hither, and see My hands, and bring hither thy hand, and put it into My side: and be not faithless, but believing.” Whereupon Thomas, submitting at once, exclaimed: “My Lord and my God!” My dear brethren, hitherto we have treated of another coming of Jesus in which He shall appear in the midst of all men on the last day of general judgment. Although, as we have seen, many terrible signs are to precede His coming. His advent as Judge shall be quite sudden and unexpected. And for what purpose? No longer to comfort and convert men, but to judge the wicked strictly and condemn them to the fire of hell. Oh, what a terrible coming! With reason does the Church sing: How men shall shudder at the coming of the Judge! And who is that Judge? This I shall partly explain today.
Plan of Discourse.
He will be an exceedingly terrible Judge, especially to those who have a bad conscience. Such is the whole subject of this sermon. A terrible Judge, because He is God: the first part. A terrible Judge, because He shall then be a God without mercy: the second part.
To the end that we may all be inspired with a greater horror of sin, and a greater zeal in the divine service. Grant us this by Thy powerful grace, O God, who art still merciful, before the time comes when Thou wilt judge the living and the dead without mercy: we beg this of Thee through the Mother of mercy and our holy guardian angels.
Although God is infinite goodness in His substance and essence; although He is an infinite Good, worthy of all honor and love; although He is the only Good that a creature can long for and desire for perfect happiness, yet His very name is enough to fill the good with reverence and the wicked with fear. When Adam had lost his innocence, the voice of God in paradise filled him with such awe that he hid himself among the trees of the garden: ” I heard Thy voice; I was afraid, and I hid myself.” “O Lord,” says the Prophet Habacuc, a holy friend of God, “I have heard Thy hearing and was afraid.” I was filled with awe and consternation. Although the Israelites in the Old Law were the chosen people and were called the people of God, yet when they heard His voice from afar coming out of the dark cloud, “being terrified and struck with fear they stood afar on, saying to Moses; Speak thou to us and we will hear: let not the Lord speak to us, lest we die” through excessive awe and terror. Thus they preferred to deal with a mortal like themselves in preference to God, whose greatness and glory they feared and could not endure. And I quite agree with them. Oh, my dear brethren, if mere men were to judge me at the end of my life and on the last day, I should not be half so much afraid of the judgment, although I have often and grievously transgressed, for I should have some hopes of making out a good case for myself and escaping condemnation. If mere men were to be our judges, then you, great ones of the world, princes, kings, and emperors, would have little to fear! Why? Eh! do we not know how partial earthly judges sometimes are?
In olden times Solon used to say to the Athenians: ” Your laws are like spiders’ webs.” They catch small flies, but allow the large ones to break through. We Germans have a saying to the effect that the little thief is hung, while the big one gets off scot free. Why so? The power and authority of the judge is often not enough to coerce the criminal, for the latter can frequently wield a mightier weapon than his judge; his exalted position, authority, or wealth enables him to pervert the ends of justice and make its officers look on black as white; and even if the sentence is pronounced, it frequently happens that the power of carrying it into execution is wanting. Again, justice is represented with a sceptre in the hand, in which there is an open eye, signifying that the judge must have not merely the power of punishing criminals, but also the wisdom and knowledge required to perform duly the duties of his state. And in this respect, too, there is often a great want, so that earthly judges are not able to inspire malefactors with due fear of punishment, and the latter consequently wax daring and confident in their evil deeds. What a number of crimes are committed in the world and never punished because the judges know nothing of them! What a number of criminals are got free by dint of false swearing, or through want of sufficient proof against them! And how many an innocent man, as St. Augustine complains, is condemned, while the guilty one is pronounced innocent; and this because the earthly judge fails to see the guilt of the one and the innocence of the other!
But, my dear brethren, how widely different will be the judgment of which we are speaking! He who will then be seated on the throne is not a weak, fallible man, but God, and therefore an Almighty and all-knowing Judge. “Then they shall see,” says the Evangelist, “the Son of man coming in a cloud with great power and majesty.” He will be the Judge of whom Moses has said: “The Lord is as a man of war: Almighty is His name.” A God whose might no one can withstand, whose hand no one can escape: “God, whose wrath no man can resist,” so speaks Job, “and under whom they stoop that bear up the world.” A God whose word and sentence must be fulfilled without delay or opposition: “The word that I shall speak shall be accomplished, saith the Lord,” as we read in the Prophet Ezechiel. A God before whose tribunal no respect will be had for exalted position, power, or riches, or persons. St. John writes in the Apocalypse that he saw coming from the mouth of the Son of God a sharp sword: “From His mouth came out a sharp two-edged sword.” The justice of the divine Judge is a terrible sword that cuts on all sides; it is the same to Him whether the guilty one is great or small, rich or poor, general or common soldier, prince or peasant. No, O great God! Thy sword is not like that wielded by earthly judges, which the least opposition often blunts and bends; Thine is immovable. “Thou shalt rule them with a rod of iron, and shalt break them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” Thou wilt shatter them: not like a vase of gold or silver, the broken pieces of which are still valuable, but like an earthen vessel that is useless once it is broken. It is not only against poor, weak, and simple mortals that Thou wilt show Thy omnipotence; but above all, the great and mighty ones of earth shall feel Thy anger; in humiliating and annihilating them Thou wilt prove to the world what a great and mighty Lord Thou art, and what poor, mean worms of earth they are when compared to Thee. For Thou sayest Thyself: “To him that is little, mercy is granted: but the mighty shall be mightily tormented.” “For God will not except any man’s person, neither will He stand in awe of any man’s greatness.”
The mighty power of this Judge was not visible when He was amongst us on earth as a poor, weak mortal, like to us; but it will appear on that day, when He shall be seen seated on a throne with great power and glory. When He was subject to the judgment of men the world did not know Him; but He shall be known when all men shall have to submit to the sentence He pronounces on them: “The Lord shall be known when He esecuteth judgments,” when He shall exercise His authority as Judge of the whole human race. Who knew what a great, mighty Lord he was when He was bound in chains and led before the high-priest, and when He stood so humbly before Pilate and Herod? But the day shall come when all mankind assembled in the valley of Josaphat shall shake with fear before His tribunal: “The Lord shall be known when He executeth judgments.” Who saw any trace of an Almighty Godhead in Him when He was condemned to death as a poor sinner amid the jeers and laughter of the Jews, and nailed to the shameful cross? But wait till He pronounces the sentence of condemnation on the judges, kings, and emperors of earth: then “the Lord shall be known when He executeth judgments.” He still abandons Himself, as it were, to the wantonness and contempt of wicked men, as if He were unable to defend Himself or to restrain their malice; but let them fall into His hands on the day of His wrath: then they shall feel whom they have been fighting against, and what a mighty Lord He is whose anger they have provoked. “If,” says the wise Ecclesiastes, “thou shalt see the oppression of the poor, and violent judgments, and justice perverted in the province, wonder not at this matter;” be not surprised at the prosperity of the wicked, the persecutions the just have to suffer, the oppression of poor widows and orphans, the pride and wantonness of the rich; ” for he that is high hath another higher,” Who will one day justify His judgments before the whole world, and they who seemed to bear the globe on their shoulders shall have to bow down before Him.
In the History of Greece we read that the hero Agesilaus was small of stature but great in mind and valor, skilled in arms and generalship, and one of the greatest heroes of his time. King Agis had a great desire to see one of whose exploits he had heard so much; but when he met Agesilans he began to ridicule him, and said in a mocking tone: “I behold an ant, when I thought I should see a lion.” Ready and clever was the answer Agesilaus gave the proud king: “I seem an ant to you,” said he, “but one day you shall find me out to be a lion,” The same answer is suited to those who now during life do not fear the great God, despise Him, sin recklessly, and remain obstinately in sin as declared enemies of God. They see in our churches pictures or carved images representing our divine Lord in a very lowly and apparently despicable state, as a weak Child in the crib, or as a dying Man hanging on the cross, or else they know that He is concealed under the white Host from which no thunders or lightnings flash forth to announce His majesty, and from this they conceive a low idea of God, and do not fear to offend Him by transgressing His commandments. But He whom we now treat so contemptuously shall one day appear as a lion, and fill all creatures with awe by the might of His greatness. Be comforted, ye just and pious Christians! He Who will judge us is an almighty God, and consequently He is able to defend you against those who now oppress you, and it is from Him that you have to expect the reward of your piety. But on the other hand, woe to us, O sinners! if we fall into the hands of this Judge burdened with debt. There is no chance of escape from Him, because He is the Almighty God!
Nor can you hope to hide anything from Him, because He is also an all-knowing God, from whom nothing can be concealed, with whom the rule, “deny, if you have done anything wrong until the crime is proved,” will be of little avail. “God,” as St. Augunstine beautifully says, “is all a hand, and can do everything, and He is also all an eye, and can see everything.” When a man commits a sin, he does not believe, or perhaps thinks not for the moment that the all-seeing eye of his Judge is on him. “Who seeth me?” he asks with the wicked man, in the Book of Ecclesiasticus; “darkness compasseth me about, and the walls cover me, and no man seeth me: whom do I fear?” I am shut in between four walls, and no one is aware of what I am doing. If I have a secret hatred against my neighbor, and try to do him harm here and there when I have the chance, who knows anything about it? I show nothing outwardly; I greet him in the most friendly manner. If I have betrayed my neighbor, and caused him to suffer loss by craft, or bribery, or false testimony, who knows of it? It is all hidden under the mantle of the law. If I avail myself of all kinds of underhand practices in buying and selling, if I lie and cheat in business, who can find me out? So far no one has detected me. If I fish in troubled waters and make unlawful profit here and there, who can accuse me of it? If I amuse myself with all sorts of evil thoughts and desires, and wilfully entertain them, who knows anything about it? No one can suspect me of such a thing. If I entertain an unlawful intimacy and commit many sins in secret, not a soul can know of it; no one can read my guilt on my forehead. My husband thinks that I am true to him at all times; my parents believe that I have not lost my first innocence, that I know not what sin is; in the presence of others I am able to act as if I could not bear the sight of a certain person; all is kept quiet; there is not the least suspicion of anything, etc. So thinks the sinner. But, continues the Wise Man, “he understandeth not that His eye seeth all things;” that the eye of the omnipresent God beholds all things, and that the all-knowing Judge allows nothing to escape Him, but writes everything down in His great account-book: ” And he knoweth not that the eyes of the Lord are far brighter than the sun, beholding round about all the ways of men, and the bottom of the deep, and looking into the hearts of men, into the most secret parts.”
These words suggest to me a very apposite simile. Why does the Wise Man say that the eye of God is brighter and more piercing than the sun? Mark what I am going to say. In winter when the sun hardly shines and everything is covered with a mantle of snow, all things on earth appear to have the same white color and outward appearance, so that one is easily deceived in his judgment of them. There stands a tree in the garden; I have no doubt that it is a very fruitful tree, but, in reality it is dead and useless. You imagine you see a beautiful pillar on a house, but it is nothing better than a long, black chimney, covered with snow. You think you have a fine, level road before you, but it is only a ravine filled with snow. But wait till the sun comes out again and melts the snow: then you will see all those things as they really are. My dear brethren, the time of our lives is a cold and stormy winter: “winter is now past,” says the soul of the just man when departing from this world. During this gloomy season everything is under a cloud; most things are hidden by a heavy mantle of snow. We cannot distinguish between the wicked and the just, because we are unable to see their hearts. A man, as long as the contrary is not proved, must appear to us like a fruitful tree that brings forth all kinds of virtuous works daily. He visits the church regularly; he is most attentive to sermons and public devotions; yet in reality and before God he is an unfruitful, barren tree, that produces nothing but leaves; he is a hypocrite and deceiver, in whose good works a bad intention has the upper hand. Oh, what a pious, devout person that is, we often say; she goes frequently to confession and holy Communion! But, in reality she is a great sinner, whose confessions and Communions are all sacrilegious, because she conceals a sin through shame, or remains in the proximate occasion of sin, “That man,” we say, “is a most charitable man; he does so much for the poor; he has helped unfortunate citizens and peasants who were overwhelmed with debt;” but in reality he is an unjust usurer, whose only object is to get those poor people into his power that he may seize on all they have as payment of what they owe him. Another takes a great interest in the concerns of a poor widow, or undertakes to protect some young girl who has lost her parents; what would be more Christian or charitable? But his only object is to gratify his foul passions, and what can be more detestable than that? How is it that we are so deceived in our judgments? Ah! we cannot see everything; it is winter and the snow covers the earth. But wait a while; the day of the Lord shall come, on which the all-seeing eye of God, more piercing than the sun, shall melt the snow, and then we shall be able to see clearly what every one is in truth. Nothing is covered that shall not be revealed, nor hid that shall not be known.”
O Christians! let us think and say with St. Bernard: “Great is the necessity we are under of leading pious lives, since we act before the eyes of a Judge who sees all things,” a Judge who knows all our thoughts, intentions, desires, words, and works. O mortals! think and judge of me as you please, I hold with the holy Apostle, St. Paul: “To me it is a very small thing to be judged by you. He that judgeth me is the Lord.” Think and say of me, if you wish, that I am a good-for-nothing, wicked man; He Who has to judge me is an all-knowing Lord. Happy me if I am found good in His sight! Think and say of me that I am a holy man; He who is to judge me is an all-seeing Lord. Woe to me if I am found wicked in His sight! “Therefore,” concludes St. Augustine, “fear Him to whom everything is known;” fear that Judge, Who is an almighty, and at the same time an all-seeing God.
How can that be? A God, and without mercy? Those are terms which contradict each other. For is it possible to conceive the idea of a God without mercy? Does not the Catholic Church, relying on countless passages of Holy Writ, sing: “O God, of whose mercy there is no measure, and of whose goodness the treasures are infinite”? Does not the Prophet David call Him often a God of mercy, a gracious God? “the Lord is gracious and merciful, patient, and plenteous in mercy. The Lord is sweet to all, and His tender mercies are over all His works.” Does not St. Paul call Him “the Father of mercies, the God of all comfort”? It is true, and therefore we often flatter ourselves that we need not fear being too presumptuous with Him. But the mercy of God is only for the time of our lives here on earth; that time past, it has fullfilled its office and gives way to justice alone. Hence the Lord commanded the Prophet Osee to call one of his daughters by the terrible name: “Without mercy: for I will not add any more to have mercy on the house of Israel.” Now there is no sin so great that He is not ready to forgive at the first moment of repentance; but hereafter there will not be the least fault that He shall not examine and punish with all the strictness of His justice. Nothing shall remain unavenged: every farthing must be paid; not an idle word shall be passed over or forgiven without satisfaction. Even the works of the just shall with difficulty be allowed to pass: “When I shall take a time,” says the Lord, “I will judge justices.”
And this is but right; the divine honor requires that a time should come in which the severity of His justice shall be manifest, as His other perfections are shown to the world. In the creation God showed His almighty power; for with one word, fiat, He made the universe out of nothing. In the government of the world He shows His admirable wisdom, for His providence has appointed many different states for men to live in. In the Redemption He shows His goodness and mercy, for He offered Himself as a Victim for the salvation of men, and was nailed to a cross for them, and the same mercy is daily made manifest in the patience with which He bears with sinners. His boundless magnificence and liberality He shows in heaven, where every momentary good work shall reap an eternal reward; His hatred and detestation of sin are made evident in the eternal hell, where He punishes even a momentary mortal sin of thought. It is His justice alone that has not been exhibited to the world hitherto. And God has appointed the last day of the world as the time for showing that special perfection to men; and therefore He calls it: The great day of the Lord; the day of wrath; the bitter day; the day of calamity, on which He shall judge all nations in His justice.
The mercy of God itself requires that severity and merciless strictness in the judgment. Why? It has been and is still so often abused by men during life; and what is still more insulting to this divine attribute, sinners take occasion from it to offend God with all the more hardihood. Thus countless millions of sins are committed because God is infinitely good and merciful. Is it not right, then, that this insulted mercy and goodness should be fully avenged on the presumption that so recklessly despised it? And that it will surely be. “I have always held My peace,” says the Lord by the Prophet Isias; “I have kept silence; I have been patient.” I have long listened to cursing, swearing, blasphemy, detraction; I have seen the pride of My Christians, their injustices, vindictiveness, riotings, impurities, secret adulteries; I have for a long time had to suffer patiently many acts of contempt and disobedience against My sacred laws; I have held My peace all the while; I have kept silence; I have acted as if it did not concern Me; I have restrained Myself from inflicting on men the punishments that I threatened them with in Holy Writ, and that they saw exemplified in the case of other men, as if I were powerless to defend Myself against the wantonness and wickedness of sinners; but when that time comes, that great day of wrath and anger, I will show them what I am. I will be to them as a lioness, as a leopard in the way of the Assyrians. I will meet them as a bear that is robbed of her whelps,. . . . . and I will devour them as a lion;” they will feel the heavy weight of My justice. O my good God! I acknowledge that I have up to the present moment experienced Thy incomprehensible patience and mercy, and it should impel me to love Thee with my whole heart and soul and strength; it should give me hope and courage to work out my salvation; but that very patience and mercy which I have so unjustly misused fills me with a greater dread of the severity of the judgment that awaits me.
Ah, my dear brethren, then they will see the Son of man coming; then we shall all behold that almighty, all-wise God, but without mercy: just, angry, and embittered! And how will it be with us then? Quantus tremor est futurus, quando Judex est venturus! What fear and trembling there will be among the wicked in presence of their Judge! Who can stand before Him? I consider the case of King David, hurled from His throne by a disobedient son, abandoned and hunted by his own people, and wandering about, in misery, and I pity him; but I tremble at the same time when I hear him in the midst of his calamities calling out fervently to God, not for help and alleviation of his sufferings, but for grace in the day of judgment, and that, too, out of sheer fright. “Hear, O Lord, my prayer; give ear to my supplication in Thy truth; hear me in Thy justice!” And he adds the reason of his earnest supplications: “Enter not into judgment with Thy servant, for in Thy sight no man living shall be justified.” I do not ask Thee to free me from the persecution I have to suffer from my own son, or from the other miseries that afflict me; I should be calm and undisturbed in the midst of any temporal misfortunes and trials if I could only have the consolation of not coming under the strictness of Thy justice, for I know that no man can justify himself in Thy sight.
I hear Job on the dung-hill crying out full of anguish and fear in the midst of terrible sufferings: “What shall I do when God shall rise to judge? and when he shall examine, what shall I answer Him?” Ah, innocent and holy man, art thou in doubt as to how thou shalt fare, as to what thou shalt answer? If so, woe to me! for I should be well off if I could answer as readily as thou. Answer what thy own Judge said of thee, and He will not be able to contradict it; for He has given testimony that thou art “a man simple, upright, and fearing God, and avoiding evil.” Would to God that I could say the same of myself! Answer: “My heart doth not reprehend me in all my life.” Would to God that I could say that, too, of myself! Answer that after the loss of all thy goods, the slaying of thy children, in the torments thou hadst to suffer, thou hast never sinned with thy lips, wert always resigned to the divine will, and didst bless the name of the Lord. Answer that whatever small faults thou didst commit were most amply atoned for by thy generous alms, and by the sufferings thou didst bear with such patience. Ah, would that I could say as much for myself! Answer: “I was clad with justice. . . .I was an eye to the blind and a foot to the lame. I was the father of the poor,” a comforter of the afflicted. And yet thou art afraid of the judgment of God, and dost not know what to do! Alas! let me and other sinners ask: “What shall I do?” God will come to judge me, and I have done none of the praiseworthy things that stand to thy credit; what shall I do? From the first dawn of reason I can hardly point to one day of my life on which my conscience has not reproached me with sin: “When He shall examine, what shall I answer Him?” If He asks me for an account of the many graces and benefits He bestowed on me; what shall I answer Him? If He asks me how I have performed the duties and obligations of my state of life; what shall I answer Him? If He asks me how I have spent the precious time for so many months, days, and hours, of which not one moment should have passed without my doing something for my salvation; what shall I answer Him? If He asks me whether I have ordered my whole life according to the law of His holy Gospel; what shall I answer Him? And when in addition to all these questions He will deal with me in the strictness of His justice without any mercy, and not allow an idle thought or a vain word to escape notice; what shall I do?
Alas! I hear, too, in the midst of the desert among wild beasts, a St. Jerome, emaciated with penances, striking his breast with a stone, and crying out: “When I think of that day, my whole body trembles,” and a death-sweat breaks out on my forehead! Whether I am eating or fasting, sleeping or praying, the sound of the terrible trumpet echoes in my ears; “Arise, ye dead, and come to judgment!” If I go in thought farther into the desert, there I find the holiest of the hermits, Hilarion, Arsenius, Agathon, who could not conceal their fear and dismay; and when asked by their disciples what cause they had to fear, “Ah,” they replied, “the judgments of God are different from those of men!” I read of three devout pilgrims who travelled to the Holy Land; they came to the valley of Josaphat, which is surrounded by forests and mountains, and has by no means a melancholy aspect. Wandering to and fro, one of them found a large, flat stone; he considered it for a while and said: as this is to be the place in which the whole world shall be judged on the last day, I will now seek out a suitable position for myself, and take possession of it. He sat down on the stone and raised his eyes with awestricken devotion to heaven, when he had a momentary vision of Our Lord as He shall come to judge the living and the dead at the last day. The pilgrim was so terrified that he fell in a swoon from the stone and was picked up half dead. Little by little he came to himself, but from that day forward was never seen to laugh, while the bare mention of the last judgment in conversation or in a sermon was enough to make him shudder and grow pallid, till he resembled a corpse more than a living man.
But, holy friends of God, why are you so fearful and timid? You have always endeavored to do the divine will in all things; for God’s sake you have renounced all earthly joys and pleasures; you have lived seventy, eighty, ninety years in strict penance, serving your God, and do you still fear His justice? And why should that be so? Look at that man, that woman, that youth, that maiden; they are not half so frightened as you, although their conscience reproaches them with many sins. Few are, the hours they have spent duly serving God; they know naught of self-denial, mortification, chastising the flesh, inflicting penances on themselves; they are not accustomed to bear the least cross with patience; their thoughts are mostly directed to leading a comfortable life, to vanity, and a constant round of pleasures, and with all this they do not even think of the last judgment, to say nothing of fearing it; they eat, drink, laugh, play, and amuse themselves as calmly as if they had not to appear before any Judge. In truth, my dear brethren, I am not able to explain this. Either those holy souls, so enlightened by God, were the victims of an unreasonable fear, or they merely pretended to be afraid, or else many of us do not know what they had to fear. For if David, a man after God’s own heart, who washed his couch with tears of repentance, and Job, who had not his equal for piety in his day, and SS. Anthony, Hilarion, Arsenius, Agathon, and others whose austerities were prodigious–if they feared to appear before the tribunal of God, what have they to rely on who devote the most of their time to the service of the world and of their bodies? Who will be safe in Babylon if Jerusalem is to be judged so strictly? If the pillars of the church tremble with fear, what is to become of the worm-eaten timbers? In a word, as St. Peter says, “if the just man shall scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?”
O my God, what am I to do? Must I lose courage altogether and despair of my salvation? No; for there is still time for grace, and since that is so I will at once appease my Judge with sincere repentance. Now, while the mercy of God surpasses all His-works, I will cry out with a contrite heart in the words of the Catholic Church: “O just Judge, forgive me my sins before the day of reckoning comes!” If I have transgressed and transgressed often and grievously, so that Thou hast just cause to condemn me, still Thy goodness is infinite, so that Thou canst heal me and save me! Now while there is time for amendment I will make friends with my Judge by earnest, sincere repentance, by a thorough change of life, by true humility, by renouncing all vain earthly joys, and by the diligent practice of good works; so that when I shall one day see Him coming in great power and majesty, I shall have more reason to rejoice than to dread His strict justice. Amen.