1st Friday of Lent
Ez 18:21-28; Mt 5:20-26
In our first reading from Ezekiel we heard the contrast of the wicked man who converts and finishes off his life by being good, and the righteous man who has spent most of his life being good but then slips into evil and ends up dying that way. In our current terminology we would say one goes to heaven and the other to hell. But somehow it seems a little unjust, the fact that: “None of his virtuous deeds shall be remembered”. And our reading even responds to this sense: “You say, ‘The Lord’s way is not fair!’ “
Our theology has evolved and developed since the time of Ezekiel and we Catholics now believe in purgatory. The fact that the one man spent all those years doing evil deeds does count for something. The fact that the other spent all those years doing good deeds also counts for something. I would like to think that God gave the latter a last chance in the moments of death to realize just what it was and Who it was that he was rejecting, and gave him a burst of grace that would change his heart. Then he would have some time in purgatory to atone for those sins. As for the other man, we believe that even after sacramental confession there is something called “temporal punishment” that needs to be worked off, either in this life or the next.
I think the stones that make up the walls of our church can teach us a lesson on this. Notice how they’re all very nice and clean. They’re actually beautiful and soothing to look at. But they had to go through a process to get that way. They all came from our property. Our Br. Brian and Fr. John Eudes can remember being part of the team that brought them in with the old Trojan wheel loader. A lot of them came from the bed of Salt Creek. If you look at the stones and boulders in Salt Creek now notice how dirty and stained and ugly they are. They have moss and calcium and lime deposits and other impurities. Some of the stones were from the fields and Br. Alberic and Br. Barnabas and Br. James had removed them when they were farming. They had mud and other gunk on them. All those boulders and stones couldn’t be used that way. If I was one of those stones I would be embarrassed to spend centuries right out in the open in a house of worship with my stains and imperfections showing. So our Fr. Joseph Stanton developed some sort of acid bath that each stone could be lowered into. The big bath tub or horse-trough-looking thing they used is still sitting out in our woods behind the buildings.
The God we believe in is a wonderful blend of being totally merciful and totally just. Somehow, in his sphere the two do not cancel each other out. Purgatory isn’t something devised by a meanie God who is vindictive and insists on getting his last pound of flesh. It’s actually a very merciful and loving concept. When we die and get a quick peak at heaven and how splendid it is, and at the same time see our souls in their true light, we will throw ourselves into purgatory to get cleaned up first. Like the stones in our church, we wouldn’t want to go through eternity looking like that!
In the same way that I said our theology has evolved since the time of Ezekiel, some in the Church would like to think that we have evolved past the concepts of purgatory and temporal punishment. But purgatory is one of the de fide dogmas of the Catholic Church. It can’t be changed. It’s not like no meat on Friday that can be part of the tradition for many years and then switched. Dogmas can never be reversed. As Cardinal Newman taught, there is development of dogma, but it has to develop in the same direction. You can’t take it in the opposite direction by saying something like, “Oh yeah, purgatory exists, but it’s empty – nobody goes there.”
To over-emphasize God’s mercy is to shortchange his justice. You get the impression at modern-day funerals that everyone goes straight to heaven. But this fluffy idea of God is not realistic. Some lines from our gospel reading today remind us of how God can be strict. “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven.” And, “Whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.” And it ends with the line, “Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.” A sound theology keeps a healthy tension of this strictness of God with his merciful love. Our gospel reading is balanced by our responsorial psalm: “For with the Lord is kindness / and with him is plenteous redemption; And he will redeem Israel / from all their iniquities.”