Archbishop Peter A Comensoli
The Sistine Chapel is one of the most moving places I've ever seen. It carries great significance for the Church as it is the place where Popes are elected. But, it is also the place of Michelangelo's greatest works. Everybody knows of the image of creation where the finger of God reaches out to Adam. However, the most striking image in the chapel is Michelangelo’s fresco on the back wall, which dominates and defines everything else.
The fresco depicts the end of time and the Last Judgement. It is a brightly coloured and energetic fresco of heaven and hell; angels, saints and demons; and the living and the dead being judged, either into eternal life or to eternal damnation. At its centre is Christ. He is depicted in the mode of today's Gospel: the Son of all Humanity "coming in the clouds with great power and glory". He is massive in proportions – muscular and healthy – and most unlike images of him on the Cross. Christ has his arm raised above his head, in the very act of judging. Next to him is his Mother, near to his heart, yet her face is turned away; even Mary awaits the outcome of the judgement only her Son can make.
But most striking of all is the face of Christ. The Lord of all is a clean shaven, young man. He is the New Creation in all its vitality. He is the youthful fullness of humanity. He is the image of who we are meant to become. Some might say a breadless Christ is just artistic licence. But Michelangelo’s image of Christ is also making a point of belief.
Images of the End Times, like those in today's readings, are not easily interpreted. They tend to be susceptible to two problems. Some people see in them specific predictions of human catastrophe and natural disaster. But, such apocalyptic thinking is fraught with unhealthy extremism. Yet, just as unhealthy is to simply ignore Christ's revelation about the End. Talk of the end of the world, of final judgement, of heaven and hell is not something we tend to dwell upon. But to ignore it's possibility is to do two things: firstly, it deafens us from hearing nothing but the present state of affairs; and secondly, it blinds us from seeing who we are meant to become. This is to be blind, deaf and mute to the possibility of human fulfilment; that things can (and will) be better than they are now.
Yet, the dark and brooding words of Jesus in today’s gospel are also a timely reminder that he was not simply some meek and mild spiritual guru who went around doing good and offering comforting words. Today’s gospel is a stark reminder that Jesus Christ is the only true Messiah and Saviour of the world. We can be lulled into a false sense of security if we reduce Jesus down to a story-telling healer. No. Jesus is God, and he spoke and acted accordingly, through his humanity.
That the entire cosmos is oriented towards an end should not be ignored. It is our Christian faith and hope that this end is to be found in Christ. But knowing the day and hour of this End is not what’s important. What matters is accepting and learning to live now who we are meant to become. Now is the time to embrace our future, not ignore it, because Jesus is now what we were made to become. His glorious body reflects our potential vitality, his healthy physique reflects our hoped for future, and his youthful face reflects our human destiny.
We can all imagine the end of our world, but that is not the same as the end of the world. So, finding a measured way of being attentive in faith to the signs of the times – of staying awake – is a crucial task of any Christian. So trust that Christ, our judge, is already at the gateway to our lives ready to recreate us into the fullness of his own image.