[The LORD] called to the man clothed in linen, who had the writing case at his side. And the LORD said to him, "Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it." And to the others he said in my hearing, "Pass through the city after him, and kill; your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity; slay old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one upon whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary."
—Ezekiel 9:3-6, Office of Readings for Tuesday of the 24th Week of the Year
In which the Pilgrim meditates on the Last Things—Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell—and the Fear of the LORD.
There are times when the virtue "fear of the LORD" takes on a more primal darker sense than being awestruck before his glory, and the Bible gets ... well, scary. It's hard to read the account from Ezekiel of his vision of angels of death sweeping through Jerusalem without shivering, especially when there's no guarantee that we have the LORD's mark upon our foreheads. St Paul tells us to work out our salvation with "fear and trembling" (Phil 2:12). One might try to historically sweep this away, as an Old Testament idea, no longer relevant, but the Apocalypse of St John comes sweeping in: "Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads." (Rev 14:1) So the LORD's mark upon His people wasn't just a thing of the past, it's here and now, present, and will be until the end of time.
Fear of the LORD, in this sense of fearing for the fate of one's soul, avoiding sin to avoid falling at the hands of the angels who will reap the final harvest, casting sinners into eternal death and damnation, is something worth meditating on now and again. St Benedict, the Father of Western Monasticism, in the Fourth Chapter of his Holy Rule, which most Catholic monks still follow today, on the Instruments of Good Works exhorts his monks to "Fear the day of judgment" "To be in dread of Hell" and "To keep death daily before one's eyes" and his first Step or Degree of Humility is pretty explicit on considering one's potential condemnation:
The first degree of humility, then, is that a person keep the fear of God before his eyes and beware of ever forgetting it. Let him be ever mindful of all that God has commanded; let his thoughts constantly recur to the hell-fire which will burn for their sins those who despise God, and to the life everlasting which is prepared for those who fear Him. Let him keep himself at every moment from sins and vices, whether of the mind, the tongue, the hands, the feet, or the self-will, and check also the desires of the flesh.
Sin is a terrible reality, as is Hell. We should meditate frequently on the consequences of sin, consequences that are eternal to our soul. So are we to live our lives as Christians cowering in constant terror of a vengeful God? Well, no—that would be contrary to the truth of our need to live as courageous Sons and Daughters of God. So how can we reconcile these two commandments to Love AND Fear the LORD?
|"The Last Judgement" by Hans Memling|
Christ does more than this in His revelation to John; He reveals that while salvation will be limited as in not everybody, it's not going to be just a few, of an elite group:
Then I saw another angel ascend from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying "Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God upon their foreheads. And I heard the number of the sealed, a hundred and forty-four thousand sealed, out of every tribe of the sons of Israel. Rev 7:2-4and
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands Rev 7:9
|"Dante's Vision of Paradise" by Gustave Dore|
It's truth, that not everyone will be saved, and that souls will be cast into the everlasting pit of fire, and that truth should chill your bones when we consider that we are sinners by sin of Adam and by our particular sins, and that chill should inspire you to live a life free of sin. But that is not the end; Christ died for our sins by his Passion and Death on the Cross—acts that have become marked on our body through the Sacrament of Baptism, so that we have risen from the death of sin, just as the boy was raised in today's Gospel, and that knowledge fills us with hope and joy. Then from that Hope and Joy we come to love Christ, and serve him for the sake of our salvation and the Love of Him that wrought it.
But my brothers and sisters, we can still go further. When we have grown into lives of virtuous living, lives lived for Christ, when His presence is such a part of our life that in addition to LORD he has become true brother and friend, then our souls by grace, because God loves us unconditionally, will love God for the sake of being God. We will love him as He is, and doing so we shall know him as he is, for God is Love. (1 Jn 4:8).
We can reach that place because God has promised it. But we cannot journey there without the first step: and first steps are always a little scary. May God grant us to the courage to consider our sins, know their utterly evil and destructive effect on our souls, meditate on the Last Things, begin the Way of His Cross, and thus climb the ladder to Heaven from fear to love to Eternal Life with Him who is Love. Amen.