Why bother to be better?

Some months ago, I attended a funeral at another parish. The Pastor reminded congregants and visitors that at the end of time, all of Creation will be recapitulated to God in in Christ; that is to say everything will be part of God again after “passing inspection” with Jesus. Jesus will, in that judgment-moment send on to his Father all that has been purified, and he will burn away anything that refuses the goodness of God. He will present to the Father a “spotless bride,” (cf. Revelation). The Pastor’s assessment is right in line with yesterday’s readings for Christ the King. Consider these words from Ezekiel 34, “I myself will give them rest, says the Lord GOD. The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy, shepherding them rightly.” He’s not “thinking” about doing it. He’s not saying, he “may” do it… He “will“. It’s going to happen. Using somewhat more apocalyptic terms, the second reading (I Cor 15:20-28) reinforces the point. What that means for those who try, those who give him an inch, is that there is great hope of making it into purgatory: that state of being wherein Jesus purges us of all that is unworthy of the image and likeness of God to which we are called. Throughout the Gospel, but especially in yesterday’s reading (Mt 25:31-46) we learn how to do that purging here on earth where (believe it or not) it will actually be easier on us: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit/free the captive. In short, be a people of radical self-donation. Here we face a challenge: Why bother to grow? Granted, the experience of the saints tells us that purging ourselves during our relatively short stay here on earth is easier than that indeterminate time afterwards… but humans are disposed to ignore such warnings, aren’t we? After all, if I only need to give Jesus an inch on earth so that he’ll do the rest later… why bother?Our Protestant neighbors came up with a solution to this quandary: they got rid of purgatory. Be good on earth…or else. More precisely: be perfect on earth… or else. Therefore, don’t drink, don’t dance, don’t even consider fornicating… or else. It’s a simple formula. It conforms to basic human logic… and taking concupiscence into account it seems to make sense… for a moment. After all, who can be perfect on this earth? Who, in the midst of fallenness can be worthy of heaven? It’s an impossible standard. It also presents God as fickle: I will be your God and you will be my people… unless you make a single mistake… in which case, maybe I’ll forgive you. Ultimately this view cracks up under the weight of of its own inconsistencies. It is unworthy of Scripture, unworthy of the God who self-defines as LOVE and MERCY… leaving us with the same question: why should I bother to grow/improve on this earth?The answer presented us by Christ the King is this, “Love.” When you saw that special someone across the gymnasium floor at your high school dance… that someone whose name you couldn’t stop reciting… that someone to whom you wrote silly poems or for whom you saved up money for flowers… you didn’t do all that because the whips of hell compelled you. You did it because her beauty drew you to change, drew you to work harder, drew you to be worthy of her. Jesus our King, the lover of our souls, is no different. Looking upon the Cross, perceiving the beauty of his self-gift for our sake… Or, likewise, looking on him in the crib at Bethlehem, considering his supreme humility, “God became a vulnerable baby.” Aren’t our hearts bowled over by the beauty of it… Doesn’t it make us desire to change? It’s about love, it’s about beauty. These are the conquering tools by which Christ becomes our King, until the Theo-drama of life reaches its longed for end in the fullness of his Kingdom, heaven. As we come to the end of Ordinary Time and begin Advent next Sunday, look often upon the Cross, look often upon the crib, and you won’t need to be beaten into heaven… You’ll find yourself running their with all your might.