It was a privilege years ago to know the English theologian Alec Vidler, a colorful and even eccentric character whose long beard amused the queen when he was her chaplain and whose religious views irritated many.
“Might I suggest that you try to be good.”
He was a good friend of C.S. Lewis and, especially, Malcolm Muggeridge, who agreed to disagree with him. Although his interpretation of some of the scriptures could be vague, he was impatient with superficial religiosity.
After a lecture tour in the United States, his impression of churches there was that most preaching boiled down to friendly clergymen saying, “Might I suggest that you try to be good.”
In this, he echoed the Reformed Church theologian Helmut Richard Niebuhr, whose understanding of doctrine was loose, but who disdained the superficiality of those who reduced the Gospel to a set of guidelines for social progress. He summed up that sort of vacuous theology in his 1937 book, “The Kingdom of God in America”: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
That is not the Christ that Michelangelo painted in the Sistine Chapel after the trauma of the Sack of Rome. Christ the judge is shown in the Second Coming separating the saved from the damned. Mercy and judgment are in his hands, one raised and one lowered, rather like the civil icon of Daniel Chester French’s statue of Lincoln, with one hand in calm repose and the other clenched.
A kingdom without judgment is a madhouse, for the inability to make right judgments is the very definition of insanity. Christ loves his brethren too much to pretend that there is neither right nor wrong. As Advent prepares us for the celebration of Christ’s birth into time and space, it preaches about death, judgment, heaven and hell.
“Give us the grace, Lord, to be ever on the watch for Christ your Son. When he comes and knocks at our door, let Him find us alert in prayer, joyfully proclaiming His glory.”
One is free to ignore those “last things,” but that would be to share the perpetual adolescence of people who erase Advent from their minds as they put up Christmas trees and try to celebrate weeks ahead of the solemn declaration of the Incarnation.
The Second Sunday of Advent is about Christ as judge of the world. He is the surest cure for moral madness. “He is before all things, and by him all things are held together” (Colossians 1:17). By way of corollary, without Him all things fall apart: civilizations as well as souls. Societies then do crazy things, just as souls misuse the intellect to lie and the free will to choose evil.
To be a saint means, in fact, to be sane. And to be sane is to be able to pray as we do in Advent: “Give us the grace, Lord, to be ever on the watch for Christ your Son. When He comes and knocks at our door, let Him find us alert in prayer, joyfully proclaiming his glory.”
Fr. George William Rutler is a Catholic priest and the pastor of the Church of St. Michael in Manhattan. This article originally appeared in his parish church bulletin and is used by permission.