January 7, 2010
Standing seven stories high and covering 1,700 square feet, Michelangelo’s
Last Judgment draws visitors to the Sistine Chapel up into a vision of what lies ahead for all of humanity. Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism all teach about this final judgment. This is the moment when God’s judgment, already at work in the world, is brought to completion and history reaches its final goal. It took Michelangelo six years to complete this masterpiece, but it has lasted for centuries, ever fresh in its beauty and prophetic in its message.
In the fresco, Christ lifts up his arms in divine judgment as he separates the good from the bad. As the just take their place in heaven and the damned are cast into hell, Christ’s lowered eyes gaze down upon the visitor below. The wall on which
The Last Judgment is painted slants out ever so slightly as it rises above the viewers below. The effect on the visitor is powerful. The message is clear: no one will escape the just judgment of the Lord.
Michelangelo’s masterpiece boldly confronts us with life’s ultimate horizon: eternity either in the presence of God or in the absence of God. We are the ones who make the choice between the two. By our lives, by our thoughts, actions and omissions, we decide either to be with God or not. But this truth is not meant to make us cower in fear. The ultimate horizon of life gives meaning to the present and inspires hope.
Through the experiences of life, we soon discover that we are “placed by [our] very nature in an attitude of expectation of an Other who will satisfy [our] want. A restlessness pervades every moment of [our] existence, as Augustine suggests … ‘
You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you’” (Pope John Paul II, General Audience, Oct. 12, 1983). It is not mere chance that has placed us in this world. There is a design and order to the world. From the beginning, God has made us for himself.
The Last Judgment dramatically reminds us that human history is moving toward its final goal. Christ dominates the entire fresco. Christ reveals to us the way to come to God. “Through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph 2:18). Here is the hope for our world. We can come to God through him who is the Way, the Truth and the Life (cf. Jn 14:6).
The Last Judgment scene, Christ is youthful. He is not seated, but stands. His whole body is in motion as if rising and thus recalls his Resurrection that inaugurates the New Creation. Thus, the final moment of time is the culmination of the New Creation brought about by the Resurrection. It will be a moment of joy for those who choose to follow Christ.
As we celebrate the beginning of another New Year, may your eyes stretch forward and upward to our eternal destiny. May you be filled with the Spirit of the Risen Lord to live lives worthy of your calling, never forgetting that, in Christ, every day “you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:22) and are being made ready for the day when Christ “hand over the kingdom to his Father… so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:24-28).