AM Psalms 26, 28; PM Psalms 36, 39
Isa. 5:13-17, 24-25; 1 Thess. 5:12-28; Luke 21:29-38
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
(The 1662 Prayer of Humble Access)
I don’t know about you, but very often as the rhythm of the liturgy moves toward the Great Thanksgiving, I find myself striving to coax my heart into an appropriate posture. Knowing that I will soon go forward to receive the Eucharist, I try to force my emotions into what I think is an acceptable mixture of contrition and gratitude.
And I pretty much always fail. The person in front of me is wearing a nice sweater; someone’s child does something funny; I get preoccupied with the way others may interpret my physical posture—and suddenly I’m completely distracted. By the time I make it to the chancel, all my efforts at inner perfection are in shambles.
Thankfully, however, as Father Steve once said in a sermon, what Jesus expects us to bring to the Altar is—precisely nothing. Open, empty hands. No goodness of our own making is strong enough to rely on.
When we think, write, and speak about the “judgment of God” and the “mercy of God,” we often treat them as two different things, competing forces that vie for dominance, especially in the Old Testament. In reality, for those of us who know Jesus and trust in the sufficiency of his sacrifice, God’s mercy and judgment are mutually constituent—in other words, God’s judgment is an act of mercy.
Mercy and judgment coexist, I think, in two slightly different ways. On the one hand, God’s judgment is merciful because he doesn’t judge us based on our own worthiness, but based on the efficacy of the blood of Jesus.
From another, human perspective, the prayer “Lord, judge my heart” entails the abandonment of self-judgment. I find this incredibly freeing. When God judges us, he sets us free from our own motives and attitudes, releasing us from having to make ourselves worthy in his sight. There is no more pressure to manufacture righteousness. There is no more fear of moral failure—which is closely related to the fear of intimacy. Instead, God replaces our fear and moral confusion with the freedom to accept ourselves and others as works in progress who nonetheless participate in the perfection of the saints of God. When God judges us, his perfect love casts out fear (I John 4:18). This is a great mystery.
When Mary responded to the angel’s Annunciation, she said simply, “Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord.” She did not object, on grounds of unbelief, selfishness, or fear; nor did she make any assumptions about her own worthiness.
Instead, when Gabriel told her that she had found favor with God (Matt. 1:28), Mary must have concluded that God had already accepted her in her present state. She simply presented herself before the Lord and waited, as we wait now, for the coming of Jesus.
As we approach the celebration of the Incarnation of our Lord, we should weigh the thoughts of our hearts, knowing that God alone is able to judge and purify them (Hebrews 4:12). At the same time, we wait for that Day when God’s judgment will be the final word. And that indeed will be a great mercy.