The first Sunday of Advent calls to mind God’s justice and judgment. The second reading (I Thessalonians 3:12-4:2) exhorts us to be blameless in holiness before God at the Second Coming of the Lord. What does it mean to be blameless in holiness? For that matter, what does culpability or being liable to judgment look like? Though we will not exhaust the subject, St. Augustine offers a way to answer these questions in his sermon on the Lord’s Prayer.
Augustine preached that there is a group of people who we can feel confident will not be forgiven, namely, those who do not practice mercy by forgiving others. He wrote:
For by reason of the fact that this mortal and frail life, which is passed amid so many earthly temptations and which prays that it may not be overwhelmed by them, cannot be lived even by a just person without some sins, we have a remedy by which we can live because our Teacher, God, taught us to say in His prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.” We have done what was stipulated and what was pleasing in the eyes of God, and we have signed the agreement for cancelling our debt. If we ourselves forgive, we seek to be forgiven with the utmost confidence; but if we do not forgive, let us not think that our sins are forgiven. Let us not deceive ourselves. Let no one fall into self-deception. God deceives no one.
Augustine distinguishes between being angry and succumbing to hatred, which is characterized by unwillingness to forgive. It is human, he said, to become angry. While anger is natural, it needs to be tempered by love so that it does not become destructive.
By itself, anger is problem. Angry people believe that they are doing something good, when in fact they are doing evil. Domestic abuse provides many examples of this perverted thinking, but it plays out whenever we seek vengeance. If anger is a problem, Augustine said it is a mere twig compared to hatred; but if you cultivate the twig, it will grow into the tree of hatred. Augustine warned those who are unwilling to forgive, those who hate, to pay attention to I John 2:9-11:
Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.
The author of I John goes on to explain the consequences: “All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them (I John 3:15).” Even forgiveness is not enough, I John 3:16-17 says we must be willing to lay down our lives for those who trespass against us.
Augustine warns that each time we say the Lord’s Prayer and fail to reconcile with those that have sinned against us, we speak falsely. If we fail to extend mercy to those that we find offensive, we become liars by our participation in the Mass. By doing so we fail to discern the true meaning of the Eucharist and eat unworthily, which is why Augustine provides this pointed warning:
Do you hate your brother or sister and walk about free from care? Are you unwilling to be reconciled, although God is giving you an opportunity for that purpose? Behold, you are a murderer and yet you live. If you had an angry Master, you would be taken off suddenly in the midst of your hatred (see Matthew 18:23-35). God is sparing you; spare yourself! Make peace!
While there is a great deal of mystery as to who stands liable in the Final Judgment, it is clear that those who fail to forgive others for their faults will not be forgiven. James says so explicitly, “No mercy will be shown to those who show no mercy to others (James 2:13). Explaining the significance of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus Christ plainly said: “But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins (Matthew 6:15).” Since we have all sinned and fallen short, we all must be merciful to receive mercy, which is the nature of God’s justice. Being blameless in holiness is achieved by holding others blameless for their offences against us.
The source for this reflection is Augustine’s Sermon 211 for Lent. The entire sermon is contained in my book, Christian Eloquence (Hillenbrand Press, 2005), but it is from the translation by Mary Sarah Muldowney, RSM in St. Augustine’s Sermons on the Liturgical Seasons (Catholic University of America Press, 1959). Hillenbrand Press is a subsidiary of Liturgical Training Publications.