The Last Judgment
Fr. Scott A. Haynes
A Meditation on St. Matthew 24:15-35
At that time, Jesus said to His disciples: When you see the abomination of desolation, which was spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place - let him who reads understand - then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains; and let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything from his house; and let him who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. But woe to those who are with child, or have infants at the breast in those days! But pray that your flight may not be in the winter, or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, nor will be.
And unless those days had been shortened, no living creature would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. Then if anyone say to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or ‘There He is,’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise, and will show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. Behold, I have told it to you beforehand. If therefore they say to you, ‘Behold, He is in the desert,’ do not go forth; ‘Behold, He is in the inner chambers,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes forth from the east and shines even to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. Wherever the body is, there will the eagles be gathered together. But immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give her light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.
And then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven; and then will all tribes of the earth mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming upon the clouds of heaven with great power and majesty. And He will send forth His angels with a trumpet and a great sound, and they will gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. Now from the fig tree learn this parable. When its branch is now tender, and the leaves break forth, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, know that it is near, even at the door. Amen I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things have been accomplished. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
On the Last Sunday after Pentecost, at the end of the liturgical year, the Church bids us to consider the Last Judgement. As we consider the Last Day, the day in which Christ our King will come to judge the quick and the dead, let us turn our mind’s eye to the Michelangelo’s depiction of the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.
That awesome scene, painted between 1536 and 1541, dominates the Sistine Chapel and places Christ at its center. Michelangelo shows us that penultimate moment of human history – that instant in which Christ will utter the final verdict on human history. Behold our King! He is the victor over sin and Satan! He commands attention and all nature groans to hear his voice.
As we study Michelangelo’s depiction, we notice the two upper lunettes with groups of angels bearing in flight the symbols of the Passion. On the left the Cross, the nails and the crown of thorns; on the right the column of the scourging, the stairs and the spear with the sponge soaked in vinegar.
Seated next to Christ the King is the Mary our Queen and Mother, who turns her gaze upon humanity. She has labored for the conversion of sinners; she has prayed for us at the hour of our death and now she awaits the result of the Judgement.
As the figure of Jesus is all masculine force, Mary represents all feminine grace; here Mother and Son fulfill each other. She is subordinate to Jesus; she is an originating condition of the redemptive act and her expression is compassionate.
St. Peter with the two keys for binding and loosing
The Saints and the Elect of God, arranged around Christ and the Virgin, also anxiously await the verdict. The group to our left seems composed of the patriarchs of the Old Testament including St. John the Baptist. Some of them can be easily recognized: St. Peter with the two keys for binding and loosing. Among the many saints depicted in the masterwork of Michelangelo, we see St. Laurence with the gridiron of his martyrdom.
St. Laurence with the gridiron of his martyrdom
To the right and below the figure of Christ is the figure of St. Bartholomew who was martyred by being skinned alive. In his right hand, he holds the knife, the instrument of his martyrdom, in his left the empty skin of his body.
St. Bartholomew displaying his flayed skin, with the face of Michelangelo
The saint looking down is St. Joseph, the spouse of the ever-Virgin Mary, but he is not the usual old man Joseph, but rather a middle-aged one, who appears to climb out of a wooden construction that looks very much like a coffin. St. Joseph, Jesus’ father on earth, was a carpenter and the wood and saw are his material and tool.
We also behold St. Catherine of Alexandria holding the spiked cogwheel to which she was strapped for a cruel torture and death. Standing above her is a man holding two instruments for carding wool, the symbols of St. Blaise. He was tortured with iron combs and becomes the patron saint of the wool carders. We see St. Sebastian kneeling there with the arrows that pierced his heart. In the center of the lower section are the angels of the Apocalypse who are wakening the dead to the sound of long trumpets.
On the left of the painting, we behold the dead rising from their graves now recovering their bodies as they ascend towards heaven. Two angels are holding books, one toward the saved, one toward the damned. On the right angels and devils fight over making the damned fall down to hell. Here Michelangelo refers to the Inferno of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and he shows us that wicked figure Charon, who is the boatman of the River Styx.
There Charon is with his oars, together with his devils, making the damned get out of his boat in order to lead them before the infernal judge Minos, whose body is wrapped in the coils of the serpent. The evil judge Minos stands there with a snake wrapped about him, horrible and snarling. When the damned enter the regions of hell he examines their offenses, cruelly judges them. The soul of the damned sees his sins clearly and what shall be his place in Hell. Always before Minos stands a crowd of sinners; they go, each in his turn, to the judgement and hear their sentence of doom and then they are hurled below.
Charon and his boat of damned souls
On the left, the souls of the redeemed variously float upward or are drawn upward into the realm of the blessed above. On the right, there is another unique iconographical feature: several of the damned are attempting to break out and are being driven back by angels and dragged back by demons.
The damned in the air
In the analysis of the ceiling, we should not fail to notice the remarkable figure of Jonah, the single prophet on the end wall above the altar. In the whole of the ceiling, no figure outside the central range of narrative paintings, except Jonah, shows any awareness of the scenes of the main story.
The other prophets depicted there are attending their books. Their attention may be directed outward or inward but never to the ceiling itself. Only Jonah does so. Michelangelo shows us that Jonah falls backward in open mouthed awe as he looks directly up at the figure of God dividing chaos. This action is significant because among all the prophets, only Jonah is a figure of Christ, three days in the belly of the fish just as Christ was three days in the tomb.
Jonah and the fish.
Every movement, every gesture, is directed toward the figure of Jesus, or is determined by the pattern centered on Jesus. Michelangelo shows us that Christ is complete and full revelation of Truth. If there is sadness, if there is death and punishment, it is only the result of the terrible drama of our sinful human choices.
Mary and Christ
Mary, in all her human beauty, shares the glory of light around the Christ yet draws herself protectively under the mercy of the mighty arm. Her look of compassionate love encompasses the redeemed to the right of Christ and completes the invitation.
Two souls being drawn to heaven by the Rosary of Mary
At the Celebration of the Unveiling of the Restorations of Michelangelo’s Frescos in the Sistine Chapel on April 8, 1994, Pope John Paul II delivered a homily on the occasion in which he remarked:
“If before the Last Judgement we are dazzled by splendor and fear, admiring on the one hand the glorified bodies and on the other those subjected to eternal damnation, we also understand that the entire vision is deeply permeated by one light and one artistic logic: the light and logic of the faith that the Church proclaims by confessing…‘I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.’”
Resurrection of the Dead
This day of resurrection will occur at the Last Day—at the last judgment. Our bodies and souls will be rejoined. Those who are just will receive a Resurrected and glorified body, like the Risen Lord. In our 1st reading, the Book of Daniel tells us that,
“…the wise shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament.”
St. Paul tells us that in the heavenly kingdom we shall experience untold joy and happiness:
“Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”
But the wicked shall share in the resurrection too. But theirs will be a resurrection of judgement. Their bodies and souls will burn in hell fire for all eternity, and they shall never know peace or forgiveness, but only eternal suffering. We must understand that those who go to hell have gone there because of their free choice. They have persistently rejected God’s grace and resisted God’s love and grace.
The finality of hell and its spiritual and physical torments should make us serious about living a life of grace, resisting sin and frequently confessing our sins. St Paul exhorts us strongly:
“Deny ungodliness and worldly lusts—live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world.”
Return in your mind’s eye to the Sistine Chapel. Gaze upon that masterpiece of Michelangelo. His masterpiece took 33 years to finish. It was done with much hardship. It was a struggle to finish. Imagine if the Sistine Chapel was left unfinished. It is unlikely that so many millions of pilgrims would come from all over the world to see it. Works of art are meant to be finished.
Each human person is unique work of art begun by God. The book of Genesis tells us that God looks at each one of us and says:
“It is good….it is very good.”
Each person has great dignity, because every human being is created in God’s image and likeness. This is why the murder of children in the womb is so unjust, for just as their lives begin, they are deprived of it. We must come to understand that each human person is a masterpiece of God, and each soul has been created to have a divine life with God.
No matter how badly we have disfigured the beauty of God in us by our sins, God can blot out all the mistakes and He can paint over all the crooked lines to make us beautiful again through the grace He gives in the Sacraments. But we must put the paintbrush into God’s own hand. We have to humbly submit to God—the divine Artist – to let Him finish the masterpiece he has begun with each one of us.
Angel sounding the Trumpet on the Last Day
All of creation was created to glorify Him. The Kingdom of God has already begun with the Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Christ. With Baptism it is begun in us. The genius of God’s beauteous creation will not be complete until all the just are united with Him body and soul for all eternity in heaven. Then and only then will the masterpiece be complete! But what a work of art it will be. In the words of Daniel the Prophet, we will be with St Michael and the company of angels in heaven, and we will “shine brightlty…like the stars forever.”