The Fire That Is Christ
by Fr Alvin Kimel
What does the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory mean? Pope Benedict XVI takes up this question in his most recent encyclical, Spe Salvi.
“With death,” writes the Holy Father, “our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge.” We come into the holy presence of our creator as persons whose lives have taken on certain shape. Our stories have been written; our personal narratives have reached decisive conclusion; the trial is finished. We have become, in the most fundamental sense, the kind of persons we are and shall ever be. We stand before the living God as individuals who have either rejected his love and mercy or who have embraced his love and mercy.
There can be people, Benedict warns, who have destroyed in their hearts the desire for truth and the readiness to love. Hatred, greed, and mendacity control and determine them. Such individuals are truly damned; they have damned themselves. “In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell.” There can also be people who are completely permeated by God. Their hearts are filled with love. Their entire being is consecrated to God, who is the consummation of “what they already are.” These are the saints. They die into the immediate vision of God. But in between, as it were, are those who die in a deep interior openness to love, to truth, to God, but whose concrete choices have been “covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul.” What happens to these individuals? Will their impurity suddenly cease to matter?
Following Western exegetical tradition, Benedict appeals to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians for guidance:
For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Cor 3:11-15)
Paul is employing imagery to speak of that which we cannot literally describe. As Benedict notes, “we can neither see into the world beyond death nor do we have any experience of it.” But Paul is confident in the victory of the resurrection. When the final day arrives, those who have built the foundation of their lives upon Jesus Christ will endure. Much may be lost in the fire of God’s judgment, but the believer will survive. “In this text,” Benedict explains, “it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through ‘fire’ so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.”
But what is this fire? In the past many Western theologians have interpreted the purgatorial fire as a material fire, but Benedict chooses a symbolic interpretation—the fire is Christ Jesus himself!
Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy.
The Pope thus proposes an understanding of Purgatory as personal encounter with the Savior who is infinite love and grace. In the eschatological moment, the duration of which transcends earthly reckoning, we are liberated from self-deception and bondage. Christ pulls us to himself, as through fire. The dross of guilt is burnt away. We are purified of all remaining egoism. The purgatorial transformation necessarily implies suffering, as we submit to the fire of love and surrender our sins and attachments, yet in the midst of this suffering we rejoice in the gift of our healing and deliverance.
Benedict elaborated this understanding of Christ’s fiery love in his book Eschatology, originally published in 1977:
Purgatory is not, as Tertullian thought, some kind of supra-worldly concentration camp where man is forced to undergo punishment in a more or less arbitrary fashion. Rather is it the inwardly necessary process of transformation in which a person becomes capable of Christ, capable of God and thus capable of unity with the whole communion of saints. Simply to look at people with any degree of realism at all is to grasp the necessity of such a process. It does not replace grace by works, but allows the former to achieve its full victory precisely as grace. What actually saves is the full assent of faith. But in most of us, that basic option is buried under a great deal of wood, hay and straw. Only with difficulty can it peer out from behind the latticework of an egoism we are powerless to pull down with our own hands. Man is the recipient of the divine mercy, yet this does not exonerate him from the need to be transformed. Encounter with the Lord is this transformation. It is the fire that burns away our dross and re-forms us to be vessels of eternal joy. (pp. 230-231)
Though the Latin tradition has typically construed the period of purgatorial transformation in temporal terms, Benedict recognizes the inappropriateness of this construal. The duration of transformation cannot be quantified according to any measure that we can understand. The transformation is indeed a transition, but its measure “lies in the unsoundable depths of existence, in a passing-over where we are burned ere we are transformed” (p. 230). Benedict would also have us understand that the first judgment at the moment of death is ultimately identical to the final judgment at the Great Assize; the two are indistinguishable. “A person’s entry into the realm of manifest reality,” Benedict writes, “is an entry into his definitive destiny and thus an immersion in eschatological fire” (p. 230).
(To be continued)
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