This reading from the prophecy of Daniel always reminds me of a poem several generations of school children were forced to memorize: “Abou ben Adhem” by Leigh Hunt. According to that poem, Ben Adhem awoke one night to find an angel in his room writing in a golden book. The angel said he was writing the names of “those who love the Lord,” and that Ben Adhem’s name wasn’t among them. In that case, Ben Adhem said, “Write me as one who loves his fellow men.” The angel wrote and disappeared but returned the next night and “showed the names whom love of God had blest, and lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.”
There’s quite a contrast between that account of Ben Adhem’s encounter in the stillness of his room and Daniel’s description of the day of judgment when “everyone who are found written in the book … shall live forever, [but] others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace.”
But, of course, if we take to heart the outcome of “Abou ben Adhem” we needn’t be terrorized by the prospect of condemnation. Love of God and love of neighbor (the “fellow men” of the poem) are two sides of the same coin in our Christian belief. Indeed, Jesus said they are the two greatest commandments. We have opportunities every day to practice love in how we speak to each other in person, how we write to each other online, how we work with each other, how we drive, how we treat restaurant servers and grocery clerks, how we share what we have with those who have less, or little, or nothing.
“I set the LORD ever before me; with him at my right hand I shall not be disturbed.” That is a key to finding our names “written in the book.” If we are mindful—let’s say through little moments of prayer throughout the day—that we are always in the presence of God, we will have a sound foundation for the choices we make, the actions we take, and the things we say.
(Chapter 10:11-14, 18)
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews takes a grim point of view in these verses, commenting that Jesus Christ—that’s who the writer means by “this one”—is reposing in heaven where he “waits until his enemies are made his footstool.” That’s probably true in a certain sense, but our focus when we join in the celebration of the Eucharist is on the more positive message in this reading—the fact that, by his passion, death, and resurrection—Jesus redeemed those who lived in keeping with his gospel of love, peace, and justice. Let us pray that we will have the faith and wisdom to live as Jesus taught and let us pray that those who are in danger of cutting themselves off from God will respond to the Spirit and re-form their lives.
Those of sufficient age no doubt remember a pre-digital era when “musical chairs” was a popular pastime. While some recorded music played, a group of people, say six, would parade in a file around a group of chairs, say five. When the music stopped, all but one sat down. The person who could not find a chair would be out of the game, a chair would be removed, and the music would play again. This continued until only one person was seated—the winner.
At first glance, the dynamic in Jesus’ warning in this gospel passage might sound similar: You know not when the music will stop. Don’t get caught standing up. And it is true that, with these apocalyptic images, Jesus was stressing the seriousness of living in concert with God’s will. Our salvation is at stake.
Fortunately, however, our faith isn’t about making sure we don’t get caught with some outstanding debt—some mortal sin on our souls—at the hour of our deaths. No, our faith is about living day to day in the company of Jesus. We will surely falter at times, but then we can turn to him in prayer and repentance and begin again. Jesus wants every person to be saved; he’s always concerned with the one sheep out of a hundred that gets lost. He never takes a chair away. If we walk with him every day, we needn’t worry about the last day.
Photo by Allec Gomes on Unsplash
Charles Paolino, who is pinch-hitting for Bill Ayres, is managing editor at RENEW International and a permanent deacon of the Diocese of Metuchen.