Michelangelo’s Last Judgment
Matthew 25: 31- 46
Reign in our hearts, O God, and shape us as your people. Help us to celebrate all the ways you reveal Christ to us – through our giving, receiving, serving, witness and worship. Amen.
Today is Reign of Christ Sunday. Christians in general observe it on the Sunday prior to Advent. The church year starts on the first Sunday of Advent. This means today is the last Sunday of the whole church year. We celebrate our hope of the final rule of our Christ on the last Sunday of our calendar. So, today’s lectionary readings provide an opportunity to explore what it means to live as members of God’s realm and to explore the new images of kingship and leadership that Jesus modelled.
From Matthew, we have just read what is commonly called the parable of the last judgment. Most of us have heard the story of the separation of the sheep and the goats interpreted as to whether we have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and so forth. This story, however, brings to mind the stern sword-wielding image of Christ separating those on the right who are floating upward into rosy clouds from those on the left who are being dragged down by horrifying demons into all kinds of horrible torture. Such images remind me of some medieval paintings I have seen.
While preparing this sermon, I ‘googled’ the words, “last judgment.” Numerous relevant websites came up in a second; my attention was drawn by Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel in the
. Through its own website, the Vatican Vatican museum provides a view of the whole colourful picture of this magnificent masterpiece along with comments. Some of you may have seen it personally if you have visited the Sistine Chapel, but I have never been there.
I spent some time looking at this vivid masterpiece. I was struck by two things: the nudity and the particularity. By particularity I mean that the moment of the last judgment is portrayed in great detail. If you read today’s passage from Matthew, you do not need any further explanation to understand this masterpiece. Every detail in this picture speaks for itself. The muscular white man in the centre must be Christ who raises his right hand high as if in the moment of pronouncing the verdict. Next to Christ is a woman who turns her head in resignation waiting for his judgment. All the saints and angels surround Christ in varied lively postures, but all looking anxious to hear the verdict. At the bottom there are many grotesque demons and devils who prod the damned in their fall to hell.
By nudity I mean that most of the figures in this picture, whether men or women, are almost naked. I was not alone in being startled by this nudity. According to the commentary from the
Vatican museum, this masterpiece, painted nearly five hundred years ago, caused violent reactions among Michelangelo’s contemporaries. For example, a commentator said that "It was most dishonest in such an honoured place to have painted so many nude figures who so dishonestly show their shame and that it was not a work for a Chapel of the Pope but for stoves and taverns." The controversies continued for years. Almost two decades after this masterpiece was completed, the Congregation of the Council of Trent decided to have some of the figures in the Last Judgment which were considered "obscene" covered. The task of painting the covering drapery, in fact, continued into the following centuries.
I am not a critic of art. However, it seems to me that the nudity is one of the key images Michelangelo wanted to present to us in this masterpiece. He was a genius. This genius reminds us that we will become completely naked, totally vulnerable, in the final day of judgement. Not one of us will survive that judgment, if we are to be judged only by what we have done in life. How can we possibly feed all the hungry, give water to all the thirsty, clothe all the naked, take care of all the sick, and visit all the prisoners whom we have met throughout our life. It would be too much. It is an impossible demand. All of us would have to look forward to the end with stark horror. Who among us, no matter how moral or religious, would not be counted among the wicked for our failure to obey this too demanding command?
I am reminded of the book, “
’s Confession.” I was curious about the real life of this saint. I had thought that his life would be quite a different one from that of ordinary people like me: surely his life must have been full of piety and integrity. On the contrary! It was quite the opposite. His life was not different at all from ours: his life was full of anxiety, regret, greed and jealousy. He even admitted that he had had a mistress for years and abandoned her in the end, seeking success in his career. If we were to take what Matthew says literally, we would have to find St. Augustine at the very bottom of Michelangelo’s painting of the Last Judgment. St. Augustine
After reading his book, I asked myself, “What made him a saint anyway?” My conclusion was that it was his courage in disclosing himself to others as he was. He chose to take off all his wrappings and be naked and vulnerable. He wrote his book when he was at the highest point of accomplishment in his life. Everybody looked up to him as an archbishop. He had great power as a religious authority in those days, but he was willing to talk honestly about himself. He was courageous enough to humble himself as a vulnerable human being. I believe that such courage must have come from his strong faith in Jesus Christ who spent his whole earthly life as a friend with the poor, not with people in power. For me, it was Augustine’s faithfulness that made him a saint.
If we are to think biblically about the future of the world, we have to get rid of such pagan mythology as pictured in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. Rather, we have to think in quite a different way about what is going to happen on the judgment day. The whole picture changes as soon as we remember who the judge will be: not a vengeful or even unbiased “blind” judge, but Christ himself! The one who will judge sinners is the very one who loved and devoted his life to them. The judge who stands at the end is none other than the compassionate one who cares for sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, widows and children.
A week ago, I was deeply touched by a documentary movie, “War in the Mind,” aired on TVO on the night of Remembrance Day. It was about the stories of Canadian soldiers and their families who are affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This hour-long film documented the struggles and battles they face against this disabling and destructive disorder which remains under-acknowledged by the Canadian military. This movie is still available to watch through the TVO website.
There were so many real heart-breaking stories in this documentary. However, the story of Senator and retired General, Romeo Dallaire, touched me deeply. It is well known that he himself suffered from PTSD after serving as commander of the UN peacekeeping force in
in 1993 when the Genocide took place. From the beginning to the end, he sat in front of the cameras as one of the victims of this mental illness as well as a champion of its recognition and fair treatment. Rwanda
There has been a strong stigma against those who suffer PTSD: “They are mentally weak; they are substance abusers; it is their problem.” Against such stigma, this once highest ranking military officer chose to be vulnerable. When he talked about his own suicide attempt, following the horror of the Rwandan Genocide, it was as if he took off all his decorations and became naked in front of the camera.
According to this film, 58,000
soldiers died in combat in the Viet Nam War. In contrast, 102,000 Viet Nam War veterans have died by suicide since. Twenty-four US soldiers died in combat in the Gulf War; 107 Gulf War veterans have died by suicide since. On the other hand, in U.K. , no government statistics are yet available for suicides following past missions. Senator Dallaire is campaigning to remove the secrecy which surrounds the issue, willing to be vulnerable. I admire his leadership and courage in doing so. Canada
As a congregation, we have worked together in an Intentional Interim Ministry since I came here last year. The primary purpose of this Interim Ministry is to prepare ourselves to begin a faith journey anew with the calling of a new minister. Our transitional work has been going well so far and will reach the highest point when we call a new minister next Spring. Early this month, our Joint Needs Assessment Committee (JNAC) report was accepted by the Presbytery and a vacancy has been declared. So, today, we celebrated the disbanding of our JNAC, thanking them for their hard work.
Our Joint Search Committee began their work early last week and finalized an advertisement for the United Church Observer. Now, we are looking forward to the next step - receiving applications and interviewing the shortlisted candidates early next year. On this Reign of Christ Sunday, it is appropriate to reflect on the kind of leadership we need. It is time to explore leadership questions for the interview and be ready to ask the applicants good questions about their understanding of church leadership. May God guide us and bless us on this journey. Amen.