I’ve taken of an evening to watching old episodes of Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett as the man himself (there are 41 free episodes on YouTube!). Holmes is already a quirky character, but Jeremey Brett’s own quirkiness ups the ante quite considerably. He is annoyingly toffee-nosed but is all the more entertaining for that! I love it when he suddenly, and rather madly, shouts “Watson!” or “Mrs. Hudson!” Then there is his laconic laugh when he has suddenly come upon the solution to the crime.
What I like, too, about his performance, as compared with Benedict Cumberbatch, for example, is that there is a clear preoccupation with getting justice done. It’s not just about his “mental palace” and superior deduction skills. While Cumberbatch’s performance is often thrilling, Brett’s is always, always satisfying: the evil is punished and the good is vindicated. When you hear the violin music being broken in at the end of the Brett performances, there is always a feeling of satisfaction, as if you had eaten a good meal. The world is at rights once more!
Of course, we don’t then get to see the court cases that ought to follow on from Holmes’ entrapment of the bad guy. We presume that the judge will listen to Holmes describe to perfection the evidence against the rascal, will then listen to what we of course know will be a miserable defence counsel, and then pronounce a duly severe sentence!
Imagine, instead, that after all that work, Holmes heard the judge say: “Well, Mr. Holmes, that’s all very splendid, but I don’t like you and I happen to like the accused, so he is free to go!” What uproar would ensue! What outrage! The judge himself ought then to be arrested for complicity in the crime if nothing else!
History is alas replete with such unjust judges, often bought and sold through bribery or fear of reprisal. We like to think we are past that now, in the West, in our much lauded but often hollow “modern times.”
When I spent time as a judge at the Scottish Catholic Tribunal, I often had to remind fellow judges that we were not there to judge on the basis of our mere intuition, however brilliant we thought it might be (!), or pastoral sixth sense. Rather we had to judge all, but solely, the evidence in the case; and we had to judge solely on the basis of the law, blindly, equitably, justly. On the one hand, there is the evidence; on the other there is the law. It is the clear-headed encounter between these two things which alone can lead to a just sentence.
The evidence. And what will be the evidence when we come before the Judge who is Justice in person when he comes unexpectedly to call us to account? It can be nothing other than the choices we have made in our lives. We are ourselves the evidence because we are who we have chosen to become. How we have lived will be our judgment. The Lord will hold up a bright mirror for us to see who we are in relation to his truth, his justice, his will.
Is he not a merciful judge? Indeed, he is. But can we honestly be any less outraged at the Lord if, instead of judging us on the basis of the evidence, he simply ignores it and says either “depart from me ye cursed” or “come ye blessed of my Father”? His mercy is surely great, indeed, but it is not arbitrary. It cost him the Cross, a Cross he has held before us throughout our lives as the standard for our choices, for our “evidence.” His mercy is indeed great, but it requires of us the honest recognition of our sinful choices, heartfelt sorrow for having made them and a sincere desire not to repeat them if we were ever to start life all over again.
This was what the Good Thief grasped, even at the hour of death. This is what the prodigal son grasped as his face was buried in the stench of pigs. This is what the sinful woman grasped as her tears fell on the feet of Jesus. They understood justice, they accepted it (“we got what we deserved”, said the Good Thief) and therefore the floodgates of the Lord’s mercy were thrown open to them.
We cannot go through life lying and continue doing so as we say, “the Lord will forgive me.” We cannot go through life fornicating and mock the Cross by saying, “I’ll ask for mercy some day.” We cannot knowingly and freely ignore Jesus in the choices we make and then turn up at his court and say, “Well, you’re the merciful One, aren’t you? Open that door now!”
Advent looks ahead to Christ’s coming at the end of time and at the end of our lives. We know nothing of when either of these things will hit us. Don’t waste Advent looking at Christmas. Use it to look at Christ. Use it to let his look, be it from the crib or the Cross, pierce your heart and, as St. Paul admonishes in the second reading today, to wake it up, to draw it out of the night of trick and tinsel and into the day of verity and virtue. Advent should be a cold shower! That soon wakes us up! To take a good look at ourselves, to fix our minds and intelligence meaningfully on our moral and spiritual lives, to take stock and to take consequential decisions. Let’s not sleepwalk into moral oblivion.
St. Paul touches on the two main areas of the moral life that need our vigilance: justice and sexuality. Justice is not just about courts. It’s about righteousness, living according to what is right in the sight of God. Justice beckons an integrity of life summed up in no more straightforward a way than in the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, seventh, eighth and tenth commandments. The first three speak to acting justly in relation to God. The others mentioned concern justice towards others and oneself. Justice is an integrity, a wholeness, it keeps the perfect balance in our relationships and forms the solid basis for a love that is true. It is the bedrock of a healthy and flourishing society.
Sexuality also demands integrity. That’s what chastity means: wholeness, integration, a preservation of balance between giving and receiving, be it in marriage or in the celibate state. The chaste person “has it together.” Chastity properly understood leads to a nobility and depth of beauty in sexual expression; chastity is like a compass that offers sure direction; it is like a barometer which unfailingly measures the times and seasons of the grace of sex.
Without justice and chastity, the night of chaos will have us in its greedy and merciless grip. Lies, equivocation, ambiguity, secrecy, excess, mental and physical exhaustion, irritability and quick temper, apathy, a dry cynicism, eyes only for immediate satisfactions and material values: all these and other such signs tell us that we are more than likely already in that pig stench of the prodigal son.
But Jesus calls urgently in the Gospel: stay awake! Stand up! Stand ready! It’s a clarion call inviting us to get a grip, to pull ourselves together, to stop moaning and whining and to give ourselves a chance to rediscover true love and true life.
So, today, let’s all take a pen hand – and I say it to myself first – and start writing as if we were listing what’s in the kitchen cupboard, only we are talking of our own hearts and consciences. We don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to perform this investigation. On the left side, all the smelly stuff; on the right side, all the true good in us. Don’t write the smelly stuff off too quickly. Ask yourself: right, if that mess has to go, what do I put in its place? What is the good flip side of this bad coin? I admit that it can be hard work, difficult, upsetting … but for goodness sake, people, we are talking about our eternal fate and the salvation of our contemporaries! How much time does a punter spent studying the form of the horses in a race? Do I need to ask: are you not worth more than a trillion horses?
When you’ve done your homework, bring it to prayer. Come to the church even for five minutes a few days a week. Let your reflections mature. Then, like all the biblical characters I just mentioned, come to Christ himself in the sacrament of confession. Pour out all the dross, cough it up, spit it out! And let him instead pour into you the immensity of his healing and merciful love, like a warm balm that cleanses and perfumes the soul and restores peace. Yes, peace! Deep, deep peace! I understand that it can be hard to put into words your sins. Come anyway! Try! I am there to help you. I am the mop that the Lord uses to clean up the mess. I am also the jug he uses to pour out that balm upon and within your deepest being. How can anyone not want this, not yearn for it, not do everything in his or her power to seek it out? What madness is it that keeps people from the sacrament of divine mercy?
At times, I feel we are tired in our Catholic church. It’s like a collective depression paralysing us and trying to tie down the power of our baptism, confirmation, marriage and priesthood like an old dog that might get lost if we let it loose. My friends, we are the bearers of the life and power of the living God! We are the light of the nations and the salt of the earth! Awake, o sleeper, awake! Let the lion in us roar once again! Let the evidence that will be our judgment move swiftly and consciously and purposefully out of the night and into the day. Then, when our Judge holds up that mirror to our face, we will see that we look not like the living dead, but just the same as Him, resplendent, radiant and beaming with his merciful love!