I hope no one put up a hand to be an example! Frankly, other than joking, I am convinced that only utterly self-righteous zealots would suggest they were perfect. You and I know better—about ourselves, and each other—don’t we? But Matthew 5:48 says, “You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Now what?
Because of the nature of Greek grammar, this phrase can legitimately be translated “You must be perfect…” or “You will be [made] perfect…” Either way, if you’re not overwhelmed by the prospect, you’re not paying attention. How can characters like us either be, or be made, perfect?
This is the Scriptural basis for the theology of “purgatory.” But we must be clear. It is not a “place” where you go to spend “time.” After all, there is no “time” in eternity—just an everlasting “now.” In fact, the only dogmatic statement about purgatory (from the Council of Trent in the 16th century) simply states that there is such a reality. This reality is a purgation, a purging, a flushing away of the soul’s dross of sin and defect. So it is much more useful, I believe, to think of it as a process by which we are indeed “made perfect as the heavenly Father.” Would anything less be worthy or able to enter the Kingdom?
Is there “fire” in purgatory? The only fire I’m interested in is the fire of divine love, and we will come face to face with it at our death and judgment. There, we will see Jesus Christ, and for the first time we will understand both the depth of His love for us, and the extent of our free rejection of that love through our sins. This will cause a two-fold motion in us—desire to pull away for shame, and desire to draw near for Love. And this, to quote Cardinal Newman, will be our “veriest, truest purgatory.” Love will win, but it will be a process.
Yes, it’ll be a process. The bad news is that none of us is as good as, say, Mother Teresa, and none of us I hope is as bad as, say, Hitler. But in that intermediate range we know the needs we have to be purified, perfected, made truly into the adopted sons & daughters that God always intended us to be, in the power of the Cross and Resurrection of His Son.
Lent is a time for us to embrace the discipline of discipleship, so that by His grace we will progress here and now—moving a little further away from “Hitler” and a little nearer to “Mother Teresa,” more closely into the kinds of adopted children our Father wishes us to be. We take baby steps here; God will take care of the rest,
if only we say YES to this wonderful example of Divine Mercy. God loves us as we are; God loves us too much to let us remain this way.