“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
and on earth nations will be in dismay,
perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”
Mass shootings. Destructive wildfires. Terrorism. Rampant abortion. The technological domination of daily life. Warnings that climate change will dramatically alter life on earth.
Are these signs of the end times? Or, rather, are they simply elements—though, particularly terrible elements, no doubt—of the ordinary tumult of life in a fallen world?
The question as I have posed it could be said to present us with a false choice. And that is not because I have mixed different categories of evils: natural disasters, horrifying sins, and corrosive cultural trends; things that certainly have happened or are happening and things that might happen.
No, the question I have posed presents us with a false choice insofar as it draws a sharper distinction between when the world could end and when the world will end than is warranted by the Gospel. In a very real sense, the end is always near, and that is the salient point.
The nearness of Christ’s coming also calls us to action, to preparation, and vigilance.
Newman on our preparation to meet Christ
Blessed John Henry Newman in one of his sermons (“Waiting for Christ,” Parochial and Plain Sermons) compares the Second Coming of Christ to a person who is at the point of death. Such a person might die at any moment, or there may be a substantial delay. But death is close throughout the person’s final days. Newman, to whom a second Vatican-approved miracle has reportedly been attributed and whose canonization may now come as early as next year, also compares the Second Coming to a military commander whose army has been deployed and is ready to go into battle. The commander may give the order to attack at once or, considering a variety of factors, he may choose to delay. But the attack is imminent; it could come at any moment.
We read in the Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent:
Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy
from carousing and drunkenness
and the anxieties of daily life,
and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.
For that day will assault everyone
who lives on the face of the earth.
Be vigilant at all times (Luke 21:34-36).
This passage, like other Gospel texts of its kind, calls us to be vigilant, to remain spiritually awake and ready. We are to look for the signs of Christ’s coming, though we do not know exactly when he will come.
Of what does this vigilance chiefly consist? In a word, according to Newman, it consists of worship. To remain spiritually awake is not first a matter of moral obedience to Christ, good and necessary as such obedience is. To prepare for this ultimate encounter with the All-Holy God, every Christian needs to encounter him in the context of worship, particularly in the ritual worship of the Church, and most especially in the Mass.
In another sermon, entitled “Worship, a Preparation for Christ’s Coming” (Parochial and Plain Sermons), Newman says our meeting with Christ our Judge “will be as sudden as it is intimate.” So great a change to come so suddenly, but is that all there is to it? Newman asks whether there is not some preparation for this ultimate encounter with Christ, insofar as preparation is possible during our earthly lives. “For surely it is our plain wisdom, our bounden duty, to prepare for this great change;—and if so, are any directions, hints, or rules given us how we are to prepare?”
But, when we come steadily to consider the matter, appearing before God, and dwelling in His presence, is a very different thing from being merely subjected to a system of moral laws, and would seem to require another preparation, a special preparation of thought and affection, such as will enable us to endure His countenance, and to hold communion with Him as we ought. Nay, and, it may be, a preparation of the soul itself for His presence, just as the bodily eye must be exercised in order to bear the full light of day, or the bodily frame in order to bear exposure to the air.
The Church’s worship serves as “a means, both moral and mystical, of approaching God.” In fact, Newman describes this preparation to meet Christ as the “most momentous reason” we have for our worship. Worship provides the most direct mode of engagement we have with God, it has the most salubrious effect on us insofar as it prepares us for life after death, and it brings us into “sacramental communion” with God here and now. Human nature is not in itself prepared for the vision of God, but participation in the Church’s worship transforms and elevates our nature so that we might be able to come before him without being destroyed.
This worship is not first and foremost something we offer to God, but rather it is first his gift to us. Newman writes:
Thus in many ways He, who is Judge to us, prepares us to be judged,—He, who is to glorify us, prepares us to be glorified, that He may not take us unawares; but that when the voice of the Archangel sounds, and we are called to meet the Bridegroom, we may be ready.
In his discussion of worship as a preparation for meeting Christ, Newman does not place much emphasis on the Sacrament of Holy Communion. This sermon was written while he was still an Anglican, and his focus is on worship and “sacramental communion” rather than on Holy Communion itself. And while one could surely turn to other writings of Newman’s to supplement this understanding of the encounter with Christ in sacred worship, there is another author—another English priest, convert, and scholar, whose name is often linked with Newman’s—who preached explicitly about Christ coming to us as Judge in the Holy Eucharist: Monsignor Ronald Knox.
Ronald Knox, the Eucharist, and Christ as Judge
The encounter with Christ in the worship of the Mass has a unique character because of his Real Presence in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. For Knox, the Real Presence evidences that Christ longs for intimacy with his people. In one sermon for the feast of Corpus Christi (“The Window in the Wall,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons), Knox describes Christ as the Lover from the Song of Songs, standing just on the other side of the “window” of the sacramental appearances of bread and wine, and calling out to the Christian soul, “calling us out into the open; calling us away from the ointments and the spikenard of Solomon’s court, that stupefy and enchain our senses, to the gardens and vineyards, to the fields and the villages, to the pure airs of eternity.” This “calling” is an invitation made possible by an encounter that occurs at Christ’s initiative:
Arise (he says), make haste, and come. Come away from the blind pursuit of creatures, from all the plans your busy brain evolves for your present and future pleasures, from the frivolous distractions it clings to. Come away from the cares and solicitudes about the morrow that seem so urgent, your heavy anxieties about the world’s future and your own, so short either of them and so uncertain. Come away into the wilderness of prayer, where my love will follow you and my hand hold you; learn to live, with the inmost part of your soul, with all your secret aspirations, with all the centre of your hopes and cares, in that supernatural world which can be yours now, which must be yours hereafter.
The encounter with Christ also helps free us from deeper attachments that, left undisturbed, would tie us to earth and keep us from preparing to meet Christ at our particular judgment and at the end of the world.
Christ exercises divine power when one encounters him in the Eucharist. He does not force himself upon the unwilling, but to the degree that a person is receptive, open to the divine influence, his or her encounter with Christ will be marked by change, even a kind of disturbance, an interruption of sinful ways and earthly attachments and an experience of God’s sanctifying power. This encounter and exercise of divine power follows the pattern of Christ’s earthly life, in which he often performed miracles in the context of a personal encounter. “It was not part of (Christ’s) programme to glorify God with mass-produced miracles; each person he cured must be brought into personal relations with him, must be able to say afterwards, ‘He turned, and spoke to me’” (“The Holy Eucharist,” The Layman and His Conscience).
The encounter with the Eucharistic Lord brings an opportunity for the reception of grace, but it also involves an act of judgment. Christ sees us for who we are. He knows what we have done and failed to do. He perfectly perceives our preparedness (or lack thereof) for receiving him.
And even when we are prepared in a general sense (i.e. we are free from mortal sin), he knows the graces for which we are ready and the degree to which we remain resistant to his grace and influence. Knox is often at pains in his preaching to reassure the scrupulous, but he does not shy away from the challenging side of the Gospel, including what it reveals about sin, human weakness, and divine judgment, and our need for repentance and conversion:
He knows you, and makes allowances for you; knows you, and can gauge your capacity; knows you, and is not to be put off by excuses. He can tell whether you are really trying to find him when you go to the altar, or merely following the dictates of convention; whether you come in a spirit of humility, or expecting too much of him. He can tell whether the contrition you feel for your sins needs to be drawn out still more, or is ripening already into love; whether you are capable of great sacrifices or only little ones; whether your faith is such that it still needs reassurance, or whether it can stand up to the test of a rebuff.
In another sermon from the same volume, entitled “Holy Hour: Earthly Paradise,” Knox refers to Christ in the Eucharist as Judge in the context of his treatment of the sin of sacrilege and our need to make reparation:
His presence in the Blessed Sacrament is profaned by carelessness, by irreverence, by indifference, by slovenly Communions; worst of all, by deliberate outrage. For such profanations above all we make reparation here, we make reparation today. Per ipsum—the loving means by which our Lord seeks to wean us away from sin has become the cause of fresh sin in its turn. Cum ipso—we have no victim with which to make our peace except this same Sacrament which we have defiled. In ipso—the Judge before whom we must make amends awaits us in audience, here on his Sacramental Throne. The Christian body is and should be a solidarity throughout the world, and blasphemies or profanations committed even in the remotest parts of the world should affect us as much as if they had happened in our own country, under our own eyes.
Knox’s words are both consoling and challenging with regard to the immediate judgment Christ makes when we encounter him in the Eucharist. One cannot speak of encountering the whole Christ in the Sacrament without acknowledging that we encounter him in all the dimensions of his identity. To stand before the Blessed Sacrament is to stand before the living Christ, the crucified and risen Christ, who is Son of God and Son of Man, Teacher and Master, Lord and Judge.
Knox speaks in particularly vivid and admonitory terms regarding those in mortal sin who consider approaching Holy Communion without first receiving sacramental absolution, and thereby committing the further sin of sacrilege. It may be tempting to think only of encountering Christ under his more readily consoling titles than his title as divine Judge, but such a view would be too narrow to encompass the full reality of the Eucharist and would serve neither the truth nor the human need even for judgment, particularly the Lord’s just and merciful judgment.
Concern about meeting Christ as Judge should never deter people from going to him, however. Knox encouraged his hearers and readers not only to faithful participation in Holy Mass, but also to Eucharistic adoration. That Christ makes himself available for such adoration involves a compounding of the condescension he already shows in becoming present in the Sacrifice of the Mass. Adoration prolongs the encounter with the Eucharistic Christ that occurs in the Mass.
In order to make our encounter with the Eucharistic Lord increasingly fruitful, we must approach him “as children in our simplicity” and we approach the Lamb of God who was slain for us “as dying men in the utter abandonment of ourselves to him” (“First and Last Communions,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons). We must never pretend to be engaged in a meeting of equals, let alone as those who somehow do Christ a favor by approaching him. We rightly approach in attitudes of praise, adoration, love, and reparation.
Knox’s emphasis on humility in worship mirrors an insight of Romano Guardini’s. In his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, Guardini writes:
The requirements of the liturgy can be summed up in one word, humility. Humility by renunciation; that is to say, by the abdication of self-rule and self-sufficiency. And humility by positive action; that is to say, by the acceptance of the spiritual principles which the liturgy offers and which far transcend the little world of individual spiritual existence.
According to Knox, Christ is moved with pity for us and comes to help his people, beyond what could reasonably be expected of him. We do not help him by drawing near, but only do our small part to respond to his unfathomable condescension in drawing near to us. Yet by acting in this way, we come into contact with him who is able to sanctify and save us. By making ourselves little before Christ, he makes us great, preparing us for the journey out of this world and into the life of heaven.
“Let us go out to meet Him with contrite and expectant hearts”
We do not know when Jesus Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, but we know that he will come, that his coming is always near, and that we must not stand idle until that great and final event. We are to prepare ourselves to meet Our Lord.
According to Blessed John Henry Newman and Monsignor Ronald Knox, two of the great English converts, priests, and scholars of the past two hundred years, this preparation happens most effectively in the Church’s worship and particularly in our encounter with Christ in the Holy Eucharist. As it was on Calvary, the living flesh of Christ remains the instrument through which he bestows life and saving grace to his people. The Real Presence makes possible an interpersonal encounter with Christ in the Eucharist, and this encounter makes possible our preparation to meet Christ at the end of our lives and at the end of time.
It is this liturgical and sacramental worship that fuels the spiritual vigilance to which Christ calls all of his followers in the Gospels. Newman closes his sermon on worship and Christ’s coming to us with a rousing call to such vigilance:
Let us go out to meet Him with contrite and expectant hearts; and though He delays His coming, let us watch for Him in the cold and dreariness which must one day have an end. Attend His summons we must, at any rate, when He strips us of the body; let us anticipate, by a voluntary act, what will one day come on us of necessity. Let us wait for Him solemnly, fearfully, hopefully, patiently, obediently; let us be resigned to His will, while active in good works. Let us pray Him ever, to “remember us when He cometh in His kingdom;” to remember all our friends; to remember our enemies; and to visit us according to His mercy here, that He may reward us according to His righteousness hereafter.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!