Advent and the Four Last Things

Truth be told, we don’t hear much of any of those four last things at all anymore – and we are all the poorer for it.

“The Last Judgment” (c.1431) by Fra Angelico [WikiArt.org]

Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., First Sunday of Advent (December 1, 2019), at the Church of the Holy Innocents, Manhattan.

Today we begin a new year of grace, with the Advent season upon us. Let’s begin by saying what Advent is not about. It is not about shopping; it is not about decorating a tree; it is not about having Christmas parties or singing Christmas carols. It is about the Advent, the Arrival, the Coming of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Even here, however, not a few intelligent, practicing Catholics still get it wrong. Advent is divided into two unequal parts: From the First Sunday of Advent through December 16, the Church directs our attention to Christ’s Second Coming – at the end of time; from December 17 forward, we consider the Lord’s First Coming as the Babe of Bethlehem. So, if we wish to adopt the mentality of sentire cum Ecclesia (thinking, feeling with the Church), what should be our spiritual stance from December 1 to 24?

If you were paying close attention the past few weeks, as the liturgical year was winding down, you should have noticed that the Scriptures insistently focused our gaze on what are traditionally referred to as “the four last things” – death, judgment, heaven, hell. Those themes continue to engage us for the first part of Advent. Perhaps this is what T.S. Eliot had in mind in his Four Quartets when he opened that work with the words, “In my beginning is my end,” and when he concluded it with the words, “In my end is my beginning.” Neither Eliot nor the Church has in mind that endless cycle of existence found in many pagan religions; rather, the point is to underscore the fact that our human existence is enfolded within the eternity of Almighty God.

Truth be told, we don’t hear much of any of those four last things at all anymore – and we are all the poorer for it. Now, we shouldn’t be obsessed by these concerns, but because they formed a fundamental part of Jesus’ preaching and teaching, they ought to form a part of ours as well.

Some years back, I was addressing a crowd of over a thousand people in the Miami area for a Saturday conference on the Faith. During the question period, a woman stood up and asked if the Church still believed in hell because she hadn’t heard it mentioned from the pulpit in years. I turned the tables by pitching her question back to the audience: “How many people here this morning,” I asked, “have heard a homily on heaven within the past five years?” Fewer than twenty hands went up. “Now,” I continued, “how many have heard a homily on hell within the past five years?” Not a single hand surfaced. I think you would agree that something’s off when statistics like that emerge – and I wouldn’t be surprised if many people here today would have similar data to report. In fact, the problem is so widespread that the former Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict said that the greatest difficulty in the Church over the past four decades is a loss of a sense of eschatology – which is the $64,000 word for the four last things. In other words, if we lose sight of where we’re headed, not only is our eternal salvation jeopardized, but our earthly existence is likewise compromised.

The goal of every human being ought to be heaven. That realization prompted the priest who taught us seminarians Freshman English at Seton Hall to say: “Gentlemen, I know heaven’s our true home, but I’m not the least bit homesick.” And believe it or not, that is a rather Christian attitude. What I mean is this: While we should regard life on high as our final destiny, we should also appreciate life here below because it too is God’s gift to us. Indeed, if we cannot appreciate the divine gift of earthly life, chances are we won’t be able to appreciate eternal life, either, because the two are intimately connected. We can’t skip any steps in the process, however, so let’s begin with that topic which haunts the modern mind – death.

Death

That struck home with great power and no small degree of amusement some years ago when I took a group of my high school students to Rome. One church made a lasting impression on the young people, that of Santa Maria della Concezione, renowned for its piles of the bones of dead Capuchin friars, familiarly known as “the Bone Church.” Descending the stairs into the grisly chamber just ahead of us were two teenage girls, Brooklyn’s finest, chomping on gum, playing with their bleached and frizzed hair, and constantly checking out both their make-up and any boys within a hundred-yard radius. As they approached the door of the crypt, they came upon a sign in several languages – the message of the dead and decomposed friars, which message one of the girls read aloud: “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.” She looked quizzically at her companion and asked, “Whatcha think that means?” “I think it means we’re gonna die,” came back the perceptive reply. To which the other responded, “What a bumma!” In this era which delights in highlighting various “phobias,” I think we can dub this one “thanataphobia” – actually, not just a fear of death but a terror of death. Isn’t that why people constantly use circumlocutions to describe dying, for instance, “She passed.” Passed what? An exam? Can we say, “She died”? Or, looking into a casket, “Doesn’t she look great?” Really? She looks dead!

So, let’s try to remedy that situation a bit right now, taking the Catechism of the Catholic Church as our guide. While observing that “in one sense bodily death is natural,” the Catechism also stresses that from the perspective of faith, death is seen as “the wages of sin,” as St. Paul put it to the Romans [1006]. “Death has been transformed by Christ,” we read, most especially because of His enduring it “in an act of total and free submission to the will of His Father.” Therefore, “the obedience of Jesus transformed the curse of death into a blessing” [1009]. This is seen most clearly in the Christian attitude toward death, crystallized in the funeral liturgy: “Indeed, for your faithful, Lord, life is changed, not ended.” The phase of pilgrimage thus ends and is taken up into man’s final goal – eternal life. The Catechism takes special aim at theological or philosophical theories which would fail to take account of the finality and irrepeatability of human life and death. Very bluntly, it says: “There is no ‘reincarnation’ after death” [1013].

This reflection ends with an encouragement to avail oneself of all the aids of traditional spirituality in preparing for one’s death. Thus we are reminded of the petition in the Litany of the Saints that the Lord would deliver us “from a sudden and unprovided death,” as well our daily prayer to the Virgin to “pray for us now and at the hour of our death.” It also urges us to have recourse to the intercession of St. Joseph, “the patron of a happy death” [1014]. A very beautiful meditation comes from the pen of St. John Henry Cardinal Newman:

Oh, my Lord and Saviour, support me in that hour in the strong arms of thy Sacraments, and by the fresh fragrance of thy consolations. Let the absolving words be said over me, and the holy oil sign and seal me, and thine own Body be my food, and thy Blood my sprinkling; and let my sweet Mother, Mary, breathe on me, and my Angel whisper peace to me, and my glorious Saints smile upon me; that in them all, and through them all, I may receive the gift of perseverance, and die, as I desire to live, in thy faith, in thy Church, in thy service, and in thy love. Amen.

This all leads to the logical question, “How do the dead rise?” First of all, what does it mean to “rise from the dead”? The Catechism explains that “in death, the separation of the soul and the body, the body of man falls into corruption while the soul goes for its encounter with God, all the while living in expectation of its being reunited to its glorified body. God in His omnipotence will definitively bestow incorruptible life on our bodies by uniting them to our souls, by the power of the Resurrection of Jesus” [997]. All men will rise, we are told, while the “how” of it all “surpasses our imagination” and is open to us “only in faith.” The text goes on to note that “our participation in the Eucharist gives us even now a foretaste of the transfiguration of our body by Christ” [1000], as preparation for the last day – Christ’s Parousia or final coming in glory [1001]. The emphasis on the real, bodily, corporeal nature of the risen body is important since some thinkers today have reduced the risen life to no more than a vague kind of shadowy existence; the ultimate and normal mode of existence for those possessed of a human nature is life in a body, to which the presence of Our Lord and His Blessed Mother in their glorified bodies in heaven now attests. As you have heard me say many times, “Heaven has a zip code.”

Judgment

Having met death, what has one to look forward to? Life eternal. But in what does that consist? Immediately upon death, each person experiences a “particular judgment” which seals his destiny for eternity. Yes, contrary to the wishful thinking of this age, there is a judgment. And if you want an artistic depiction of Christ the Judge, I suggest considering the one which looms large in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington or, better yet, Michelangelo’s in the Sistine Chapel. If you want a musical depiction of Christ the Judge, one can do no better than having recourse to the “Dies Irae,” formerly chanted as the Sequence of the funeral liturgy but now consigned to the Liturgy of the Hours for the last week of the liturgical year. It begins with the dire imagery of the Prophet Zephaniah:

Day of wrath and doom impending,
David’s word with Sibyl’s blending,
Heaven and earth in ashes ending.

It continues with other biblical texts, including the Judgment scene from Matthew 25. The Sequence does not allow us to wallow in fear and trembling as it ends with the consoling plea, inspired by Christian hope: “Pie Iesu, Domine, dona eis requiem” (“Merciful Jesus, Lord, grant them rest”).

Nonetheless, we must be clear: In that final hour, we shall not be able to blame bad parenting or poor environment for our misdeeds; all the masks will be gone; all self-deception, laid bare. We’ll not be able to convince Christ that, in spite of all kinds of horrific sins (yes, sins, not weaknesses), “I am really a good person, Lord.” The time for repentance will be over, as will the time of mercy. This is not said to inspire fear because a true Christian does not obey God’s laws out of servile fear; he does so out of loving obedience. One who has lived according to the Gospel here below has nothing to fear on the day of judgment.

And so, the Catechism, quoting the Third Council of Lyon in 1274, very calmly teaches: “The most Holy Roman Church believes and confesses firmly that on the day of judgment all men will appear together with their own bodies before the judgment seat of Christ to render an account of their works” [1059]. With the result that “the Kingdom of God will arrive in all its fullness. Then the just will reign with Christ forever, glorified in body and soul, and the material universe itself will be transformed. Then God will be ‘all in all’ [1 Cor 15:28], in eternal life” [1060]. This focus is especially valuable in a time when catechesis and preaching alike have failed to give adequate attention to a life for man beyond our present existence.

Heaven

And so, we read in the Catechism: “Those who die in the grace and friendship of God, and who are completely purified, live forever with Christ” [1023]; this occurs in the place we call heaven, which “is the final goal and realization of the most profound aspirations of man, the state of supreme and definitive happiness” [1024]. “To live in heaven is ‘to be with Christ'” [1025]. “This mystery of blessed communion with God and with all those who are in Christ surpasses all comprehension and all depiction” [1027]; this experience of heavenly glory we call “the beatific vision” [1028].

Next we consider “those who die in the grace and friendship of God, but not fully purified, although assured of their eternal salvation.” These souls “endure a purification after their death, so as to obtain the sanctity necessary to enter into the joy of heaven” [1030]; “this final purification of the elect” is traditionally called purgatory and is “totally distinct from the punishment of the damned” [1031]. On behalf of the poor souls, we are advised to pray, especially through the offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. “The Church also recommends alms-giving, indulgences and works of penance on behalf of the dead” [1032] – in response to those who have argued for 35 years that such efforts are either useless or not in keeping with “contemporary” Catholic approaches.

My boyhood catechesis was extraordinarily good; one of the only weaknesses was the presentation of purgatory, which came across as something akin to hell, but with an exit card. Far better is the approach of St. Catherine of Genoa or that of St. John Henry Newman in his epic poem, “The Dream of Gerontius,” which portrays with great theological precision and lyric beauty the passage of a Christian soul into eternity, accompanied by the prayer of the Church and all the saints and angels (it is from this work that we have the lovely and popular hymn, “Praise to the Holiest”).

Hell

If avoidance of talk about purgatory characterizes the modern era, even less “modern” is an insistence on the reality of eternal punishment: “And it is this state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and with the blessed which is designated by the word ‘hell'” [1033]. “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. The souls of those who die in the state of mortal sin descend immediately after death into hell. . . . The principal pain of hell consists in eternal separation from God” [1035]. Why does the Church adhere to such a teaching? First of all, because it is part of divine Revelation, but also to serve as “a call to responsibility” (for man to use his freedom wisely “in view of his eternal destiny”) and “a call to conversion” (following the lead of the Lord Who urged men to “enter by the narrow gate,” not the wide one which “leads to perdition”) [1036]. Finally, we read that “God predestines no one to go to hell; what is necessary for that is a willful turning away from God (mortal sin) and persisting in that until the end” [1037]. This position of the Church, then, is presented in a truly positive and holistic fashion, as is appropriate.

All too often we moderns are so unrealistic as we seek to pick and choose what tickles our ears, while sifting out messages that do not. Just because we don’t like something doesn’t make it cease to exist. I always find it fascinating and sadly amusing how stories of so-called “near-death” experiences are almost always filled with visions of light, happiness and peace. Has the National Enquirer ever found a single person who encountered the terror of hell in such situations? Apparently, they never interviewed the three children from Fatima. Even more poignant are the reminders of Our Lord Himself that very few make it past the Pearly Gates (see, for example, Mt 7:14). No, wishful thinking keeps such “negative” thoughts at bay.

There is, however, one very valid question about the Christian teaching on hell: How can it be reconciled with our equally strong doctrine of a merciful God. Well, think about these facts: Who is God? Saint John tells us: “God is love.” What is sin? A refusal to love or a rejection of love. What is heaven? Possessing and being possessed by love for all eternity. Now, what kind of a loving God would force someone to be in a place and with people for which his entire earthly life made him unsuited? On the contrary, the very existence of hell demonstrates the perfect balance between God’s justice and God’s mercy: Divine justice accuses the unrepentant sinner of being unworthy of eternal happiness, while divine mercy allows the sinner to choose forever the defective brand of happiness he has continually sought.

Perhaps a home-spun example might help: Let’s suppose that your favorite vegetable is asparagus, and you serve it at every meal because it is both healthful and delicious. A guest arrives for dinner and as you share the menu with him, he informs you that not only does he detest the taste of asparagus but is actually allergic to it. Would it be kind, considerate or merciful of you to force-feed him massive doses of the vegetable? Hardly. Similarly, Almighty God will never force His love on anyone, always allowing us to exercise our freedom, even in defective and damaging ways – so much does He respect our human dignity.

The otherwise orthodox theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar authored a book entitled, Dare We Hope?, which encouraged us to “hope” that ultimately all will be saved, reviving a notion propagated in the second century by Origen of Alexandria. That theme has been picked up by others since him. To be sure, our faith bids us hope that all be saved; that hope is certainly grounded in St. Paul’s assertion that “God desires all men to be saved.” The Apostle to the Gentiles, however, continues: “and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). The salvation of all men, you see, is dependent upon their coming to know the truth and – very importantly – in the biblical way of thinking – knowing the truth must lead to acting on that knowledge. And therein lies the rub. There are many, very many, who presume that they will be “saved” but – saved from what? And saved without living in the saving truth of Christ?

Some Final Thoughts

Now, of course, the hope and prayer of the Church is that every one of her members would reach the joy of heaven. How? By heeding the message of the Advent season, so carefully put forth in biblical texts for the first two Sundays: “Repent, and believe in the gospel. The kingdom of God is at hand” (Mk 1:15). “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Mt 3:3). Why? Because life is short. And what should be done when we find ourselves falling short of the mark? Take the advice of John the Baptist to the people of his day: Confess your sins.

If this reflection has done anything, at least you’ll not be able to join the chorus of my friends from Miami who asserted they hadn’t heard about either heaven or hell. No, today we take seriously the warning of the Gospel that “the chaff [the Lord] will burn with unquenchable fire” (Mt 3:12). Jesus says this not to inspire fear but conversion, for the far greater goal is much more positive, namely, living holy lives by keeping to the Commandments and in observing God’s will, and that will cause God to “gather [us as] his grain into his granary.” Advent, then, is the time when we recall Christ’s preaching and establishment of His Kingdom, and we ask for a special share of graces to be found worthy of that Kingdom for all eternity.

The Collect for the last week of the liturgical year would have us pray thus: “Stir up the will of your faithful, O Lord, that, striving more eagerly to bring your divine work to fruitful completion, they may receive in greater measure the healing remedies your kindness bestows.” The Collect for this First Sunday of Advent has us ask: “Grant, your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom.”

“In my beginning is my end.” “In my end is my beginning.” If we live the first phase of Advent with the spirituality I have outlined, then we shall be able to enter into the second phase with the joy proper to welcome the Son of God in the flesh.

Ah, there is yet one more Coming of the Lord I cannot omit, one stressed by St. Bernard of Clairvaux: It is His Coming in the sacraments, which forms a bridge between His first and final Comings. In a few short minutes, we shall have the ineffable, inestimable gift of beholding His Coming to us in the Most Holy Eucharist. Marantha! Veni, Domine Iesu! Come, Lord Jesus.


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 121 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

3 Comments

  1. wow, Father, thank you, beautiful sermon spiked with truth we need to hear. “Possessing, being possessed by love for all eternity.” That’s the deep heart of the matter. I remember Saint John Paul II saying: Open wide the doors to Christ. We need to open wide the door to our hearts, and in silence we will hear Him, and find the truth, the right path for each one of us. “Knowing the Truth must lead to acting on that knowledge.”

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