The End of November: Anticipating Christ
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
The fact that “heaven and earth will pass away,” like death itself, gives us sorrow. It’s not Happy Hour talk. It’s not a social ice-breaker. “What we know” will not last. Nothing in the world, as we know it, is permanent. Let’s draw the point out even further. Even bonds forged in long life or marriage, these too will dissolve with death – at least before the world’s End. And so will the sorrow of life’s unhappy experiences. However, we might have mixed feelings about “heaven and earth will pass away.” It’s both something to fear and look forward to. The paradox assures us that we cannot be perfectly happy in this life. Happiness is not – and cannot – be guaranteed here. Happiness is possible, not promised. Whatever happiness we experience “here and now” is the relic of a bygone shipwreck, like a crate of fine wine washed up on a desert isle. Yes, God wants us to be happy. That’s why he made us. But a shipwreck happened. Someone took the forbidden fruit. Someone else took over the ship. Hence temptations, sins, misfortunes, sickness and death strike – again and again – like unrelenting thieves at night. These curses are not only possible, but probable. Death is certain. But light shines in that darkness!
Death is a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it relieves us of life’s burdens, like dying before you’ve paid off a Nantucket beach house. But it’s a curse because it cuts short pleasures and well-earned leisure, like dying right after you’ve paid off a Nantucket beach house. Consider prosperity. It attaches us to tenuous blessings. We become too comfortable, complacent, selfish or forgetful of God and others. Riches cause anxiety, not peace. We worry about losing them. On the flip side, misfortune causes us to desire prosperity. It brings the illusion that prosperity will bring peace of mind. In short, when things go bad, we desire them to go good. When things are good, we fear they’ll go bad. It’s a trap, like a wheel of fortune – or a windmill in the mind.
…And the world is like an apple whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind!
Like a tunnel that you follow to a tunnel of its own
Down a hollow to a cavern where the sun has never shone
Like a door that keeps revolving in a half forgotten dream…
(Some weird French song)
We need an escape. But how? Though we are just as troubled in peace and prosperity as we are in war and poverty, God, in his wisdom, had turned everything to good. A Rock has been hewn from Heaven and tossed into Time (Daniel 2:34-45), smashing the roulette wheel. Sorrow makes wisdom. Suffering has meaning. We desire Heaven. The End promises a Beginning. Foolishness and immaturity – like hedonism – become unattractive. We now know that youth is wasted on youth. Ecclesiastes says: “Sorrow is better than laughter, because when the face is sad the heart grows wiser” (Ecclesiastes 7:3). St. Paul advises:
“I tell you, brothers, the time is running out. From now on, let those having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world as not using it fully. For the world in its present form is passing away.” (1 Corinthians 7:29-31)
St. Paul counsels healthy indifference to ups and downs. He’s not counselling apathy. But like a night in Vegas, don’t risk the chips and place the hopes on one number. Good luck and bad luck are the equally harrowing fates in Time. But in the end, only Transcendence matters: friendship with Jesus Christ and love of neighbor. These liberate from the tides of fortune. Like marriage, it requires fidelity in good times and in bad, for better or for worse. Your bets are on Christ. You can’t lose. He lost everything on your behalf. And He regained “the glory I had with You, Father, before the world began” (John 17:5). It’s what the funeral rites ironically call the “sure and certain hope.”
Allow me to add another twist to this tale. There are Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, Counsel, Piety, Fortitude and Fear of the Lord. Let’s zero-in on one: Knowledge. It’s not at all about book “knowledge.” It’s a “knowledge” gained purely from experience – but not just any experience. It’s “knowledge” gained from the experience of misfortune being turned into a blessing by the grace of God. It starts with ordinary experiences of grief and sorrow, through which the Holy Spirit gives us supernatural insight into the human condition, as it really is. That’s not a fun thing to know about. But with the Holy Spirit’s help, we can see this world as it really is – broken yet redeemed – and not be daunted. “Be not afraid.” We see the emptiness of sin and how it ends in loneliness. And yet, by grace, the sorrow of knowing the world’s sinfulness leads us to tears of penance – for ourselves and for others. It heals. It consoles and brings a peace that the world cannot give. It produces the Beatitude, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be consoled.” In other words, sorrow opens us up to God’s consolation – the “peace that surpasses all understanding.” Sorrow heals.
“Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)
Sorrow alone is not enough to turn us to God. It needs Hope that come from Jesus. That’s why Christ didn’t just say, “Heaven and earth will pass away,” and leave it at that. Rather he said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Christ assured us of something Eternal – something that breaks through the circles of time.
Hope trusts in Jesus’ promises. Hope desires Heaven more than all else. The only fear that comes with Hope is the fear of offending God and neighbor – the Holy Spirit’s Gift of Fear of the Lord. Hope changes our whole attitude toward the cycles of happiness and sadness, joy and sorrow, fortune and misfortune, health and sickness, life and death. As Pope Benedict XVI once said, “The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.”
The cause of our Hope is the Eternity of Christ. Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said, “I AM the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). If we take his words to heart, then we take Him to heart – and our destiny will be tied to his. “Follow me” means “Follow me through sorrow to joy, through death to life.” “Follow me to a world beyond this one, where there’s no sorrow or pain, but only joy, happiness and peace.”
As we prepare for the Advent, recommit your hope in Christ, the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and End – the One who was, who is, and who is to come. Today we call him “Christ the King.” In this life, men and demons lie and accuse. But Christ doesn’t accuse. He pleads on our behalf to the Father. Put all your chips on his promise of Eternal Life. It will change the way you live. And it will secure perfect Happiness in life beyond death.
The Catechism on the Last Judgment
Following in the steps of the prophets and John the Baptist, Jesus announced the judgment of the Last Day in his preaching. Then will the conduct of each one and the secrets of hearts be brought to light. Then will the culpable unbelief that counted the offer of God's grace as nothing be condemned. Our attitude to our neighbor will disclose acceptance or refusal of grace and divine love. On the Last Day Jesus will say: "Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me." (Catechism of the Catholic Church 678)
Christ is Lord of eternal life. Full right to pass definitive judgment on the works and hearts of men belongs to him as redeemer of the world. He "acquired" this right by his cross. The Father has given "all judgment to the Son.” Yet the Son did not come to judge, but to save and to give the life he has in himself. By rejecting grace in this life, one already judges oneself, receives according to one's works, and can even condemn oneself for all eternity by rejecting the Spirit of love.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 679)
Fr. Frederick Edlefsen, Pastor