November and the End of the World
“But in those days, following that distress, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light. The stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.” (Mark 13:24-26)
November is about the End of the World. We say that Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell are the “Last Things.” They’re really the “Second-to-Last Things.” They’re preludes to The End. November tells the tale.
This month began with All Saints’ Day. Then All Souls’ Day. November says, “Purification is our game: Heaven is our aim.” It’s the Way to the Beatitude: “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” Purgatory begins here and now. We either finish it before or after death. On this point, I’m an optimist. Famous saints said that few people make it to Heaven without a post-death Purgatory. I’m not going to argue with them. But I’m not convinced either. In fact, I think more people go straight to Heaven at death than many famous saints once thought. I could be wrong. I could be right. I suspect that many ordinary, weak, unassuming and faulty Christians whom we would not think of as saints are really saints. Could that be you? Perfect love runs deeper than observance. “Man sees the appearance, but God looks into the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). St. Therese of Lisieux nailed it: “You do not have enough trust. You have too much fear before the good God. I can assure you that He is grieved over this. You should not fear Purgatory because of the suffering there, but should instead ask that you not deserve to go there in order to please God, Who so reluctantly imposes this punishment. As soon as you try to please Him in everything and have an unshakable trust He purifies you every moment in His love and He lets no sin remain. And then you can be sure that you will not have to go to Purgatory.”
I have a word for those who don’t believe in Purgatory: What planet do you live on? If Purgatory doesn’t exist, then where are we now? As for the afterlife, there’s one credible expert: Jesus. He says, “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:32). If there’s no Purgatory after death, why did Jesus mention the forgiveness of sins in “the age to come?” Whatever, life is Purgatory’s proof. If purification isn’t done by death, you’re not cooked. It’ll be finished after death. Souls in post-death Purgatory are our friends. Like the saints in Heaven. They pray for us. We pray for them. Most Masses are offered for souls in Purgatory. November celebrates our friendship with all fellow travelers in the “other” Purgatory, and it celebrates our friendship with the saints who’ve crossed the Finish Line.
Death is everyone’s most important act. It doesn’t just happen. It’s something we “do.” It’s a defining choice. When we stand before the “tribunal of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:10), our secret “thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12) will be laid bare. When soul and body separate (temporarily), excuses rank useless. And yet, the mitigating circumstances of our sins, mistakes, quirks, faults, experiences and frailty may also exonerate us. Beware of judging. It’s bad for you. “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:2). As for other’s sins, the millstone may be cast upon another neck. A neck you’ve never seen. You don’t know. The monks of old told this story:
“Once a brother was found guilty, and the older brethren assembled and called for the Abbot. But he would not come. Then the priest called for him, saying, ‘Come, for the brothers are assembled and await you.’ The Abbot came. But he took with him a very old basket, filled with sand. He carried it behind him. When they greeted the Abbot, they asked, ‘Father, what is this?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins follow me and I do not see them, and I have come to judge the sins of another man.’ When they heard him, they said nothing to the brother, but forgave him.”
What’s “judgment?” People don’t like the word. They’re thinking of human judgment, which is merciless and arrogant. Human judgments inflame our psychological policeman. Our inner tyrant. That’s not Christ’s judgment. Some don’t like the idea of judgment because they’re in denial. There’s something really sinful they need to change. Conscience troubles them. Christ’s judgment is His revelation of us to ourselves – in a good way. It’s the glance of Truth before which we have nothing to hide or explain. Christ’s “judgment” is a “Word” that heals. It purifies. It gives new Life.
The “tribunal of Christ” is not a courtroom. There’s no cross examination. No questioning or presenting evidence. There may be witnesses. The Truth is its own testimony. We will know, without doubt, our stance before God. There will be two possibilities: humility or pride. We’ll either acknowledge Truth and accept mercy. Or deny Truth and reject mercy. There are two possible outcomes: The joy of seeing God face-to-face in the “Beatific Vision” and enjoying the saints in the Heavenly City; or what C. S. Lewis calls the “Miserific Vision.” It’s a cold lonely world of strict justice, void of love. In the End, there’s no middle-ground. No happy beer garden somewhere between bliss and misery. Love or loneliness are the only possible outcomes, forever.
Why would a loving God either “send” people to Hell or “allow” them to go there? The answer’s clear: “God is Love” (1 John 4:8). Love isn’t forced. It’s free. There’s no such thing as “forced” or “mandatory” love. There’s no “forced” or “mandatory” Heaven. In life’s journey, love is “tested” so that it might become more free and more loving. It prepares us for The Choice. That’s what time’s for. Time is love’s bootcamp. Time is the “testing” and “training” of love. It’s challenging. And painful. Love can’t mature without suffering. Or temptation. Love’s “test” includes the option to choose loneliness. It’s the stuff that the old love songs are made of. Suffering and temptation pose this question: “What’s love worth to you?”
The essential experience of Hell is loneliness. The essential experience of Heaven is perfect love. Preparing for Heaven involves training in freedom. Love, by definition, doesn’t force. It invites. It’s mutual. When a person loves another, he or she is vulnerable to rejection. No one – not even God – makes another love him. Though God is All-Powerful, He cannot force love. That would be a contradiction. God doesn’t do that. Love, by definition, limits the omnipotent God because it demands that He allow us the freedom to reject Him, in time. That’s the “test.” God gives us the dignity of screwing up and repenting. Or the dignity of screwing up and not repenting. Hence the options: Heaven or Hell. These options reveal God’s greatness. They reveal his mercy and his justice. Love and mercy can’t be forced. Justice can.
What’s Hell like? Don’t know. I’m content with ignorance. But here’s a speculation: there’s some pleasure in Hell. It’s like pulling into a Rest Area off the Jersey Turnpike and never being able to leave. At least there’ll be Burger King and Nathan’s Hog Dogs. We might get an idea of what Hell is like if we observe how some people prepare for it – or inflict it on others. To be sure, I am not talking about people who suffer from weaknesses, misfortunes or circumstances that we often confuse for sins. Rather, I’m talking about prideful, hard-hearted repudiation of God’s law, human decency and morality. Jesus said to St. Catherine of Siena: “In his ignorance man treats himself very cruelly. My care is constant, but he turns my life-giving power into a source of death.”
What’s Heaven like? It’s beyond imagining. Greater than hope. “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20). There’s an unspeakable Beauty, Joy and Peace beyond time. St. Thomas Aquinas calls it “Happiness.” Time hints as to what it’s like. Everything good in this life hints of something much greater, beyond death. St. John saw this Beauty and described it in the Book of Revelation. An angel showed him a river of life-giving water, sparkling like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and from the Lamb, with many “trees of life” on either side. “They will look on upon his Face and his Name will be on their foreheads. Night will be nor more, nor will they need light from lamp or sun, for the Lord God shall give them light, and they shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5).
November celebrates our transition into that World. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here” (Corinthians 5:17)! Sainthood is about becoming fresh and new. Christ the King Sunday concludes November. It’s his final Word to us: “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5)!
Fr. Frederick Edlefsen, Pastor