Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
During this month of November, as the liturgical year comes to an end prior to Advent, the Church takes time to focus on, what are known as, the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. For most of us these are not topics we like to think about too often, but they are realities that come before us eventually, and as Catholics, the hope would be that these ideas are not as frightening as they might seem. Actually, something remarkable about the Catholic faith is that we are unafraid to face these ideas, because we have the tools we need to make sense of them.
Death. Perhaps one of the defining features of our modern world, especially our part of the world, is that life is not nearly as filled with suffering as it once was. Life has become much longer and more comfortable, so we’re able to avoid thinking about death, and in many ways we live as if this life is all there is. The ideas of denying ourselves what we want, of sacrificing and being bound by commitments, of offering up misfortune, they are foreign because, if this life is all there is, they are irrational. As St. Paul says though, “For to me life is Christ, and death is gain” (Phil 1:21). As Christians, if we believe in eternal life, death is not the end. Rather death is the means to a life far greater. We need only fear death, if it is a death apart from Christ. So as much as we experience sorrow in the face of death, we have hope and can find a Christian joy in even those most painful moments.
Judgment. Each of us has an inherent concept of justice. Just cut a piece of cake in half, and give a child the smaller half, and they’ll quickly let you know they understand injustice. So too, seeing so much evil in this world, espe- cially evil that goes unpunished, part of us knows that there must be some final accounting after this life. All of us though, also know that we are not perfect, and can fear a bit that idea of being truly judged. Who of us would want a playback reel of our sins shown to the whole world? Again as Christians though, we know that our judge is merciful as well as just. He does not ask that we be perfect, he only asks that we confess our sins and strive to do better. Judgment is a whole lot easier to accept, when it’s not based on our merits alone, but on how much we rely on the merits of Christ.
Heaven. Hopefully we don’t fear this one… If anything heaven is the idea that should motivate our lives and direct us in all that we do. Believing in heaven should change everything, because if we’re promised eternal joy, nothing in this life should get in the way, because nothing in this life could ever compare.
Hell. Of all four, this is perhaps the one that should frighten us most. Our faith teaches clearly of its existence, and Christ spoke very clearly of the outer darkness where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. So we as Chris- tians certainly fear this as a possibility, but we realize hell is not a punishment, as much as a choice. God does not send anyone there, but rather we send ourselves there, if we choose a life apart from Him. To be with God forever, obedient to Him, bound by His laws, would be torture for souls that sought to escape God all their lives. That fear dissipates, though, in the face of love. Realizing how much God wants us to be with Him, how the Father sent His only Son, how the Son died for us, how we were given the Spirit to live in our hearts and do all the hard work for us, we know we need not fear. As long as we do love God, as long as we keep His commandments, or confess when we fall, He sees our longing for Him in our hearts and that is what He desires.
As we reflect then on the four last things this month, let’s face them, not with fear, but with confidence in the love of God which casts out fear and gives us hope of eternal life!
Yours in Christ,