As we approach the end of the Church’s Year, or the Liturgical Year, we are given readings from the Word of God which direct our gaze towards the end of time itself. Traditionally, November has been the time to reflect on what are called the “last things”: death, judgment, heaven and hell.
The temptation is to avoid thinking about such matters, perhaps out of fear, perhaps because we may think them irrelevant or even insignificant. But because we don’t think about something does not mean it does not exist or will not happen. The one thing more certain than life is death. The question is what death means and what else its occurrence implies. For the Christian, the Word of God tells us that meaning and what happens after death. We must hear this message with confidence and hope and welcome it as the truth which sets us free from fear. So, let me offer you a summary of what the Word tells us. Consider it as a refresher of your knowledge, then I will make a few comments.
First, death entered the world because of sin. The Son of God entered the world as Jesus of Nazareth to destroy sin. He did this not by diktat or decree, but by coming at it from within death itself, so that by dying he destroyed both sin and death.
The one who believes in Jesus will share his victory over sin and death by living this earthly life according to His commandments and truth. Other people who through no fault of their own did not believe in him will still share his victory over sin and death if they have lived as good a life as possible in the light of a good conscience. The person who dies having done that will be raised up in the flesh on the last day together with all others who have done the same and will exist with the Trinity for eternity. The person who has freely chosen to reject Christ or to live without obeying the call of conscience will rise again to a form of existence in which God will be absent for ever. We cannot know if or who such people will be; we do know that some people are already with God since the Church has declared them to be saints; it is also our confident and trusting hope that most people who tried to live good lives are either already with the Trinity or are in a stage of purification from venial sin which will end in the passage to heaven. That is why we pray for them.
At the end of everyone’s life, at the moment of death, we will each receive our own particular judgment from Christ along the lines just mentioned. We know that God is merciful, we know that he does everything he can to urge and help our freedom to choose him. But we also know that he will not force anyone’s freedom to choose him. Our hope and prayer are that every single human being will, even at the last moment, in ways known to God in his tenderness and mercy, respond to his invitation. The final decision is, however, not God’s but ours. His mercy cannot overrule our freedom, otherwise God would fail to respect our dignity and empty of meaning the entire plan of creation. Our freedom before God is at one and the same time our glory, our dilemma and our destiny, one way or the other.
At the end of the world, there will be a universal judgment upon human history in which all injustices and iniquity will be unveiled and punished and in which the sacrifice and heroism of those who fought and resisted injustice will be rewarded.
In the Gospel today, Jesus speaks of a time of great distress but does not explain it. The first reading from the prophet Daniel helps us a little bit: “There is going to be a time of great distress, unparalleled since nations first came into existence.” This tells us that the distress will be global. The words of Jesus about the darkening of the sun and moon suggest that it won’t just be global but universal. Whatever the distress is, Jesus comforts us by telling us that when all this is happening, he himself will return with great power and glory. This suggests that the distress will be taken in hand by Jesus who is himself the light of the world and universe, whose voice still calms the tempest. The end of the world, then, is not in fact the annihilation of everything but the beginning of the full revelation of the Kingdom of God for those who have lived good lives according to faith and good conscience.
What are we to make of all of this?
Firstly, our life on this earth is not an end in itself. Even if we die, an eternal destiny awaits us. That destiny is based on how we have lived this life. The crux of the matter is our freedom, how we have used or abused it in relation to the will of Christ as revealed to us either in its fullness through faith or in a veiled manner through conscience.
So, it comes back to this. To do good whenever we can, to avoid evil always. To instruct ourselves on what is good and evil in the eyes of Christ. To cultivate virtue in small choices and big choices. To seek help to root out evil habits through prayer, penance, fasting, reception of the sacraments and active charity. For some, these things may sound old-fashioned or out-dated, but they are the bread and butter, the nuts and bolts of a life for God.
Our freedom is not given to us to do anything we like as if our choices had no consequences in this life or in the next upon ourselves and upon others. We are given freedom to choose the truth, to choose the good, to choose God. Since our freedom comes from God and is a core part of the image and likeness of God within us, it only stands to reason that choosing God, God’s way, God’s love and truth is the only way for freedom to express itself fully and to find fulfilment. By our freedom, we become who we are, and who we are at the end of our lives will be the basis of our judgment and of our eternal destiny.
We are going somewhere well beyond the stars of heaven, well beyond the confines of our mortal flesh, well beyond the relentless rising and setting of the sun. While we have been created from the dust of the earth, this earth as it is, is not where we belong. Our hearts have been made for God and they will remain restless until they rest in Him. All of our joys and sorrows, sufferings and strivings, the good we do and the ill we undergo; all the uncertainties we face, the tears we shed, the pain we so often bury deep within our souls; all the accomplishments of our creative art, the hours of honest work, the acts of kindness and compassion which we have made: all of this has made us who we are and so, if we have chosen God in faith or in conscience, all of it will partake of the glory which the Lord will share with those who have loved him.
In confident hope, then, we surrender to you, Lord of history and Lord of eternity, all that we are and have. Deliver us from sin, deliver us from death, deliver us from hell and may your judgment of us be merciful and glorious so that in the company of Mary, the saints and all whom we have loved, we may contemplate you on that Great Day face to face.