Sacraments are encounters. Scriptures. Prayer. Creation. People, “even the least of these brethren” – the unborn, the terminally ill. Conscience, “vox Dei.” Hard to think of a situation where a meeting with Christ is not possible, is not already happening, at least from His side.
All of the above are veiled encounters, even if they reveal something of Him. The veil is the result of our reality, mortality. Seeing Him openly in glory would in fact lead to death (“no-one can see God and live”). Ezekiel, Paul and John: visions knocked them down if not out. These were open encounters, yet not totally so. Otherwise, they’d die and the mission He gave them would go undone.
The full and open vision of Jesus is reserved to beyond death. Not everyone who dies will see him (hell), or will see him immediately (purgatory) in his full glory. Some will (heaven).
At end of time, “every eye will see him in deity revealed.” Final revelation, apocalypse. The removal of all veils. No more sacraments, scriptures. Creation itself will be transformed. No more human mortality.
If, how and when we will see him in glory depends on how ready we are. True readiness is both the gift of grace and the choice of our human freedom. God can only ready us with his gifts if we are willing to receive them and work with them to ready ourselves.
The final encounter with Jesus at the moment of death is prepared by all the other encounters mentioned – if we engage with them. I actively engage to be ready to meet him at death to the degree I do the same in sacraments, scriptures, prayer, conscience, creation, brethren, etc.
So, the encounter with Him is, from my side, a choice; it is a choice by design (yes or no) or by default (no choice is a no). From His side, it is always gift, and thus a choice of his love for us.
An important question is, then: do I truly want to meet Christ? A want is not a wish. Someone can say, “I’d like to meet the Pope someday”, but that’s a wish rather than a want, than a focused decision to pursue and gain that audience. If I find out how to make it happen, and do my homework and buy the plane tickets, and turn up at the right day and time, properly attired. Now that’s a true want to meet the Pope.
Merely wishing to meet Christ suggests it doesn’t really matter too much. “I’m easy, I’m not bothered either way. If he comes to my front door, provided I’m not watching my favourite soap opera, then maybe I will answer.”
So, again, do I truly want to meet Christ? Another difficult question arises. Do I know Christ sufficiently, even minimally, to make me want to meet him? It’s unlikely that a want to meet Christ will be true if I don’t actually know Him to some extent at least. Knowing him must be the first rung on the ladder of readiness. I won’t want what I don’t know.
How, then, do I get to know Him? Well, usually first I get to know about Him. Through other people, especially my birth family. This is the great privilege of parents – and their grave responsibility. Knowledge of Christ cannot remain at the “about Him” level, otherwise it is text book information. The Catechism exists as a book of information about God because it is the fruit of the experience of God of generations of those who have actually known Him, as opposed to just knowing about Him. Parents are expected to know Christ on a personal level to some degree. Otherwise telling children about Him will not ring true. Children will pick that up.
A parent, and a child after him or her, will come to know Christ personally by a deep personal commitment of faith in Him. That is, a recognition that Christ is decisive for my life and relationships and for their lasting meaning and fruitfulness; a recognition that Christ is my destiny; who I am hinges on Him.
The decision to believe is not a matter of theory, but a radical insertion of my very self into His hands. It’s an uprooting of the sources of my life from my own ideas and affections and a re-rooting of them into Christ. This usually comes gradually and happens without dramatic decisions. A child who is baptised is already united to Christ, but will make that union more and more personal, more and more their own, as they learn about Jesus, pray to Him, imitate His ways of living and loving, as they perceive how the lives of their parents and of other believers are formed by that faith. For most, coming to know Jesus is more like the coming of the dawn than the switching on of a light.
When that dawn comes and our souls sense the deep joy and delight of the light, and how it brings everything around me to life, then the desire to see the Sun will be irresistible. That desire is the birth of love which the rising Sun then brings to maturity.
There will be exceptions like St. Paul, who was gifted with seeing the Sun in the midst of his night, to the point that it blinded him and stole his mind and his heart. In his vision, Paul knew and loved Christ in one go, and the knowledge about Christ only gradually unfolded afterwards. There are many people who were never reared to know about Christ, but He has himself suddenly broken through their deafness and blindness, and they burn for his peace.
A true will, a true decision to want to meet Christ can only come from the deepest recesses of who we are. We cannot play games with Christ, or with the myriad channels he has made available to us to come to know and love him. We can’t hedge our bets with Christ, and turn up at church now and again as some kind of insurance policy, or out of nostalgia for childhood memories. There are many sincere people who do come to church only now and again, not in a spirit of condescension, but because they are aware of the darkness in their lives and struggle to believe that Christ will want them. People like that actually know Christ more deeply than many another, and their humility of heart makes them readier to meet Him than many another. They are on their way.
Sadly, the sheer apathy and lethargy towards Christ which comes from the drugs of materialism and hedonism, and from the blind pursuit of self-will and of self-invented meanings of life, prevents many from doing more than saying “Jesus? Yes, I’ve heard of him.” Among the elite in the world of entertainment and academe, for example, the mention of faith draws only laughter and mockery. There are people who prefer to go to parties or go shopping or lie in bed rather than consider anything more profound than their pockets. Nothing is impossible to God, of course, and we must hope and pray that the Lord will visit their hearts to shake or awaken them. He alone knows the truth of every heart, but he also tells us that by their fruits you will know them. Respect for others cannot mean being silent about the demands of the Gospel. The greater the godlessness, the louder the Gospel must be proclaimed.
To be ready to meet Christ, then, involves a basic act of faith in Him, a knowing about him that leads to a knowing Him, and a knowing Him that leads to a loving Him. It means that at some level, I know that Jesus is the key to my existence and that therefore my life will draw its vitality, its colour, its joy from Him. My decision of faith will lead me to direct my entire life towards him. It is a gradual process, with fits and starts, hills and vales. In that process there is nothing more important than each day. The new light of each day signals new hope, new opportunity, new chances.
In the Office of Readings for today, one of the antiphons reads: “When the great King comes, the hearts of men will be made pure and we shall be made worthy to meet him.” Purity of heart readies us to meet him. But purity of heart is the end result of purification of heart, “we will be made pure … made worthy.” This is what is happening each day in the life of faith. We may be inclined to think of Christ’s coming only in terms of the moment he comes, whether at death or at the end of time. While that is clearly true, it is also helpful to consider his coming in terms of the continuous present. Every moment he is coming, he is on his way, like a great comet approaching the earth from the distance. Christ is coming now as we speak, through all of the means I referred to at the beginning: the sacraments, the Word, creation, others, the circumstances of the here and now.
In that process of continual coming, He is also in the continuous process of purifying our hearts and of making us worthy to meet him. Another way to say that is that purgatory, purifying, is in action here and now. His engagement with us is not sporadic or episodic, but continuous, sustained, subtle, penetrating, cleansing, healing. Like a divine Michelangelo, he is painstakingly shaping and reshaping every heart, chipping away, smoothing down. We are his work of art, as St. Paul says, and so he is not aloof and disengaged, but passionately and skilfully moulding us as the Father commands.
And we can help him. We can each look honestly at ourselves, at our past and present, at all we have done and left undone, at all our significant relationships of love, family, work and play. We can prepare ourselves to meet him by asking him to help us purify all that we are able to purify, or at least get ready for him to purify.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, at the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises, invites the retreatant to take a broad look at God’s plan of creation: how he made us to find our way to him by using created things only insofar as they bring glory to God and therefore salvation to our own souls. It is an invitation to be hugely positive about the world and each of our places in it, in the light of divine glory. But then he invites the retreatant to look at his own personal history of sin, that is, of how he has not used creation to glorify God and save himself, but instead to disfigure creation, offend God and cause himself to be lost.
It is only Christ, of course, who redeems every sinner and destroys all sin. But by the patient and painful exercise of looking back over our lives with utter honesty of heart, we can prepare our hearts for the purification of Christ and therefore to meet him. It can seem like too negative a proposal, too depressing, too frightening even. Yet, if we do it with the help of the Spirit of Jesus, it is a work that will help unclutter our souls and consciences. Our souls and hearts and consciences can gather dust and dirt and clutter. If left untended, the corrosion and staining can become stubborn. So often, people will say that they prefer to forget sins committed or hurts endured. But do they really forget? Can they? Old hurts and failures can become like living scars or bleeding sores. We might not look at them, but they fester and they drain energies from us and leave us wondering why we feel down or anxious or afraid.
But if we don our cleaning apron and get out our best cleaning equipment, the Spirit of Jesus will walk with us down those locked doors and corridors and dusty cul de sacs within. His grace will give us the strength to face them, to acknowledge them, to hear their complaints, to weep for them and to bid them a final goodbye, preferably by bringing them to the sacrament of the forgiving Encounter with the divine Michelangelo who will cast them into the fire of the Cross and renew our entire spirit with his merciful love.
If we do this work of cleansing truth, we are doing what we can do so as to appreciate and welcome the work of redemption which Jesus endured to set us free, totally free.
In particular, we need to prepare to meet Christ by healing broken relationships. I don’t mean by this necessarily going and meeting again with all those with whom we have had problems in the past. Many of them may be dead, anyway. What I do mean is to seek from Christ consciously and by name the reconciliation and healing with these people in our heart and soul, so that we may be free of the terrible weight of shame, sorrow, regret, anger, hatred or whatever else it is which came about as the result of those relationships. We will never be at peace with ourselves or with Christ if we do not make peace with those who have hurt us or whom we have hurt and who in some way are still screaming in our souls. Remember that, to Christ, all men are alive. Many of these people may already be in the Kingdom of Heaven. How can we be ready to meet Christ if we are not ready to meet them?
Heaven is about living in loving communion with Christ and with all who are in that communion with him. But it will be real communion, it will be total and transparent communion. The shadows of past sins and broken relationships which we may still carry cannot enter into that communion. They need exorcised, healed, forgiven. That won’t happen magically, but only by the hard and painful work of reconciliation.
If we do this work of personal truth and purification, we will be in a much better position to welcome Christ as he comes to meet us in death. If we have submitted it all in humility to the sacramental seal of confession, we will indeed be free with a freedom we have never known, one only Christ can give. And if Old Nick should appear at your death bed to accuse you in his nagging and niggling way, you can honestly say, “yes, you’re right. I did do those things. But the Lord Christ has purified me of them, so get lost.”
Let the Redeemer redeem what is as yet unredeemed within you.
So, know about him, know him, love him, reconcile broken relationships and surrender your deepest sins and infirmities of heart and soul: then you will be ready to meet Christ. You will be all His, and He all yours.