The Four Last Things - Part 1
November 5, 2017
One of the most beautiful things about our Catholic faith is that it gives us the answers to the most important questions of life. Not questions of passing significance – like who will win the World Series or the Bengals game, or what NFL player will “take a knee” in the upcoming game – these are ultimately of only trivial importance. Instead, they answer the questions that man has been asking since the beginning of time: Why am I here? Why do we have to die? What happens after we die? and so on.
These are traditionally called the Last Things (sometimes, the “Four Last Things” of Death, Judgment, Heaven (and Purgatory), and Hell. I started preaching on them at Sunday Mass last week and will do so for the next three weeks as well, in addition to writing three more columns. You can also find more in-depth reflections at our parish website, www.olvdelhi.org. We’ll start with the first two. Why do we have to die? We all know that we instinctively recoil at the thought of death. In fact, we don’t even like to think about it or talk about it. Although we might be resigned to it, we still often talk about the injustice of it. We especially feel the sadness or anger when a life is short. But even when someone lives a long life, we feel that something is not right. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard as a priest in preparation for a funeral something like, “She was ‘only’ 85!”
That’s because we were not created by God for death, who made us to live forever. Mankind brought death upon himself as a consequence of sin. A consequence so severe (in justice for the decision of Adam and Eve to turn away from God, despite being warned of the consequences), that there was no way we could possibly overcome it on our own. It is only through the power of the Cross – the saving Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ – that we can overcome death. As the Catechism says, “the obedience of Jesus [in accepting His Father’s will to give up His life to save us] has transformed the curse of death into a blessing” (Para. 1009).
We can only overcome death by entering into the death of Jesus Christ, the God-made-man. That is exactly what happens at our baptism. We are baptized into the death of Christ. (That’s even why we pour water over a person’s head as part of that rite – a symbol of drowning).
As a result, death becomes not the dreaded end, but the beginning – a new birth, a birth into eternal life. But a birth into what? The truth is quite stark on this question. That passage at death is either a passage into the eternal happiness of what God created us for: complete unity with Him, with the Blessed Trinity of the love of God the Father, Son and Spirit – or, on the other hand eternal separation from God with the almost unfathomable regret of knowing that we have rejected His love. More on these in later columns.
The question for now is, How is that decided? We are judged by Jesus Christ the Son of God, the infinitely merciful, yet just judge, at the very moment our earthly life ends. At that judgment, we will be able to see as a whole all of the good that we have done, all of the sin and disobedience of our lives as, including all of the good that we could have done, but deliberately failed to do. Not only that, but we will be able to see fully the consequences of every one of our thoughts and actions, and how they “cascaded” through the lives of the human family: the good they provided, or the pain they caused.
It is very mysterious just how Christ’s mercy works – we certainly can’t presume upon it. We will see at our judgment if we have, by the course of our life, decided to accept Christ’s mercy and grace (divine help) to live for Him, or instead chosen to live for ourselves. The Church is very clear that if we have serious (mortal) unconfessed sin at the time of death, we are at risk of eternal damnation. This should jolt us out of our complacency of not going to confession!
Each day of our earthly lives is a preparation for this final moment. The best way to prepare for judgment is to pray daily (especially asking God to help us review our actions), to prepare for Mass each and every Sunday by asking for forgiveness of our sins, and by going to regular confession.