Preparing to run out of time and into eternity.
Death is on my mind—how could it not be? It’s November, when the Church asks us to pray for our beloved dead. In the past few days, the Masses I have offered call to mind those who have gone before us: All Saints Day, All Souls Day, the Feast of all the Saints and Blesseds of the Society of Jesus, a Mass for all the deceased members of the Society of Jesus. Less than a month ago, I gave the Last Rites to a college classmate, who died hours later, just two days short of her 58th birthday. As I write this, Ann, a teacher from my high school years, 40+ years ago, who convinced me that I could attain academic excellence, has just suffered a massive stroke, and is very near to dying.
So, yes, death is on my mind.
Frequently, death is seen as a kind of “running-out-of-time”; our individual clock just stops ticking. But that can’t be right—certainly no Christian could accept that. We know that death entered the world as a consequence of original sin. We know too that when mortal time “runs out” for any one of us, our timelessness begins. The purpose of our pilgrimage through this “vale of tears” is to prepare ourselves in time to go into eternity ready to see the face of God and live. Sin precludes that possibility. The Incarnation of the Christ of God is the divine intervention that makes Heaven a real possibility for us again after the Fall.
The problem with that good news is that we tend to think of the saving work of Christ as some kind of celestial “Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free!” card—something that cost Jesus terribly to offer us, but costs us nothing to accept. What a delusion!
Consider these cautionary words from theologian Romano Guardini:
Every Christian one day reaches the point where he too must be ready to accompany the Master into destruction and oblivion: into that which the world considers folly, that which for his own understanding is incomprehensible, for his own feeling intolerable. Whatever it is to be: suffering, dishonor, the loss of loved ones or the shattering of a lifetime oeuvre, this is the decisive test of his Christianity. Will he shrink back before the ultimate depths, or will he be able to go all the way and thus win his share of the life of Christ? What is it we fear in Christianity if not precisely this demand? That is why we try to water it down to a less disturbing system of ‘ethics’ or ‘Weltanschauung’ [worldview] or what have you.
But to be a Christian means to participate in the life of Christ—all of it; only the whole brings peace. The Lord once said: ‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, or be afraid’ (John 14:27).
Peace comes only from living this through to the end. One way or another we must brush the depths Christ divinely plummeted, taste the dregs he drained to the last drop: ‘It is consummated’ (John 19:30). From this unreserved realization of the Father’s will comes the illimitable peace of Christ, also for us.
Clearly, the Catholic Faith is not a cult of self-esteem; it is not a program of self-improvement; it is not something fanned into flame by singing a few rousing choruses of “Go Make a Difference.” Rather, a true Catholic is one who has immersed himself in Christ, seeking not just to follow Christ or imitate Christ, but to be identified with Christ in both his suffering as well as in his victory and his glory.
This insight is thoroughly Pauline: “… and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
Archbishop Fulton Sheen warned us decades ago that soft Christians offered “Christ without the cross” and that tyrannical secularists offered “the cross without Christ.” We must learn to reject both.
We used to speak of Christ who would come “… to judge the living and the dead, and the world by fire.” I think that we need to learn how to speak like that again.
As the liturgical year draws to a close, the readings at Mass will become more apocalyptic. They’ll remind us that we were born to die, and that this world cannot be our true home. Let’s make the wise decision to conform ourselves to Christ, while there is still time.
When I write next, I will speak of writings of the Church Fathers that are worth memorizing. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.