Thinking about judgment and eternity

Father John A. Kiley

“No sun; no moon. No morn; no noon. No dawn; no dusk. No proper time of day. No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease. No comfortable feel in any member. No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees. No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! November!”

Nineteenth century English poet Thomas Hood offers this gray depiction of the 11th month grimly placed between the bright orange leaves of October and the glistening white snows of December. Americans of course celebrate a festive Thanksgiving Day toward the end of the month but that date has been kidnapped from November by being labeled the start of the so-called holiday season. The middle of the month has at least one cheery day for me. (I’ll be 72 on the 16th.) Yet the secular world which observed Veterans (formerly Armistice) Day on November 11 is for once in step with the Christian world which marked All Souls Day on November 2nd. Dim November is ideally suited to reflect on our deceased – the demise of fallen heroes, the death of family members, the earthly departure of friends.

But November is especially an occasion to recall that for Christians the sting of death has been overcome by the promise of resurrected life. The words of St. Paul in last Sunday’s second reading began rather sternly but conclude quite hopefully: “Just as it is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment, so also Christ, offered once to take away the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to take away sin but to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him.”

St. Paul succinctly outlines the Four Last Things of Christian oratory: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. November is an ideal time to reflect on these awesome certainties, an opportunity treasured more by previous generations than by contemporary society. A funeral director friend noted recently how much funeral etiquette has been altered of late and cheerlessly suggested, “Frankly, Father, people nowadays just don’t want to be bothered.” Death, which was always an imposition on the dying, has sadly become an inconvenience for the living. A prayer at the funeral home or a simple blessing at graveside pleases the modern mourner quite well.

The abbreviation of formal mourning is clearly indicative of the curtailment of supernatural faith. The thought of a loved one facing death, judgment, heaven or hell easily leads to the prospect of oneself facing a similar destiny. The notion that mankind might be answerable for his daily conduct, the idea that the individual might have to reckon with sin, the suggestion that past misdeeds might require some atonement, to say nothing of the possibility of damnation, are concepts too disturbing for modern man to ponder. It is sad that the pledge of heavenly bliss, the promise of eternal life, and the prospect of personal fulfillment on high are possibilities that have long since ceased to delight modern, materialistic society. The joy of heaven and the fear of hell rarely enter the contemporary mind. At best, modern death is an occasion to recall the cheery past (ah, the dreaded eulogy) rather than to pray for a safe deliverance into eternity.

It is popularly imagined that mankind lives a number of years here on earth and then dies and goes to heaven. Or more ominously, a man lives a number of years here on earth and then dies and goes to hell. But the Christian believer, as St. Paul writes, is already a citizen of heaven. The Christian does not die and go to heaven at last; the Christian is going to heaven all along. Every prayer that is said, every Mass that is attended, every kind gesture toward the neighbor, every contribution to society firms up this heavenly citizenship so that death is merely the entryway to the fullness of a life already being led. Nor does the sinner die and go to Hell.

The sinner is already in hell even this side of the grave. The sinner is already cut off from God, ignorant of God, and dead to God, and death merely seals a fate that the sinner has long since chosen. Heaven and Hell are not an extraneous recompense for a life led here on earth. Heaven and hell are the continuation of a life already being led here on earth. The presence of God relished here in earth blossoms into the fullness of God’s presence in heaven. The rejection of God engendered here on earth results in the absence of God in eternity.

So the four last things – death, judgment, heaven, hell – are not really eventualities to be faced sooner or later. They are actualities to be reckoned with every day of our earthly lives