There is only a week and a bit left before the liturgical year ends, and Advent begins once more. November, plus or minus a few days here and there, is the traditional time to think about the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell.
For all of us, these things are closer than what they were last November. The readings from the lectionary are full of reminders about the big 4 and of wisdom about them.
Are you ready? Like the wise virgins waiting for the bridegroom to come.
Have you used your gifts and talents to the full? The King will want to see some evidence.
Will you persevere? Can you pray, and wait, and not lose heart?
When people have faith in the God Whose actions are recorded in the bible, death isn't much of an issue. From the stories of those who have had near death experiences, death itself is easy, although the pains and difficulties that get you to that point are normally no picnic.
What really matters is judgment. That is the scary thing. To walk through your whole life under the loving gaze of God, and to see where you responded to Him and where you turned away, to see what you did that pleased Him, and what you did that deserves some kind of punishment. To know that whatever verdict God gives is going to be totally just and deserved; that is truly scary. To know deeply that if the verdict is positive, then credit goes to His Mercy; and if the verdict is negative then we chose it ourselves through actions which rejected His Mercy.
Remembering 1 Cor 3:15 about how all our works will be tested, as though through fire, makes us consider how seriously we have treated God in our lives. Have we seen Him as worthy of our mediocre and left overs (straw, wood) or have we seen Him as worthy of our very best (gold, precious stones)? Likewise the words addressed to the church in Sardis (Rev 3:2), 'Is there anything in the way you live that God could possibly call perfect?' make us think furiously.
This is why we pray for our sick and dying, seeking to obtain mercy for them so that when they reach judgment there are no barriers of sin between them and God. This is why regular recourse to the sacrament of penance is such a good idea.
At funerals we often hear people say, 'How good it is that …… is no longer suffering.' Only if they were totally free from sin and from the punishments due for sin would that be the case. Too few of us die in that degree of holiness. For most the welcome option of purgatory is where they would be, and if so, their sufferings would have increased many times over. For those who rejected God's mercy even in extremis, enduring the sufferings of hell for eternity are now their lot. Yes, our loved deceased's bodies may now look like they are in peace, but only God knows how they fared at judgment and what they are going through on the other side of eternity. The most loving response to such a crazy saying at funerals, is to double our prayers for the deceased.
We all hope and pray that with God's grace and in His mercy, that we will attain to the eternal joys of heaven. He tells us Himself that no impure thing can enter into heaven.
One of God's mercies is that He often gives increasing layers of pain and suffering to the elderly, precisely that through their patient acceptance of these difficulties that they may expiate some of the punishments due to their sins and thereby have a swifter journey from the gates of death to the gates of paradise. It is why those who seek to cut off a person's life before his/her natural end perpetrate a grave injustice. Unnaturally shortening that time of pain-filled grace has negative consequences for pain levels post judgment.
Even though God is so loving and merciful, He is also just. If you are always singing about how you did it 'my way' and spending more time at the football or at the club than offering God some thanks at church and doing things 'His way' – is there anything in your life for which He can reward you? Human popularity an entry card to heaven it does not make.
We don't know the day, not the hour, at which God will call us through death to judgment. When that time comes, may we be watchful and ready, and best prepared through active response to His works of grace in us. May He grant us a merciful judgment and as swift a time though purification as possible. Amen.