“His judgment cometh and that right soon.”
These words were cross-stitched in a picture on the wall of Warden Norton’s office in the movie The Shawshank Redemption. The movie, based on Stephen King’s novel, takes place in a prison where an evil warden hypocritically passes himself off as a religious man. The words on the warden’s wall act as a reminder to all who see it that God will come to judge the living and the dead. For some, this will provide hope. For others, this prophecy will inspire dread. Ironically, for the Warden, the one who placed that picture on his wall, the words carry no weight. Behind the picture and the words, he hides a safe with all of his evil secrets and plots. The Second Coming isn’t really real is how he lives. And he is surprised and shocked at the end when it does.
* * *
The month of November is a kind of mini-season in the liturgical year wherein we reflect upon the end of our lives and also those who have gone before us. We started the month with the celebration of All Saints and the commemoration of All Souls; at the end of this month, we celebrate the Solemnity of Jesus Christ King of the Universe and then begin Advent—the season of preparation for the King’s unexpected coming as a babe.
In between all of that, we have these Sundays that sound like an overture to a symphony, announcing that the time of preparation for the King’s Coming is now. And this may seem like a Protestant thing to do, to say “The End is Near!” But, really, this has been a Catholic thing too, for Jesus Himself said: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” And we announce as Jesus did because the reality is: we forget about the eternal dimension of our lives. We forget that the world is passing away and that no two stones will remain atop each other. And that the weight we gave to some things should really have been given to others.
That was the point of Jesus’ words of warning: don’t get too attached to the stuff in the here and now. Even the Temple will pass. The Temple meant not only the Temple in Jerusalem, but also Jesus’ body (and, by extension, our own). And not just that, but the Temple also meant the entirety of the world. There will come a time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth—which means the old world is passing away. So, we cannot place too much weight on things. The weight we need to place is on the things of eternity.
* * *
Taking from today’s first readings, the Catholic Theologian Peter Kreeft notes that the moment of our death and of our rising to new life—whether to heaven or to hell—will be like a sunrise (Malachi wrote to us today: “There will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays”).
At the end of all things, the Son will rise on the landscape of our life and there we will stand in His piercing rays—rays that are Truth and Goodness; rays that are beautifully terrible and universal and unwavering and non-negotiable. Everyone will stand in the Son. The crucial point, says Kreeft, is whether we will be able to stand it. That is: all of us will fall into one of two kinds of people: those who bask in it and soak in its rays and so find eternity heaven; or those who curse the Son’s rising light and cannot stand it and so find eternity hell.
The crux, therefore, is whether we have in this earthly life cultivated a taste for that eternal sunrise. Cultivating that taste for the eternal sunrise is the summation of all that the Church and her saints teach about prayer, the moral life, the reception of the sacraments, and the embrace of the Truth. God Himself, in giving the Sabbath Rest for example, was giving man that “space” if you will to slow down and to attend to the eternity in which God and man dwell—and not only later but in the here and now; there is a “thickness” of life in which man is called.
Man, however, too often pursues what is shallow and “thin”—the temporal, the passing, the fleeting, and the rotten. Such a man will be shocked and annoyed by the brightness of the eternal light. (In the here and now, such men are often shocked and annoyed when the Church proclaims such things).
To summarize, then, our life here on earth is the place where we are to develop a taste for, an ability to bask in, the brightness of that eternal life.
* * *
Already based on this, many of us can form resolutions on how we are to change our lives and slow down and focus on what is important.
But let’s translate this into an immediately practical application. In the coming weeks, we are going to become busy with Thanksgiving and Christmas. And in this, the world will speed up as it frantically prepares. Let's be very clear: how we live this season is how we will live our eternity. This season is truly a microcosm of how we approach our ever-after.
What I mean by that is: how we prepare for Christmas is indeed the way we will prepare for the coming of Christ at the end of our lives and the end of time. Some people become hurried and frantic and stressed and anxious and care about the things of this world such that when Christmas comes, they miss Christ and are focused on gifts and whether family is happy and, really, are just simply glad when Christmas is finally over.
Some people just thumb the whole season and don’t prepare at all and just live their same. boring. lives. Or they say they love Christmas, but don't do much about it.
There is a third way—the Catholic way. And that is to slow down and to ask for whom we are really preparing. It’s not for our children. It’s not for our guests. It’s not for our neighbors who will see our houses and our lights. It is for Jesus Christ. And this is the moment where we have the chance to cultivate the taste for the eternal—and it happens precisely when the world will be focusing on the temporal.
Preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas and at the end of our lives will therefore involve a good confession. It will involve a prioritization of what is important in our lives and not a scurrying or flitting about trying to get so many presents, but to be simple and intentional and loving in our family. It will involve prayer and reflection and time to make lists of gratitude. It will be a time to bask in the rays of the rising sun. It will be heaven.
Or it will be hell.