The parable of the ten virgins and the lamps in today's reading from the Gospel of Matthew provides an ideal backdrop to reflect on the four last things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. Especially in the month of November, when we turn particular attention to the faithful departed, we may consider our own preparedness for the last things.
Dominica XXXII per Annum A
12 November 2017
By showcasing the foolishness of claiming to go out to meet the bridegroom without preparing, the gospel calls us to be prepared and to consider whether our actions match up with our stated intentions. Of course, the gospel is not speaking of any ordinary groom, nor any ordinary wedding feast. Rather, the gospel calls us to be ready to meet the Divine Groom of his Church, Jesus Christ! And the gospel calls us to be ready to enter heavenly life which the Scriptures describe as the eternal communion of a wedding feast. But only those who are truly ready will enter. As the gospel image describes, “those who were ready went into the wedding feast…. Then the door was locked.” We say we are Christians. We say we are disciples. We say we are going to heaven. Do our actions match up with our stated intentions? Or are we foolish and unprepared? Are we carrying enough oil? Or is our claim to desire to meet the Lord a bit weak? The second reading makes direct comment on how we should view our falling asleep, that is, our death. Our bodily death, the end of life in this world, we might call the threshold or the door through which we pass to meet the Lord. Taking the lessons of the gospel and the second reading together, we would be wise to consider our end, so that it may shed light on how we should live our “now,” the present moment.
Our Catholic faith and tradition teaches us about the origin and the meaning of things in our world. Catholic faith teaches us about how to live well our life in this world. But we mustn’t forget that our faith also tells us about our end in this world and our destination beyond this life. Thus, our Catholic faith highlights what are called the Four Last Things. These four last things are death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Preparation for our death and judgment and the eternal destination of our soul is a common focus in this month of November when we give particular attention to praying for the deceased. While praying for the deceased, a wise person whose lamp is fully stocked with oil is keenly aware that he should anticipate his own death too. Let’s examine briefly the Four Last Things.
Death is a consequence of Original Sin. In faith, we describe death as the event whereby the soul separates from the body; the soul lives on because it is immortal, while the body decomposes. The soul is immediately judged and is rewarded with Heaven, punished with Hell, or sent for a time of cleansing to Purgatory. We should always live as ready for death since, for the most part, none of us knows when, where, or how we will die. Being aware of death and reflecting frequently upon it can give us impulse to avoid sin. How foolish indeed would it be to fail to be prepared for death, and the judgment that follows, when we know it comes to us all! How foolish if we prepare our temporal, worldly affairs, by means of a last will and testament, but we leave our soul unprepared and open to being picked over and looted by agents of the kingdom of darkness and eternal death. For people of Christian faith death is not the end. And death is not the greatest enemy. Hear that again: death is not the greatest enemy. Rather, the greatest enemy is a death for which we are unprepared. For this reason, a wise devotion in our Catholic practice encourages us to pray that the Lord spare us from what is called an “unprovided death.” An unprovided death means a death that comes upon us suddenly and for which we are unprepared and found lacking because we have neglected our soul, we are not in a state of grace, and we have no recourse to the Sacraments.
Immediately after our death we believe we experience a judgment before Christ that is called the Particular Judgment. It is called ‘particular’ because it is individual and comes to each of us at the particular moment when our death arrives. The soul’s eternal destiny is decided and established at the Particular Judgment. The soul that dies in baptismal innocence, that is, in a perfect state of grace, and having satisfied and repaired for the sins he has committed, experiences the eternity of Heaven directly. The soul that dies in the general state of grace but imperfectly so, that is, being guilty only of lesser sins or needing to atone for the temporal punishment due to already forgiven sins, experiences the final purification of mercy in the temporary “place” we call Purgatory. The soul that dies in mortal sin, even just one mortal sin, experiences the eternity of Hell directly. Wisdom calls us then to live each day in preparation for the judgment that will come after death. We should strive to be fully alive as disciples. Our prayer life, our service to others, our voluntary penances, our frequent confessions and worthy Holy Communions are all ways we seek to have enough oil for our lamps as we go to meet the Lord. We also express belief in a judgment that is called the General, or the Universal, Judgment. Unlike the Particular Judgment that comes to each soul individually, the General Judgment will be that day when the Lord returns at the end of the world. At that time he will call all the dead to rise, bringing new life to our separated bodies. At the General Judgment our newly-alive bodies will be joined to our souls to experience the judgment we received at our death. This public and general showing forth of God’s judgment is proper so that the justice of God may be fully revealed and be glorified and worshiped in the presence of all. After all, the Lord’s return in glory at the Second Coming will be public and undeniable, unlike the quiet and obscure first coming at his birth under the cover of night in Bethlehem.
The Book of Revelation teaches us that nothing unclean, nothing with the stain of sin, and no one who practices abomination and falsehood can enter God’s presence (Rev. 21:27). Sin and God cannot coexist. For this reason, our faith teaches us that the serious sin we call “mortal” separates us from God. And, if we die with unrepented mortal sin, even just one, we are destined for Hell. Hell is an eternal existence of separation from God, awareness of our foolishness in squandering God’s blessings, and an existence of torment and punishment. The words of Scripture and of Christ himself describe Hell as a ‘place’ of unquenchable and everlasting fire, a bottomless pit, everlasting punishment, a lake of fire, and the outer darkness. This truth of faith that sin offends God and deserves punishment is not unfair; rather, it is an expression of truth and justice. Remember, in God’s goodness, we are not required to remain in sin. He has died to save us and He gives us every good thing so that we can be fully alive in Him. God does not desire to send us to Hell. That should give us confidence and hope. Hell is our fault, not God’s.
The eternal life of blessing and communion with God, described as a great wedding feast, is heaven. Heaven is God’s full desire for us and it is the fulfillment of our desire too, because we have been made for God. Those who die in the perfect state of grace or who, being in an imperfect state of grace, have been purified in Purgatory, will enjoy perfect and everlasting happiness with God and all the angels and saints who worship around Him. In Heaven the blessed enjoy the greatest gift and fulfillment of seeing God as He is. This is called the Beatific Vision. Heaven is not a mere looking at God, as if some holy voyeurism. Rather, the vision of God refers to an active knowing and loving God to our fullest capacity. And it refers to being known and loved by God in return. This is the destiny God desires for us and He has left nothing undone to provide this for those who are wise in being prepared.
The Collect of this Holy Mass states that we may be “unhindered” to pursue the things of God. Are we truly unhindered if we aren’t prepared, if our souls aren’t ready to have the obstacle of sin removed from our living as disciples? In the psalm we prayed, “My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.” Does our preparedness reveal a real thirst for God, a real longing? Or is our desire for God something less than a thirst? We are called to be prepared, however, as people who have hope. We are not called to an anxiety-filled preparation. We have hope because of the Lord’s goodness. He has told us in advance to prepare. He has given us time to do so. Furthermore, by his passion and resurrection, and the outpouring of his grace that comes to us in prayer and the Sacraments, he has given us all the gifts and tools necessary to be prepared. If we say we are going to Heaven and if we say we desire Jesus, then let’s be wise about it. For at a day and an hour we cannot know the call will go out: “Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” Let’s be among the wise and the ready who enter the feast before the door is locked.