Today is the last Sunday of the Church’s Liturgical Year. Next week begins the Season of Advent, and our thoughts will turn towards the coming of Christ in the form of a Child, lying in a manger. The bells of Advent will ring, silver bells, sleigh bells, happy reminders of good times to come, of a future salvation. But first we must bid farewell to the year that has passed. The bells we hear today are alarm bells, signalling another time that must surely come, the end of this present world. Today’s reminder is of a day of wrath, a Dies Irae, where Christ will come to judge all of mankind, the quick and the dead, those who are living and those who have already passed to the other side. And from that huge multitude of all the souls who have ever lived, the vast majority will be sent to hell. Those few who have managed to preserve their state of grace will now enjoy the fruits of that Christ Child who will be born unto us in a few weeks’ time. These are the blessed, who will reap the benefits of his birth, his life, and of course his Passion and Death.
With the end of another liturgical year, our thoughts turn to the passage of time in general, and the inexorable passage of our own time on earth towards our own death. We fear that death, partly because we fear the process of dying, which may be slow and painful, or sudden and shocking. We fear it because it might be an unprovided death, for which we were not given the grace of having a priest absolve us from our sins, give us the Holy Viaticum and anoint us with the Holy Oil of the Sick. Most of all, we fear it because we cannot be sure we will have persevered in grace until this momentous day on which we come before the throne of Judgment. This fear we have is a rational fear, one that, if we act upon it appropriately, could mean the very salvation of our soul. The beginning of wisdom, saith the Prophet, is the fear of the Lord.
We know what it is to suffer, don’t we? We all have our days. But why does God allow so much suffering in this world? For this very reason, so that we may experience what it is to suffer, so that we may have a small taste of the eternal suffering that is reserved for them that have not loved God. Through these relatively minor sorrows and pains of our present life, we learn what it is to hurt in mind, body and soul. We have a tiny glimpse into what it would be to suffer these pains—and more—for all eternity. God is indeed merciful to allow us to bear these crosses while they can still benefit us.
Once we have breathed our last, it will be too late to take advantage of our sufferings. Hell has no benefits whatsoever. And even if we reach the fires of Purgatory, there will be nothing further we can do to help ourselves. The Holy Souls in Purgatory suffer. They suffer very much—terrible pains we can’t imagine. But there is one huge difference between their pain and that suffered by the souls in hell: the souls in Purgatory know their sufferings will one day end. They know they are destined to heaven and that there is nothing that can now prevent them from enjoying everlasting bliss once their sojourn in the purging fires have been completed. They endure their sufferings willingly, knowing them to be the just punishments of a merciful God, knowing that they are being prepared to enter heaven wearing the appropriate garments of holiness and perfection. And yet they do suffer nonetheless, and there is nothing they can do to shorten or mitigate the terrible pains they suffer.
We who grow ever closer to death are fearful of dying for this reason also. We know what awaits us in Purgatory, and we are rightfully fearful. However, unlike the Poor Souls who suffer there, we here among the living can do something about it. And that of course is the second reason God permits suffering in the world—so that we can benefit from our pains by offering them as a propitiatory sacrifice to him whom we have offended by our sins. Every time we do this, we allow our sufferings to be meritorious. We ask God to use our crosses to purge our sins and to reduce in this life the reparation which otherwise must be paid in the next life at a far higher price. It’s why people tell us when we are in pain, “God must love you an awful lot to let you suffer so much.” Let’s not waste these precious opportunities. Our Purgatory will otherwise be a dreadful experience regretting the chances we were given and which we let slip by.
One final thought on this ‘End-of-the-World Sunday…’ The Gospel gives us today a sobering description of the Last Times. We mentioned last week how God created nature for man and how man has abused this gift by committing unnatural sins. This week we learn how nature will react in these latter days to the abuse it has received from the men who were supposed to look after it. What are the very last things that will happen after man’s great tribulation has been completed and before Christ comes in glory? “Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken.” The great order of Nature shall crumble before our eyes. It reminds us of the upheaval that took place at our Lord’s crucifixion when darkness came upon the face of the earth, there was a great earthquake, and the dead rose up from their tombs and walked again. Nature, even the inanimate creations of rock and stone that make up the sun and the moon and the stars, the whole of Nature shall finally rebel against man for whose greater good everything that is was created.
Things to fear? Perhaps so, and yet, says our Lord to those who persevere in grace, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” For the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened. And when all this does come to pass, if we are the ones chosen to live through it, we will witness terrible things, a time when heaven and earth shall pass away. And we will remember and be consoled by the thought that when they do, “my words”—the words of the Son of God—“my words shall not pass away.” We believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, and so all this fear we have for death, for judgment, for Purgatory, for our very salvation, can be overcome by our faith in Christ’s words, our hope in his mercy, and our love for his Sacred Heart.