Essay / Theology

Advent and the Four Last Things

My good friend and colleague Greg Peters’ sermon for the First Sunday of Advent inspired me to write a piece about the most quintessential aspect of the season of Advent that at first may strike one as morbid: the four “last things”: death, judgment, hell and heaven.

When December comes around, we already see evidences of Yuletide celebration. Christmas trees, holly and ivy, egg nog, and Christmas carols permeate the twenty-four days leading up to Christmas, filling the air with festive celebration. But in the church calendar, Advent is a more somber, Lent-like experience, with rich readings from the prophesies of Isaiah and from the Book of Revelation. One does not associate apocalyptic reflections with these days of “festive cheer” leading up to Christmas, but for the church, this time is set aside for deep reflections about our human destiny as Christians.

In the Western Church, this season is a little more developed, and has very little to do with Christmas. This season places heavy emphasis on Christ’s second advent, when he will come to judge the quick and the dead, as the Nicene Creed tells us. It is a season where churches remain stark, the only decoration being a simple Advent Wreath, each candle lit for the succeeding Sundays in Advent leading up to Christmas. We reflect on our mortality, and the stark reality that whatever apocalyptic events may occur int he world and the cosmos, we know for certain that our own “personal apocalypse” is at hand: our own death and judgment.

In keeping with the Greek word “apocalupsis,” meaning “reveal, disclose,” our death will reveal to us the spiritual realities that lie beyond our sense experience, and the eternal ramifications the choices we made in life have had. For the Christian, however, it is not some karmic force that is judging us, but the Lord of grace. Whether we accept that grace or reject it will have a great deal to do with our eternal destiny.

The thirteenth-century Latin hymn Dies Irae (Day of Wrath), composed by the Franciscan friar and author of the definitive First and Second Lives of St. Francis, Thomas of Celano, gives us vivid picture of the final judgment, which I will quote here in its entirety:

Day of wrath! O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophets’ warning,
Heaven and earth in ashes burning!
Oh what fear man’s bosom rendeth,
when from heaven the Judge descendeth,
on whose sentence all dependeth.
Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth;
through earth’s sepulchers it ringeth;
all before the throne it bringeth.
Death is struck, and nature quaking,
all creation is awaking,
to its Judge an answer making.
Lo! the book, exactly worded,
wherein all hath been recorded:
thence shall judgment be awarded.
When the Judge his seat attaineth,
and each hidden deed arraigneth,
nothing unavenged remaineth.
What shall I, frail man, be pleading?
Who for me be interceding,
when the just are mercy needing?
King of Majesty tremendous,
who dost free salvation send us,
Fount of pity, then befriend us!
Think, good Jesus, my salvation
cost thy wondrous Incarnation;
leave me not to reprobation!
Faint and weary, thou hast sought me,
on the cross of suffering bought me.
shall such grace be vainly brought me?
Righteous Judge! for sin’s pollution
grant thy gift of absolution,
ere the day of retribution.
Guilty, now I pour my moaning,
all my shame with anguish owning;
spare, O God, thy suppliant groaning!
Thou the sinful woman savedst;
thou the dying thief forgavest;
and to me a hope vouchsafest.
Worthless are my prayers and sighing,
yet, good Lord, in grace complying,
rescue me from fires undying!
With thy favored sheep O place me;
nor among the goats abase me;
but to thy right hand upraise me.
While the wicked are confounded,
doomed to flames of woe unbounded
call me with thy saints surrounded.
Low I kneel, with heart submission,
see, like ashes, my contrition;
help me in my last condition.
Ah! that day of tears and mourning!
From the dust of earth returning
man for judgment must prepare him;
Spare, O God, in mercy spare him!
Lord, all pitying, Jesus blest,
grant them thine eternal rest. Amen.

Sobering words, are they not? These are not what one may call joyful words of holiday cheer, but solemn words of admonition which remind us to be mindful of our end, and to make the most important decision of our lives: will we be hell-bent souls, or heavenward souls. Will we heed the words of John the Baptist, to make make the way of our Lord straight in our hearts, or will we put up every obstacle and rampart in the way of His coming, making our hearts stony and impenetrable to the divine light that seeks only our good?

The hell-bent soul lives in a suffocating world of self-interest, seeking his own advancement and power, secure in the delusion of its own importance. Hell exists for such a soul, not because God is a masochist, but because it is what such a soul wants–an independent life, viewing any kind of dependence on any entity, including God, as the worst kind of tyranny. It is a soul that, with Lucifer, rails against the fact that he gets his being from God, wishing to ignore this fact, and trying in vain to pretend otherwise. What we find in the center of hell, is not fire, but the freezing, cold and terrifying delusion of self-sufficiency. Dante’s Lucifer is frozen precisely because he keeps repeating his first sin-trying to rise to the level of Godhood-and thus keeping hell frozen. He does not realize that if only he stop flapping his wings, the ice would melt , and he would thus be enabled to rise back into heaven. But no–he is doomed to repeat forever the sin he committed in heaven’s high court, the sin of attempting to dethrone God and to place himself in the center of of paradise as the object of worship. The hell-bent soul seeks his own, and ends up with only a shadow of his own self. Seeking only himself and this world, he ends up with neither, only shadows and dust. Achilles, now but a mere shadow in Hades, gives the hero Odysseus this sobering reminder of where the quest for glory ends up when he delivers one of the most chilling lines in the Odyssey: “Better to be a slave among the living than to be a king among the dead.”

Contrast this with the heavenward soul. Fear of hell begins this soul’s journey to heaven. St. Maximus the Confessor places this at the beginning of a soul’s journey to paradise, for it is only in realizing the futility and delusion of self-sufficiency that the soul attains a sobreity that impels him forward to the heavenly country. St. Maximus explains it this way: “If you have faith in the Lord you will fear punishment, and this fear will lead you to control the passions. Once you control the passions you will accept affliction patiently, and through such acceptance you will acquire hope in God. Hope in God separates the intellect (heart) from every worldly attachment, and when the intellect is detached int his way it will acquire love for God.” (Four-Hundred Centuries on Love) Notice the progression that St. Maximus delineates for the heavenward soul: fear of punishment, self-control, hope, and love. Love is the capstone of a life that is seeking to unite itself to the divine life, and it is arrived at gradually, through the trials, afflictions and temptations of this mortal life. Heaven can begin here and now, and it all begins with the acceptance of grace, which compels us to put away the hellish desire for worldly glory and self-sufficiency, and to cultivate the heart towards faith in God, which in turn engenders hope in God as the only source of our being and salvation, and this hope gives way to love for God, and love for all that He has created. “In wisdom thou has made them all,” proclaims the Psalmist, and it is in this truth that we find the ultimate meaning of creation. It is one that rejoices in God as the giver and sustainer of life, one that, realizing the horror of non-being, raises his hand in perpetual adoration for the gift of life, saying a deliberate and heartfelt YES and AMEN to life and to the giver of life. It is only in humble submission of self to God that we get the self back in its fullness. Disdaining hell, it seizes upon the drama that is the divine life with zeal and determination, putting away those things that detract from the one thing needful–the attainment of heaven.

Advent is a time for us to reflect on our human destiny, as we look forward to the coming judgment, to that time when the King will return to set things right. for the heaven-bent soul, it will be but the dawning of the “eighth day of eternity,” as St. Augustine puts it most poetically: “the Lord’s day, as an eighth and eternal day, consecrated by the resurrection of Christ, and prefiguring the eternal repose not only of the spirit, but also of the body. There we shall rest and see, see and love, love and praise.” (City of God, Book 22:30)

But we also reflect on the gravity, the weight of that glory that will be revealed to us. Its beauty is not a sentimental one, but somewhat akin to the beauty we contemplate upon seeing the Grand Canyon. Anyone who has ever experienced such a sight will feel that any sense of his own importance is dispelled immediately. And yet, the vast beauty of it all makes you wish you had a heart big enough to take it all in. The Last Judgment, for the Christian, is such akin to such an experience. As Advent passes, we light another candle on the Advent wreath, proclaiming with the Church’s message that Christ is coming quickly, and we must therefore put off the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, as the apostle Paul tells us. (Romans 13:12)

I offer this shape-note hymn, Idumea, composed by Charles Wesley, as a final reflection on the Advent season’s contemplation of our human destiny and the coming judgment. Like the Dies Irae, it captures the essence of what the Advent season invites us to do: wake up from our spiritual lethargy, and be mindful of our end.

And am I born to die?
To lay this body down!
And must my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown?

A land of deepest shade,
Unpierced by human thought;
The dreary regions of the dead,
Where all things are forgot!

Soon as from earth I go,
What will become of me?
Eternal happiness or woe
Must then my portion be!

Waked by the trumpet sound,
I from my grave shall rise;
And see the Judge with glory crowned,
And see the flaming skies!

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