As the Birth of Christ approaches, it is helpful to contemplate the Four Last Things. Traditionally, the Church has taught that Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell constitute these four final realities. The intention of this article is not to give a detailed theological overview, but instead to give us pause in the hope that we may reflect on these necessary things as we prepare to welcome Our Lord. There are many places one can read or listen to sound theology on the matter; I recommend this series of conferences by Father Ripperger.
One Christmas Eve, my family and I attended Holy Mass at a nearby rural Church. This particular parish has kept all of its traditional beauty. The statues and high altar remain, and the sanctuary was decorated with the befitting array of poinsettias. In the homily the priest recounted a story that has stuck with me ever since. He recounted that in the early days of his priesthood he lived with an older priest. After his first Christmas season as a priest was finished, it was time to clean up the decorations in the Church. As the young associate pastor, he was tasked with the “grunt” work. The older Pastor told him that he was not to dispose of the tree, but to leave it in the garage. He told him that he never threw away the trees, but instead, each spring he would clean the dry wood of the trees and use it to make crosses. From the material of these symbols of the Nativity, the seasoned Pastor would make a symbol of the instrument of the Crucifixion. The point of the homily was to remind us that the Birth of Christ was not the whole story: it is the Birth of Christ that brought God into the world, but it was the Death of Christ that brings us into the Next World.
When I’ve taught students about the unacceptable reality of Euthanasia, inevitably a student will ask me, “But, what about in the case of a terminal illness, is it okay then?” As an experienced teacher, I have learned that the best way to approach a difficult moral issue is to inject humour. Thus, I always reply by reminding them that all of us suffer from a terminal illness: age. In fact, I have yet to find research that suggests anything other than the fact that ten out of ten people will eventually die.
Death will come to us all, and at the moment we were conceived, in a sense, we started to die. It might seem like a morbid concept, but it is true. Denying death does nothing other than distract us from an unavoidable reality. As Catholics, we have no reason to fear death itself. Death properly understood is not an end, but a transition, or a new beginning. Jesus Christ paid a debt that none of us could pay at the Crucifixion. By His resurrection He showed us the way to Eternal Life. We have all been invited to Salvation, we need only cooperate with the graces God bestows on us.
The concept of death is actually quite easy to understand. A day will come when we no longer take breaths on this earth. It may come while we are sleeping, or it may come while we are awake. It could be painless and quick. It could also take years and cause unbearable suffering. As it is stated in the Book of Job, The days of man are short, and the number of his months is with thee: thou hast appointed his bounds which cannot be passed (Job 14:5). Our life is in the hands of God, and we will not escape this reality.
At our death, our souls will separate from our bodies. We will be judged, and our eternal destination will be either Heaven or Hell. We profess in our Creeds that there will be a Resurrection of the Body, which refers to events to take place at the Second Coming of Christ. Until that time, our souls will ascend to Heaven (with the appropriate time in purgatory in most cases) or descend into Hell. At the end of time, if we have responded properly to the offer of Salvation, our Glorified Bodies will be reunited with our physical bodies. Conversely, the opposite may also be true if we have been damned to Hell.
In a paradoxical fashion, it could be said that the best way to accept the reality of death is to take more seriously the way that we live. In correspondence with a spiritual directee, St. Jose Maria once wrote: “Don’t be afraid of death. Accept it from now on, generously… when God wills it, where God wills it, as God wills it. Don’t doubt what I say: it will come in the moment, in the place and in the way that are best: sent by your Father-God. Welcome be our sister death!” (The Way, 739) Only a man who knows where he has been invited to spend eternity can see something the world sees as a tragedy with such hope. If we truly love Our Lord, then we must take Our Lady’s example and say to the annunciation of our death, “Be it done unto me according to thy will.” The finitude of our days is an invitation to live holy lives, filled with peace of conscience. Frequent use of the Sacraments and adherence to God’s commands are guards against unhealthy fear.
It is true that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but this is not a servile fear. We do not fear God like a slave fears his master. Instead, we fear the Lord like a son fears his father. The wrath of a loving father towards his son is a corrective. We should embrace correction from Our Heavenly Father, and not fear suffering if He chooses it for us. Instead, we should fear offending God above all things. Do not fear your death any more than you fear walking through the doors of a Church. It may be daunting to enter into a majestic Cathedral, or hard to climb innumerable stairs. But it is through hardship and overwhelming mystery that we enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Devil uses an unhealthy fear of death as one of his strongest tools in our age. People often seek to live forever, or seek “medical assistance” in their deaths. We are led to believe that a drug-induced execution in a sterile hospital room, stuck with tubes and electronic monitors is somehow “dignified.” This is a grave offense against the Lord Who breathed into Adam the Breath of Life. It is the Lord who gives life, and it is the Lord who decides when we must breathe our last. The so-called “doctors” who facilitate this undignified end do not fulfill the noble purpose of a physician. Instead, they act as Grim Reapers disguised in white coats, rather than the black robes commensurate with the Bringer of Death. Our society’s enthusiasm for this devilish practice is further proof that we have forgotten who we are. We treat our elderly and sick loved ones like a wounded or diseased animal. The diabolical disorientation rampant in our world has convinced people that being put-down like a dog is a fitting termination of a human being made in the Image and Likeness of God. In a sick reversal of the Holy Altar, on which Our Lord is laid out for us in the Sacrifice of the Eucharist, the most vulnerable are laid on an Unholy Altar of Death to be ministered to by the Priests of Perdition.
We must reject this depraved misunderstanding of death, and embrace the true Catholic understanding. Live in a way that pleases your Heavenly Father and enrages the Demon. As the Nativity of Our Lord approaches, meditate on the Coming of the Messiah. Remember that Our Lady was struck with great sorrow soon after His birth when Holy Simeon prophesied the Passion of the Christ. Do not forget that you were brought into this life so that you may live like Jesus Christ, and out of love for Him, embrace this entry into a Valley of Tears. Follow the Holy Family to Bethlehem and lay on the stone floor of the Cave. As you contemplate the Birth of Christ, keep in your sights the route from the Cave to the Tomb, a journey that passes through Calvary. Let these four weeks of Advent be a preparation for the day when, God willing, you die unto Eternal Life.
Kennedy Hall is a contributing editor for OnePeterFive. He is the author Terror of Demons: Reclaiming Traditional Catholic Masculinity and Lockdown with the Devil, a novel about 2020 published by Our Lady of Victory Press. He is also a writer at Catholic Family News and LifeSiteNews. He is married with five children and lives in Ontario, Canada. You can find his work at kennedyhall.ca.