In these last weeks of the Church’s year and again, when that year begins afresh in Advent, the liturgy and the readings take us on eagle’s wings, as it were. They take us beyond what a poet called “this sorry scheme of things”. And so does Jesus in today’s Gospel (Lk 21:5-19). He’s standing in the shadow of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the temple in Jerusalem, and says that one day there will not be a single stone of it left. He asks the apostles to look beyond it, and even beyond the false Messiahs, the wars, famines and disasters, the persecutions, that clutter the field of time. Respice finem!
This season of of year, when the trees are almost undressed of their leaves and the darkness is cramping our days, surely takes us the same way. If we want a long word, it’s eschatology: knowledge of the ‘last things’, the things that will remain when everything else passes away. Both nature and the liturgy point there. ‘It has been given man,’ says the book of Ecclesiastes’ to consider time in its wholeness’ (3:11) – and look beyond. At the very least, it’s a noble thing to do.
To help myself enter into this perspective, I looked at a relevant section in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It’s commenting on ‘I believe in life everlasting’. It takes a classical approach. It looks first at what awaits each one of us. It recalls the beautiful prayer of commendation, which is said by the side of a dying person:
‘Go forth, Christian soul, from this world
in the name of God the almighty Father who created you,
in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, who suffered for you, in the name of the Holy Spirit who was poured out upon you.
Go forth, faithful Christian.’
(You may remember Elgar’s setting in The Dream of Gerontius). This is death as passover, exodus.Yes, when we die we pass from the Egypt of this world, we pass through the waters of death, and we come to the mountain of God. ‘Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ’ (1021). It brings us before Christ in what’s called the ‘particular judgment’. ‘Each person receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven – through a purification or immediately – or immediate and everlasting damnation’ (1022). In blunt words, heaven, purgatory or hell. Not external impositions of an arbitrary God, but the revelation flowing from the eyes of Christ of the truth about ourselves, our lives, our loves.
‘Those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live for ever with Christ’ (1023).
Those ‘who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven’ (1030).
But if ‘we sin gravely against [God], against our neighbour or against ourselves’, if we hate our fellow human-beings, ‘if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are [Christ’s] brethren’, if we die in mortal sin ‘without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love’, then we have chosen a ‘state of definitive self-exclusion’ from communion with God and others, namely hell (1033). We have chosen. It’s not God’s choice. It’s not some terrible predestination. God ‘does not want any to perish, but all to come to repentance’. The teaching on hell is a great call on us to realise the extent of our freedom, and to make use of it for our eternal happiness.
And then the Catechism looks still further: not simply to the final truth of us one by one, individually, but to God’s great plan for the whole of humanity. It speaks of the coming of Christ in glory, the Parousia; of the resurrection of the dead, and of the Last Judgment. This Judgment ‘will come when Christ returns in glory. Only the Father knows the day and the hour; only he determines the moment of its coming. Then through his Son Jesus Christ he will pronounce the final word on all history. We shall know the ultimate meaning of the whole work of creation and of the entire economy of salvation, and understand the marvellous ways by which his Providence led everything towards its final end. The Last Judgment will reveal that God’s justice triumphs over all the injustices committed by his creatures and that God’s love is stronger than death’ (1040).
And so when we let our eyes be lifted in this way, looking beyond, what is it we finally see? What is our great hope? The Catechism says it is ‘the hope of the new heaven and the new earth’. It’s as if the universe as a whole and humanity will make a great passover or exodus. It will share the death and resurrection of Christ, will die and rise to new life. It will pass through the fire, be cleansed and transfigured.
This ‘will be the definitive realisation of God’s plan to bring under a single head all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth’ (1043). God will have his dwelling among us. ‘He will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away’ (Rev 21:4). For humanity, ‘the beatific vision, in which God opens himself in an inexhaustible way to the elect, will be the ever-flowing well-spring of happiness, peace, and mutual communion’ (1045). For the cosmos, too, there will be a transformation, a share in the glory of the risen Christ and a final adjustment to humanity.
I think it’s orthodox to say this: that in the end there will only be the risen Christ and everything that has risen in him. There will only be the glory of his personal and mystical Body, and outside it, scattered in the dark, only what has refused to be gathered, the ‘stubble’ of the prophet Malachi (3:9).
The Bible, with its books like the Apocalypse, poetry, music, the visual arts, the stutterings of the theologians, the flashes of the mystics give us human images and concepts for all this – valid as far as they go and even carriers of God’s word. But what it will actually be like, feel like, will surprise and surpass everything in our little minds and small hearts. ‘Eye has not seen nor ear heard nor has it entered into the human heart what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Cor 2:9).
But perhaps, on a winter’s evening in an ancient chapel, celebrating the Eucharist in peace and prayer, Christ coming among us, Christ hidden and risen, perhaps at such a moment we can have a glimpse – a little glimpse.