Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Third Sunday of Advent, 2018.
Without saying so from the pulpit on the first two Sundays of Advent (largely because our liturgical changes have provided plenty enough to get our heads around), I have conceived all four homilies during this season as constituting a sermon series. The theme is the Four Last Things. The Four Last Things are Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven, and these are a traditional way to recognize again the tension within the air of Advent: the already and not-yet tension that permeates the whole of the Christian life as well as this season.
These Four Last Things are found in Christian tradition when there is reflection upon the mysterious ambiguities involved when the Christian journey as a whole is considered through the threefold Church—the journey that begins in this life through baptism (what’s called the Church Militant), and continues through the end of our somatic life into the next stage within the Church Expectant (the intermediate state often called Purgatory), and finally reaches its culmination in the Church Triumphant (often called heaven). The Greek word for “last” is eschaton; the study of the end is eschatology; and main themes of eschatology—death, judgment, hell, heaven—are therefore “the four last things.”
They are four mysteries: or more accurately, these constitute four dimensions on the single mystery of Baptism and being incorporated through baptism into the Body of Christ: being made one body with Him. As Saint Paul wrote to the church at Corinith: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? . . . For, as it is written, ‘The two shall become one.’ But he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” “The two shall become one” is biblical language referring to marriage, and so Saint Paul in his letter provides perhaps shocking teaching that baptism is a form of marriage: that when we are baptized, we become married to God, a marriage is indissoluble, can never be undone, is permanent throughout the journey of the Christian life through the three states of the threefold Church.
What we said about Death and Judgment was based again on the teaching of Saint Paul: “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” Death gives way to life. Embracing our Baptism as mature Christians involves a continual process of letting go the things we love, and offering them to God. Who we are—our identity, our values, what we love—is only truly revealed by the light of Christ. Judgment, then, is not punishment, but the revelation of truth when we are close enough to the light of light to more clearly see our shadows. Christ’s presence—real and actual presence in the Tabernacle, on the Altar, through the Scriptures, and in each one of us through Baptism—convicts us, reveals to us who we are, and therefore purges us of what is old, in favor of what is newly being created in us by grace. If you take a class in acting from Tom Hanks, or Judi Dench, the creative wisdom conveyed by their presence and experience acts to reveal the student’s inexperience and shine a light towards the path better acting. So much so with Jesus and His light of judgment shining upon us who through our baptism are dying to self.
Saint John the Baptist taught that “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Here is speaking of one of the Four Last Things: he is speaking of Hell, of being cut down and thrown into the fire. Jesus spoke of Hell as the place of eternal fire, where the fire never goes out. John the Baptist teaches that without bearing good fruit, trees with be cut down and thrown into this fire of Hell. The most pregnant example of Hell in the New Testament is that of Judas Iscariot, who after betraying Jesus, “bought a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. Obviously Judas did not bear good fruit.
And although we are not Judas, this reflection might cause us to wonder whether what we do in our lives can be considered good fruit. The stakes after all seem pretty high. No good fruit, and it is eternal, unquenchable fire. Saint James, in his biblical book, refined the teaching of John the Baptist: “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. . . . For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.”
The stakes, thrrefore, are high. Any eschatological reflection on Hell reveals that quickly. John the Baptist wanted his followers to take their spiritual lives very seriously. It is why he used this stark language—truthful indeed, but uncompromisingly stark. And notice the people’s response—three times in our passage from Saint Luke: “What shall we do?” It is the same question the people asked Saint Peter after his sermon on the Day of Pentecost. There are only two kinds of questions in the Christian life: What does it mean? And here we have the second: What shall we do? The clear emphasis here is “do”—on behavior, on action, and not on status in life, wealth, social class, biological sex, race and ethnicity. It is our actions, our behavior, that keep us on the journey to the Church Triumphant in heaven; it is our actions, our behavior, that derail that journey and portend the fires of Hell.
This emphasis on the question “What shall we do?” seen throughout Saint Luke’s writings is in fact good news: very good news. Biological sex, race, ethnicity—these are impossible to change; status in life, wealth, social class—these can change but it is not easy and many fail through no fault of their own. But behavior, actions—meaning at the root, our choices, because actions flow from the choices we make—not only are these not impossible to change, but we begin to change our poor choices every time we turn to God in prayer: every time we recognize the true Light of the world: every time our pride gives way to honest and sober humility.
And so, as so often is the case, our Collect is perfect: Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be honor and glory, world without end. Amen.