Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell

476px-LastjudgementReflecting on these traditional Advent themes, I searched the Internet to learn more about them. I discovered that many Protestants and Catholics seem to avoid death, judgment, heaven, hell. They prefer the more feel-good themes: hope, peace, joy, love, or waiting themes such as expectation, fulfillment, prophecy, etc.

I finally found Father Longenecker’s blog at Patheos.com. Father Longenecker is an Evangelical turned Anglican priest turned Roman Catholic priest. Like many converts, he understands the temptation to dilute Christianity. Others who have made a similar journey and have taken a stand in the American public square include Father Richard John Neuhaus (Lutheran to Roman Catholicism) and Dr. Scott W. Hahn (Presbyterian to Roman Catholicism).

Father Longenecker reminds us of Holy Scripture and the purpose of Advent:

“Advent is… a time to face facts. Christ is on his way, but it may not be the happy party everyone would like to imagine. He is the Good Shepherd, but he is also the Righteous Judge… It does matter what religion you belong to. ‘No one comes to the Father but by me’ says the Righteous Judge… Universalism is false. Some people will not be saved. ‘Broad is the path that leads to destruction. Narrow is the way that leads to life and few there be that find it.’ So we had better snap to it says the prophet preaching to himself. I want to set out on that quest to follow the map, fight the pirates and find the buried treasure–which is eternal life.”

These are hard words for many of us to accept.

Some communities speak of living in a “bubble” of unreality, having cushioned the hard edges of life. Today, in 2015, Americans live in such a bubble of unreality, the nation having been at peace for over forty years. The last military draft ended in 1973. While we bemoan sending our sons and daughters to Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria, putting them in harms way, they go there by choice, not by conscription. We live in a bubble.

The two Paris attacks and the recent San Bernardino attack have brought death home to us. But death has always been with us, even inside the bubble, we just refuse to see it. War, terrorism, threats to peace whether domestic or abroad, force us to face death.

This, of course, is one of the fruits of Advent, rightly referred to as a “Little Lent.” We are reminded of the terror of our own mortality, that our days are numbered, our bodies decaying with each minute.

Christians believe our future is something to take seriously. Not only do we die, but we are given the chance to live again. Not only are we given the chance to live, but the chance to live forever in the glory of Heaven. It sounds good, but the catch is that Day of Judgment. Holy Scripture makes this clear in a way that cannot be sugarcoated as metaphorical. Again and again, we are told we will be asked to explain our lives, give an accounting. We will be judged. And the only person who can redeem that judgment call, be our advocate, is Christ Jesus.

As for me, I’d like to know where I stand in these eschatological indictments. I’d like to prepare if possible, as I would for a crucial exam.

And so on the first two Sundays of Advent (today is the Second) I’m glad that we are reminded of Death and Judgment. We take stock, we examine our hearts and our lives, we confess, and we repent. We are no longer afraid of facing death, knowing we have a friend in Jesus, an advocate in our last days, or The Last Days, whichever come first.

This is good news. This is incredibly, credibly good news, that we, like Christ, with Christ, will overcome death. But how does this happen?

It happens with the advent of Christmas. It happens with the coming of Our Lord, to live and die and rise again. As fully human and fully divine he takes us with him, bears us up. We become one with him to break the bonds of Hell, to rise to life eternal. His flesh and blood are the only way to the Father, to truth, and to life. Jesus Christ comes to us at Christmas as a baby in Bethlehem, incarnate, in the flesh, and he comes to us daily on the many altars of the world in the bread and the wine of the Eucharist.

This is good news. The attacks in Paris and San Bernardino remind us today of death and darkness, something Advent reminds us of every year. But Advent gives us the antidote to darkness and death, the living God-made-man, the Incarnation of Divine Love. Advent gives us the good news of Christmas.

As traditional Anglicans, we pray the Collect in our Book of Common Prayer not only on the First Sunday in Advent but each day until Christmas Day:

“ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen”

Good news indeed.

Heaven and Hell are the themes of Advent 3 and 4. Just in case we weren’t paying attention to the first two Sundays, we are offered the choice with a different emphasis. Do we want to live in eternity with Love or eternity with Unlove? With God or without him? It is a choice I can make today, this very minute, for Heaven and Hell begin in real time on this real earth. We make the choice continually, and with each choice between selfishness and selflessness we choose our direction and our destination, Heaven or Hell. Like a body of law, our choices build upon past choices, so the warnings in Advent are vitally real in present time, vitally present in real time. It is easier to set a straight course now than later. It is wrenchingly difficult to turn around and go a different way later, to re-pent.

So Advent reminds us how to travel to Heaven. It gives us a roadmap, so  that we may cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.

 

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