The End of Days

The end of days is something many folks like to talk about, and even obsess about. There are many preachers who have made a business out of predicting the end of time. They make money off of that work, too. There have been dozens of groups of people over the centuries who’ve busied themselves with trying to discern the end of this world. Some of them were out for fame or for money. Some were just sadly-deluded fringe-dwelling nut jobs. Others seemed motivated by genuine concern for their little flocks and in helping them prepare for what they truly perceived to be some kind of private revelation which they believe God had shared with them. The one thing all these groups have had in common is that they’ve been wrong.

Here’s what the Catholic Church teaches on Christ’s return and the end of time: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Matthew 24:36).  Jesus says it, we believe it. Our Catechism teaches us that Christ already reigns in glory through His Church (paragraphs 668-679).  We profess the Nicene Creed at Mass every Sunday and we affirm that the second coming of Christ is something we look forward to with great hope. Jesus will come in glory and the dead will rise and each one of us will stand before Him. The symbolism of the “rapture” and the thousand-year earthly reign of Christ are lost on those who read the Scriptures too literally. Jesus spoke many times about us being prepared for His return. When He comes is less of a concern for us Catholics than our work here and now, in our own hearts and lives. Are we making room for Him? Are we living as He taught us to live? Here’s the truth: we’ll meet Jesus at His second coming whenever that may be. But we’ll most certainly meet Him at the moment of our death. It seems a more prudent use of our time, our talent, and our treasure to prepare for that encounter than to worry about the “rapture.”

Instead, we should be like the faithful steward that Jesus described (Luke 12:35-48) who waited on his master’s return from a wedding feast. He kept the lights of his house burning to welcome the master home. Everything was in order; everyone was busy doing their job to make the house ready. The steward wasn’t fearful of his master’s return because he was ready for him. He had done all that had been asked of him. He wasn’t concerned with being punished because he knew the master would be pleased with him. We affirm this in another prayer of the Mass when we pray that we “wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior.”  This hopefulness sets us apart from those who dread the end of their earthly journey out of fear. Someone has said that your attitude about death depends on whether you imagine Jesus  as your judge or as your friend.  Of course, He is both. He is Friend, Creator, Savior, Redeemer, Shepherd, and Judge. Yet we sometimes persist in fear of our friend and our “Abba.”  Surely the parable of the good steward should be our guide as we anticipate meeting Jesus face-to-Face.

Moreover, we know that we encounter Him in our daily lives in the many “distressing disguises” He wears. When we serve the poor in our communities and visit the sick and the imprisoned—we meet Him. When we make time for a lonely person or care for a child in need—we make time for and we care for Christ. We’re called to actively participate in building the Kingdom of God which has come to us in Christ (Matthew 12:28; Luke 11:20) and these works of mercy are one way we do that. Catholics believe we live in a kind of “middleness” between the Ascension and His second coming at the end of time. Our salvation is a gift won for us by Jesus on the cross, but we are as St Paul says, “to work out (our) own salvation” (Philippians 2:12) until He returns. In this tension between the “already” and the “not yet” we find the purpose of our lives. We feed the hungry; we love our neighbor; we help bring healing to a hurting world. This purpose and our work are gifts from God and fill us with great joy and sustaining hope.

And so at Sunday Mass when we pray for Christ’s return it is in that same joy and hope. On that day we’ll know the final victory over death and sin and evil. The dead will rise in their newly-glorified bodies and the Church, the Body of Christ, will realize the fullness of Her true nature in Him. I love how St. John describes it: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’ ” This is our hope and our destiny. Until then, we must be about our Father’s work, like the faithful steward, our lights kept burning.

“And the One seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new’ “

—(Revelation 21:1-5)

Soaring Free

There’s a red-tailed hawk that lives in my neighborhood. I don’t know if it’s a male or a female, but I’ve imagined her to be a lady. I’ve even named her. Bella. She’s big and fierce-looking and every time I see her, which is at least a couple of times a week, I smile. She’s usually perched on a fence post or power line, her intense eyes scanning the ground for her next quick bite. She’s been around here for several years now and I like to think of her as “my” hawk. I look for her every day and it’s reassuring to see her there. I admire her for being out there, in all kinds of weather, just doing what she was created for. When I see her, I think of the complexity and beauty of God’s creation. And that all of us have a place in His garden.

So many of us struggle to find our place in the world. Families suffer through divorce and estrangement. Relationships get broken and sometimes are never healed. Siblings drift apart from one another. Parents struggle when their children are victims of illness or drug use. Church families can fracture and grow cold when gossip and distrust take root and are allowed to grow. Being human means living in a broken world. Lots of folks try to make their own sense of things and find their own way through their problems. We see them chasing wealth and possessions, trying to fill the void in their hearts with acquiring things. Maybe they do okay, on some level. But that never worked for me. Giving my life to Christ allowed me to find my own place and to have peace in knowing that He is in control of everything. But unlike Bella the hawk, sometimes I don’t cooperate with God as fully and flawlessly as she does. Bella can’t sin. Her hawk’s will is perfectly conformed to her life and the part she plays in God’s creation. Whether she’s soaring over the hayfield looking for mice or plucking at her feathers as she rests on the fence post, everything she does perfectly lives out her role in the world. Bella can’t be anything less than the perfect Bella. Whereas, I can stumble and sin and mess things up, again and again.

Thankfully, God knows my wounded heart very well. He knows how weak and sinful I am. And He loves me. He gave me free will so that I can make choices on my own. This is one of the things that makes me (and all of us) different from the hawks and other animals. Free will allows us to freely love and freely serve Him, but it also allows us to make wrong decisions and wrong choices–choices that go against the will of God, and therefore go against what is good for us. These selfish choices are sinful. God will forgive us our sins and welcome us back to Him in the Sacrament of Confession. He saved us; He is saving us; He will save us. Thanks be to God!

Whenever I see Bella, I thank God for His love and grace. He created a beautiful world, full of extraordinary and gifted creatures. When Bella soars high against the clear blue of a September day, she proclaims the goodness of the Lord. She has a particular and special role to play in creation and she does it perfectly. She reminds me that I too was created for God’s purpose and pleasure and the only way I can truly live out that purpose is to let Christ have His way in my heart. I have to remember and embrace the beautiful words of St. John the Baptist: “He must increase; but I must decrease”(John 3:30). Allowing Christ to increase means putting Him first in all things—in every relationship, in every decision, in every moment of every day. It means picking up the cross that God made just for me and following Him with joy, wherever He takes me. It means embracing whatever pains or sufferings in my life as Jesus embraced Calvary and offering my pain up to Him, for His purpose. The more I decrease the more Christ lives in me and through me. I become a child of my Father and in His joy, He lifts me up. Like Bella, I rise above everything that binds and shackles me and drags me down. He gives me a perspective I could never have on my own — an eternal perspective. Like Bella, I can rise up and see things in a new light, in the light of Christ. I have the freedom that only Christ can give. Bella reminds me that God’s blessings are never-ending and He has great things in store for me, and for you.

“If I take the wings of the morning
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me.”
Psalm 139:9-10

Our Dark Secret

It was a day like any other day.  The sun came up right on time.  The sky was a deep blue and everyone seemed in a good mood. Buses and subways were filled with commuters making their way to jobs in the city.  The morning news shows were their usual mix of news, sports, and celebrity gossip.  It was just another day in America—or so we thought.

Then, in the space of just a few hours, thousands of Americans were brutally murdered.  Innocent people, killed without a chance to plead for their lives. One minute, full of life and and hope and the promise of tomorrow and the next moment—a horrible and violent death.  Innocent lives, lost forever.  And all of us are diminished by their loss.

No, I’m not describing 9/11, although the scenario is much the same.  I’m describing every single day in America.  Because every day in our country more than 3000 Americans are violently killed by abortion.  It’s 9/11 every day here, in the greatest country on the face of the earth.  We’re not under attack by Al Qaeda or terrorists from Saudi Arabia or Somalia.  It’s not an organized sleeper cell that’s killing us, but a culture of death that we’ve allowed to infiltrate our land.  We’ve invited them in and given them a home and protected them by our judicial rulings.  And we wonder what’s wrong with the country we love.  We wonder how we’ve gotten so off-track. We wonder why families are disintegrating and why half of all marriages end in divorce.  We’re puzzled when we read statistics about adultery and abandonment.  We shake our heads at stories of child abuse or wife abuse. The #MeToo movement is exposing sexual trauma in a way we’ve never seen before. We’re shocked to hear that the elderly are neglected or mistreated in their nursing homes.  And we allow the treasure of our hearts, of our very lives—our children—to be destroyed each and every day by abortion. Can’t we see the connection between these murders and the state of our American families?

Our country is like a beautiful apple that is lovely to look at and admire, but is rotten at the core.  Death lives at the heart of America and we all must take responsibility for that. We’ve forgotten the values we were founded on which placed God and the gift of life as our anchor and our morning star.  We’ve allowed what is easy to replace what is right. We need an awakening in our land and in our hearts.  We must remember how we all felt that on that September morning—remember the horror and the shock and the outrage.

Remember how it felt to know that so many thousands of our fellow Americans—innocent people—had been murdered so senselessly and were now lost forever.  That’s the horror of abortion every day in the greatest country on earth.  We’re in the midst of another election season. Please pray that our President and the political leaders of our country will protect human life from conception until natural death.  And pray that God will have mercy on us all.

“America you are beautiful . . . and blessed . . . . The ultimate test of your greatness is the way you treat every human being, but especially the weakest and most defenseless. If you want equal justice for all and true freedom and lasting peace, then America, defend life.” – St. John Paul II (1920-2005)

Cutting Back

Diet. It’s a four-letter word. Most people hate having to give up the foods that they love in order to lose weight. But we do it—at least for a while. We know that in order to meet our goal we have to take in fewer calories than we expend. When we’re able to do that consistently, we starve those nasty fat cells and we lose weight.

There’s a similar principle at work in our spiritual lives, too. When we identify something that is getting in the way of our journey with Christ, we need to starve it. These obstacles used to be called “sins” and the strategy to overcome them was called “virtues.” We need to use those terms more often. For every sin, there’s a corresponding virtue to be practiced. We know how this works because the Catholic Church has been teaching it since the earliest days of Christianity. We know that the great Saints dutifully practiced some kind of spiritual diet as they progressed in holiness. St. John the Baptist said it best when describing his relationship with Jesus. “He must increase, but I must decrease”(John 3:30). So how do we do that?

We pray that the Lord will reveal our sins to us and we pray for the humility to accept what He shows to us. I can almost guarantee that your number one stumbling block is pride. We know that this is true because Scripture reveals it to us in so many circumstances. It was pride that brought about the fall of the Lucifer and his fellow disobedient angels. Pride fed the original sin of our first parents in the Garden. Pride says, “I know better than God. I can do this on my own. I don’t need any help.” Pride truly is the root of most, if not all, of our sins.

Starving pride means feeding humility. Talk less. And when you do speak, let it be less of your concerns, your wants, your accomplishments. Don’t seek out praise or sympathy from others. Always put others before yourself. Let yourself be last in all things. Practice mercy. Deny yourself little things that give your pleasure and after a while you can do without more and more. Every denial of self is a step closer to a humble soul. Fast, not only from food, but from gossip, judgement, prejudice, impatience, and envy. Pray constantly the prayer that never fails: “Thy will be done.”

Starving anger means feeding forgiveness. Whether it’s getting cut off in traffic or responding to more serious betrayals, anger is a natural human response. But it doesn’t have to become sinful if we combat it, with God’s help. “…Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We pray these words from the Our Father, but do we put them into action every day? Are we as quick to forgive others as we are to become angry? Do you hope that the other person offending you “gets what they deserve,” or do you offer them the mercy that you hope to receive?

Starving greed means feeding charity. Do you have to have the latest gadget, the fastest car, the biggest house, or the most impressive wardrobe? Does it make you feel bad to see others with these possessions? Greed and envy eat away at the muscle of our charity. These sins hold onto things, instead of people. And we can only give to others with open hands. Overcoming greed, like pride, means thinking less of ourselves and thinking more of others. When we realize that everything we have is a gift from God, it’s much easier to share these gifts with others. We’re called to take care of one another, to help the needy, to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless and to be Christ to everyone we encounter.

Putting yourself on a spiritual diet is only successful if you humbly pray for God’s assistance and strength. Like any diet, it’s harder at the beginning. After time, and daily practice, you’ll develop spiritual practices that help you in walking more closely with Christ. Frequent confession and Holy Communion give you the graces needed to continue growing in your relationship with Jesus. The process of becoming like Him is what St. John meant when he said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Life is learning to die to self and to live in Christ. As St. Paul writes, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here! (II Corinthians 5:17).

“The more a man dies to himself, the more he begins to live unto God.”

—-Thomas a Kempis