Several days ago we moved from daylight savings to standard time. Most trees are beyond peak in their fall transformation of color. For many of us it is black when we arise and almost dark when we return from work or school. All of these everyday events signal the end of another year. In a wonderful way the church takes advantage of this time to remind us of the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. Although these notions can be unpleasant to consider, they are essential aspects of Christian life.
Each reading this week has a threat embedded concerning the last days, but the threat comes almost as an afterthought. Daniel talks about people’s names being or not being written in the book, and that some who sleep will rise to everlasting glory and others shall be an “everlasting horror and disgrace.” In Hebrews, the author writes of the one who saves, waiting until his enemies are made his footstool. Jesus speaks of the sun being darkened, the moon not giving its light and the stars falling from the sky. It is easy to fear as we contemplate the immense power of God.
We are so used to emphasizing the negative aspects of the four last things that we forget the consolations embedded in them. Death is an opportunity finally to meet our loving God face to face. Judgment can be the consolation of hearing our Lord say, “Well done good and faithful servant.” Heaven, not so much as a place but as a constant state of life, exists as the ultimate gift of a gracious God. And, even the consideration of hell displays the power of God as the one who separates the good from the wicked.
Since we truly have a gracious God, the three readings emphasize God’s goodness more than God’s vengeance. In Daniel, we learn of Michael, the guardian of the people, leading some who were asleep to everlasting life. Hebrews claims that the one who offered the one sacrifice for sin has made perfect forever the ones who are being consecrated. Finally, in the Gospel, Jesus says, “The Son of Man … will send out his angels to gather the elect.” The elect are all who have tried to be faithful.
We cannot contemplate the four last things without paying attention to Jesus’s lesson concerning the fig tree’s new growth. The branch is tender; the leaves sprout; the tree is ready to bear new fruit. Meditating on the four last things has true meaning when we look at the wonderful workings of God. God shows new life in the resurrection for such life always arises from death. In the midst of darkness and winter, we await the promised spring. In the midst of the four last things we await the promises of a loving God.
Jesuit Fr. Jack Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.