Before the time of Christ, the ancient pagans had no sense of getting ready for eternity. For them, the afterlife was hidden in the obscurity of their myths. Death for the ancient pagan, as it is for the modern person, was too often an excuse to seek as many pleasures and accumulate as many experiences as possible before time ran out. At the very least, the thought of it was something to avoid. In fact, Alexander the Great, the leader of the Greek Empire in 333 B.C., had himself convinced that he was immortal. It turned out he wasn’t. And as for the great Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor and philosopher in the second century, his answer to death was one of mere resignation. He said, “Death smiles at us all, but all a man can do is smile back.”
But there would come a day when a redeemed people would do more than just smile back at death. Several centuries before Christ, when the ancient world was still without hope of eternal life, the prophet Isaiah saw a day when people of faith, from all nations, would be instructed in the ways of eternal life. To be sure, they would come to know that death is not the end of life, but rather, it is the point at which it begins for the righteous. A passage from the First Reading of Mass reads as follows:
“In days to come, the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it; many peoples shall come and say: “Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.”” (First reading- Isaiah 2)
Interestingly enough it was Jacob the Patriarch who had the dream of angles ascending and descending on a staircase to heaven from earth. He was given a vision that these angels were freely traveling back and forth between heaven and earth. Upon the coming of Christ, however, it would be revealed to the people of God that just as angels ascended to heaven, so too would human beings ascend to heaven on the condition that they remained faithful to God.
Indeed, preparing oneself for the hour of death each and every day by being conformed to Jesus Christ- who had already ascending into heaven -is incumbent on every Christian. As St. Paul said in the Second Readings at Mass: “You know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep...But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.” (Romans 13:11,14) Fr. Cornelius Lapide, sixteenth century priest and scholar, added to this by cautioning his readers that the devil will try to instill complacency in us or at least the presumption that we have plenty of time left to amend our lives. He wrote, “Wherefore this idea, instigated by the devil, must be crushed. Everyone should say to himself at the beginning of each year, of each day, ‘It may be that you shall die this year or this day. Therefore so live as if you were to die to-day.’”
I have to imagine that it does make a great deal of difference whether a person is ready for his death or not. If it fared well for everyone, regardless of how they lived their life, I suppose our Lord would not be so insistent that we be ready for his arrival. After all, he did say, “So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” (Gospel reading- Matt. 24:44) The divine mandate to be prepared implies that there are consequences for being unprepared. So that these regrettable consequences are not realized, the Lord bids us to be vigilant.
But the question can be asked: If he wants us to be prepared for his arrival, why not tell us precisely when that will be? St. John Chrysostom, an early Church Father, gives us the answer: “For, if men knew surely when they were to die, at that time only would they seek to repent.” In other words, the incentive- or at least one very powerful incentive –to live a life worthy of God’s scrutiny, throughout one’s life, would be compromised. Most people would opt for a last minute maya copa and allow their lives to be squandered in the meantime. By virtue of the fact that we know not the hour, we are, at the same time, summoned to give our best with each day God gives us.
On the other hand, our Lord’s mandate to be prepared for both the hour of our death and his Second Coming has manifold benefits, for this life and the life to come. It gives us perspective and it incentivizes virtue. Another Church Father, St. Athanasius had this to say about being modest about our presumptions:
“When we awake out of sleep, let us be in doubt whether we shall see the evening. When we lay us down to rest, let us not be confident that we shall come to the light of another day. Thus we shall not offend, nor be carried away by vain desires. Neither shall we be angry, nor covet to lay up earthly treasures. But rather by the fear of departure, from day to day we shall trample upon all transitory things.”
The season o f Advent is not only a time when the Church reflects on a past event; that is, the first coming of Christ two thousand years ago. It is also one of anticipation, of looking forward to Christ’s Second Coming. What the Church does on a macro level in preparing herself for the Second Coming and the General Judgment, the individual does on a micro level in preparing himself for his death and the immediate judgment to follow. The two go hand in hand. And as St. Athanasius suggested, a life lived in preparation for death will prevent us from being carried away by vain desires and instead will inspire us to commit ourselves that which is truly important.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are my own and not necessarily
reflective of any organization I works for.