First Sunday in Advent 2021

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ Jesus, blessings, and peace, on this First Sunday in Advent. It is a long-held tradition in Catholic Christianity to focus on four very distinct themes for each of the Sundays that comprise this season. The First Sunday in Advent, today, focuses on the subject of death; the Second, on judgment; the Third, on heaven; and the Fourth, on hell. The season ends with the Coming of Our Lord, the mystery of the Incarnation of God as celebrated on Christmas, and the eschatological hope for His Second Coming in wonder and glory to judge both the quick and the dead and to reconcile all of creation to His Father. Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell: Taken together, the topics suggest that man’s time in this world is brief; no more than a blip on a radar screen in the grand scheme of the universe; and yet every man’s life is pregnant with a deep and abiding purpose far greater than his relatively short and seemingly inauspicious years may indicate. Death hangs like a Damocles’ Sword over each of our heads. No matter our many precautions, the care with which we attend to our health, the forgiveness, and the good tidings, we may impart to one another, our lives may be swept away, suddenly, like a wind in the night, or for a reason that frankly defies reason. It turns out in the end that all our best-laid plans are for naught when finally confronted by the impenetrable stare of Death. And yet, each of us will stand in judgment before God. Whatever the outcome, we shall know then, if we do not in this lifetime, that our lives matter. God does not render a final verdict on a rock, or a tree, or a dog, though in Christ Jesus all of these are reconciled unto Him and given their rightful place in that new creation that supersedes heaven and earth. But man alone is saved or is damned, brought in with the sheep or cast out with the goats, to the extent that he has been reborn into the life and the joy of the Resurrected Lord. Heaven and Hell remind us that how man chooses to live is going to have everlasting ramifications. Man’s free will not only affects himself but will leave its mark on the eternal world still to come. The Father’s Kingdom will be what it is in part because of who is in it and who is absent from it. What we do or fail to do; what we say or fail to say; all that we are before our friends and neighbors and behind closed doors; really, everything about us matters in ways and to a degree which we cannot even imagine. God lifts all of creation into Himself in the Incarnation of His Son because we matter. The Resurrected Lord will return to us in earth shattering glory because we matter. We are invited to live into eternity as Princes and Princesses in the Father’s Kingdom because we matter. Or we are allowed to spend our eternity alone with our own obsessions, consumed with despair in the hell of our own making, because we matter. If death reminds us of the fragility and transitoriness of life in this fallen world, then judgment, heaven, and hell remind us that we properly belong to the eternal world yet to come and that the way we exercise our free will has great and lasting consequences.

Christ Jesus tells the faithful that they are in this world, but not of this world. For the faithful in the Resurrected Lord, this applies also to death. We cannot avoid it. We experience the sorrow of loss when a loved one dies, and in some time and manner we shall experience our own. And yet as creatures of eternal life and light, the world crucified unto us, and we unto the world, we are not living for death. We are not taking our cues from death. Our lives are not measured by when and how death happens. Before Christ, we measure our lives from birth to death; but in Christ, we measure our lives from baptism to eternity. Death is real, but in direct comparison to eternity, it is the shade of a shadow. Death keeps the attention of those souls who have chosen hell over heaven, for death is a kind of idol for them. For the faithful, though, when they put on Christ, they take off all sin and death. As St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” Death simply has no hold on us, when we are walking with Christ Jesus to the Father’s Kingdom. As described in the Book of Proverbs: “In the path of righteousness is life, and in its pathway, there is no death.”

But what consolation is this for us when we suffer the loss of someone we loved? Or how does this comfort us when we are about to die and to leave behind us those whom we know rely on our love, our service, or our financial support? Saying that death is the shade of a shadow does not ring all that true, when we are holding the cold and lifeless hand of the parent, the spouse, or the child who has passed on before our eyes. Death has lost its sting in the context of eternal life, but it is what it has been from the start in our fallen world: Unavoidable, unchastened, and irrevocable; the loss, palpable; the sorrow, deep and enduring. Just because we have faith that our loved one is with God does not in itself lessen our sense of loss. The familiarity that we had shared with that person, the intimacy, the shared history, those are gone and never again to be found in the same way with someone else. “My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me?” In those words, Christ Jesus on the Cross expressed most poignantly what we feel in those darkest moments, when our loss creeps dangerously close to despair, and when our vision of the world going forward seems devoid of a living and loving God. Put all the theological niceties about sin and death aside, and we are left with inchoate sadness, pain, perhaps the first stirrings of anger and rebellion against the God who lets this happen.

In “A Grief Observed,” C.S. Lewis describes the real anguish upon losing his beloved wife, Joy, to cancer. He writes: “The death of a beloved is an amputation.” He explains that when he tries to pray for his dead wife “bewilderment and amazement come over me. I have a ghastly sense of unreality, of speaking into a vacuum about a nonentity.” He questions his own faith in God, for “the faith, I thought it faith, which had enabled me to pray for the dead had seemed strong only because I had never really cared, not desperately, whether they existed or not.” For Lewis, the palpable loss forces him to do away with the God of his abstract mind. If God is real, then God must be there in the trenches with him as he grapples with his own grief. The Incarnation must extend not just to salvation in the hereafter, but to the cold sweats and the sorrow in the here and now. St. Paul writes in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians: “Praise be to the God and the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who will comfort us in all our troubles, so that we may comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” Yes, God does comfort us. He picks us up out of the deep well of our own grief, but we also need to reach up to Him from the bottom of that well. The way that we do that is by reaching out to others who grieve, others who have lost, others afflicted and in pain. We find God in our darkest hours in the community of the faithful – not in our abstraction about the faithful, but in the real-world time we spend with them, and them with us, as we are working through our grief. Death is never easy, and it is never good; but by grace, it can be the occasion where we learn to find Christ Jesus in our fellowship with our fellow wounded. In our loss, we can experience what it is like to be found, and we can know that God is there with us.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Published by Michael Sean Erickson

I write, act, and produce films in Los Angeles. Everything else is conjecture.

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