4 December OS 2016 – Nativity Fast; Saturday of the 26th Sunday after Pentecost; 11th Week of St. Luke; Holy Great Martyr Barbara, St. John of Damascus
In the daily Gospel reading, our Lord commands us to be vigilant, preparing for Judgment:
The Lord said to His disciples: Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell that ye have, and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning; And ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their lord, when he will return from the wedding; that when he cometh and knocketh, they may open unto him immediately. Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them. And if he shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants. And this know, that if the goodman of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched, and not have suffered his house to be broken through. Be ye therefore ready also: for the Son of man cometh at an hour when ye think not. – St. Luke 12:32-40
These words are most obviously about the Second Coming, but St. Theophan the Recluse relates them to the hour of death and one’s own Particular Judgment as well:
We must be ready at every hour – one does not know when the Lord will come, either for the Last Judgment or to take you from here; for you they are the same. Death decides everything. After death comes the results of your life; whatever you’ve acquired, you’ll have to be satisfied with for all eternity. If you have acquired what is good, your lot will be good; if you have acquired what is evil, then your lot will be evil. This is as true as the fact that you exist. All of this could be decided this moment – here at this very moment, as you read these lines – and then, the end of everything; a seal will be set to your existence, which no one can remove. This is something to think about! But one cannot be sufficiently amazed at how little people think about it. What is this mystery which is wrought upon us? We all know that death will come at any moment, that it is impossible to escape it, but meanwhile almost no one at all thinks about it – and it will come suddenly and seize us. Even then – even when a fatal disease seizes a person, he still does not think that the end has come. Let psychologists resolve this from a scientific aspect; from the moral aspect it is impossible not to see here an incomprehensible self-delusion, alien only to one who is heedful of himself. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp . 270-271
Incomprehensible self-delusion – that’s it! Where does it come from, and what can we do about it?
Our blindness to death comes from two places – the inside and the outside of us. On the inside, despite the grace of baptism, the power of whose grace we do not activate enough by struggling against sin, our fallen nature denies the reality of death. This blindness is instinctive, unconscious, and we are all born with it. It comes from two sources, one natural and one unnatural. The natural source is the memory of immortality that resides in the human heart since Paradise. We have inherited this psychosomatically from our First Parents, and there is nothing we can do about it. Actually, in itself it is a good thing: It gives empirical proof that man was created for eternal life. Then there is the unnatural and sinful source of the blindness to death: the inherited Ancestral Sin that we are all born with, which carries the damage to the heart caused by our First Parents’ accepting the lie, “You shall be as gods.” I do not think I am going to die, because I think that I am God, that I am the source of my own life. All of my problems come from this.
The external causes of our blindness to death are illusion and distraction. Because of modern medical science, we have the illusion that there is a cure for everything. Living in the “First World,” we are not confronted daily with infant and child mortality, and we do not see adults dying young on a regular basis in the homes around us and in our own homes, dying from infections or getting kicked by mules or bitten by snakes, or just malnutrition. We live in an insulated, cosseted environment in which daily physical problems usually do not rise above the level of discomfort and inconvenience. Even when we do become dangerously ill, we are prone to think not about death and God’s judgment, about the shortness of this life and the vanity of all things here below, but about hoping for a cure, so that we can eke out a few more years of biological existence.
Because of the frenzied environment created by the demands of work or school, interrupted only by frenzied “input” from the “news” and entertainment media, we are constantly distracted and agitated. This world seems to be all there is, because it demands our attention at every waking hour. It won’t go away. We are little rats running on a wheel, and we are not allowed to get off, or so it seems.
How do we get off the wheel, calm down, face reality, and prepare for death? The key moment comes when we have a break from our duties, and we make the choice either to be distracted by the news and entertainment media or to do spiritual works: spiritual reading, prayer, preparation for confession, and the various activities of spiritual life. Every one of these moments is a moment of crisis, in the original meaning of the word: not simply an emergency, but an emergency characterized by judgment. It is a moment of judgment – we are being judged at that very moment by the choice that we make. Life consists of thousands of such moments that interrupt the duties of our work, and the final result of the choices we make at these moments is what St. Theophan refers to above: “After death comes the results of your life; whatever you’ve acquired, you’ll have to be satisfied with for all eternity.” Now we know that we can take nothing from this world with us, except our soul. “What we have acquired” is virtue or vice, grace or separation from God, holiness or sinfulness. It is up to us.
Life is short, death is certain, judgment is eternal. Let us wisely use the free moments given us by the All-Merciful God, Who desires our salvation infinitely more than we do, and Who is waiting with invincible love to give us spiritual gifts, so that He may find us watching when He comes.