Fourth of a Four Part Series on the signs that are to precede the Last Judgment
“For as lightning cometh out of the east, and appeareth even into the west: so shall the coming of the Son of man be.”–Matthew 24:27
“And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all tribes of the earth mourn: and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with much power and majesty.”–Matthew 24:30
Hitherto we have been considering the signs that are to precede the end of the world and the day of general Judgment, and also the persecution that is to be carried on by Antichrist, who will turn almost the whole world away from Jesus Christ by offering worldly goods, honors, and pleasures as a bribe, by deceiving people with false miracles and hypocrisy, and by forcing them to adopt his views, adhere to his side by means of cruel tortures; we have seen, too, what we are to learn from all this. In another sermon we considered the terrible signs that shall be seen in the sun, moon, and stars, and the disturbance that is to take place in all the elements, signs that shall fill the wicked with fear, but the good with consolation; and the same is to be understood of public calamities that afflict the world in our own times. On last Sunday we saw that those signs are proofs and effects of the divine mercy and goodness toward sinners, so that they being terrified may enter into themselves, do penance, and escape the anger of God on the last day; so also the calamities that we suffer from nowadays are warning voices coming from the goodness and mercy of God, to chastise us for our sins, induce us to amend, and so help us to escape the eternal punishment of hell. And what is to happen after all those signs and portents, my dear brethren? “Then they shall see the Son of man;” then the last day shall come, and Jesus Christ in His majesty and glory shall appear in the valley of Josaphat to judge the living and the dead. But when? Immediately after those signs, or a long time after? But who can tell us that? It is useless to ask, for no one knows it. All we know for certain about the matter is that the last day shall come upon men quite unexpectedly, and therefore we should always be ready for it. This is the subject of my sermon today.
Plan of Discourse
After the appearance of the signs, the last day of judgment shall come upon men quite suddenly and unexpectedly. This I shall briefly show in the first part. Therefore we should lie ready for it every hour of our lives : “Make straight the way of the Lord.” This conclusion I shall prove in the second part.
That we may observe it carefully, help us with Thy grace, O future Judge of men! We beg this of Thee through the intercession of Mary and of our holy guardian angels.
That the day of judgment shall come upon men unexpectedly is evident from the fact that God has reserved the knowledge of it to Himself, and has not and will not reveal it to any of the Prophets or to any mere mortal. There have been many holy friends of God to whom He revealed the day, nay, even the hour, of their death; there have been wicked sinners the time of whose death and eternal damnation has been foretold by the Prophets. The heavenly city of Jerusalem was shown to St. John the Evangelist. St. Paul was rapt up to the third heaven, where, as he himself tells us, he saw mysteries that may not be revealed to men. Jesus Christ often spoke to His disciples about the kingdom of God, about the indescribable joys that there awaited them as the reward of their labors: “But I have called you friends,” He says to them, “because all things whatsoever I have heard of My Father I have made known to you.”(1) But concerning the time of the end of the world and the coming of the Judge, no one either in heaven or on earth has ever heard a word. “But of that day or hour,” says Our Lord expressly to His disciples after having told them of the signs that are to announce the last day, “no man knoweth, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but the Father.”(2) With these words He restrained the curiosity of His disciples regarding the time of the general judgment, as if He said to them: why should you desire to know what is hidden from the angels and even from the Son of man Himself?
But, dearest Lord, how is it that Thou dost not know this? Art Thou not the Judge of the living and the dead, to whom the Father has committed the supreme power of deciding the fate of mortals at the last day, and therefore is it not for Thee to fix the date, to determine when the judgment shall be held? And art Thou not to know anything about it, although according to the testimony of the Apostle all the treasures of the wisdom and knowledge of God are hidden in Thee? These words of Our Lord, my dear brethren, are interpreted in different ways by commentators, amongst whom are SS. Gregory, Ambrose, Hilary, and Augustine. They say that the Son of man knows nothing about the last day, not that He is absolutely ignorant of it, but that He does not wish to reveal it to any creature; that is, He has not of it a knowledge that He can communicate to others. In the same way a priest if asked what such or such a one has said to him in confession, can with truth answer: I do not know. For in such circumstances the words mean simply: I do not know it by a knowledge that I can communicate to others; or else; I am as little at liberty to speak of it as if I were absolutely ignorant of it. Thus the knowledge of the time of the last day is kept most strictly from men, and therefore that day will come quite unexpectedly, and will fall upon men when they are least thinking of it.
Again the same truth is evidently proved by the words of Our Lord in the Gospel of St. Matthew: ”For as lightning cometh out of the east, and appeareth even into the west: so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.”(3) Lightning, as we know, appears suddenly and before one is aware of it, it shoots out of the clouds and flashes before our eyes; “so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.” He will appear to men before they have time to cast a thought on His coming. St. Paul says: “But of the times and moments, brethren, you need not that we should write to you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord shall so come as a thief in the night.”(4) Almost identical are the words we read in the Epistle of St. Peter: “But the day of the Lord shall come as a thief.”(5) A thief would never dare to break into a house when he knows the inhabitants to be on their guard. No; he who is robbed is not aware of it until he finds his things gone. Like a thief in the night the day of the Lord shall come unexpectedly. From the words of St. Paul, St. Chrysostom concludes that the coming of the Judge shall take place during the night, when men are asleep and not even able to think of it.
Finally, the same truth is confirmed by the similes used by Our Lord in the Gospel of St. Luke to describe the manner in which the men of those times shall live: “And as it came to pass in the days of Noe, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man.” And how did people act then? “They did eat and drink: they married wives and were given in marriage until the day that Noe entered into the ark.” And what then? “And the flood came, and destroyed them all.”(6) Wonderful was the blindness and stupidity of the men of those days; not the least attention did they pay to the oft-repeated warnings of the Patriarch Noe.
He was a hundred years engaged in building the ark; the people went to see his work; they doubtless asked him what the huge structure was intended for; why it contained so many divisions, rooms, partitions, and stables. Noe said to them: do penance; sin no more; appease the anger of God; in a few years the whole world shall be destroyed, for the waters shall ascend higher than the highest mountain, and there shall not be dry land enough left for a little bird to stand on; therefore be converted to God. Oh, fool that you are! they said to him; who put that nonsense into your head? Why do you plague yourself so with that useless labor? Enjoy yourself as we do; eat, drink, and be merry. Meanwhile the time for the flood came; the sky was darkened; the clouds began to collect; the sea swelled up and encroached on the dry land. Poor mortals! do you still refuse to believe? Yes; they are not the least disturbed; they go on as before, as if they were still in the golden age and had no danger to dread. They did nothing but eat, drink, dance, and sing; they had marriage-feasts, and sports, and enjoyed themselves to their hearts’ content: “And the flood came, and destroyed them all; “while they were in the midst of their sins the flood-gates of heaven were opened, and the water swept them all away. “Likewise,” continues the Evangelist, “as it came to pass in the days of Lot: They did eat and drink; they bought and sold; they planted and built; and in the day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all.”(7)
“Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man shall be revealed.”(8) Should we not think that so many signs and portents–wars, famines, pestilences, earthquakes, the persecutions of Antichrist, the disturbance of the elements–would be enough to make the men of that time watchful and vigilant? But no! When the fear and terror caused by the signs shall be at an end, they shall resume their former mode of life. Following the opinion of St. Jerome writing on the words of St. Paul, “When they shall say peace and security, then shall sudden destruction come upon them,”(9) I maintain that when the signs shall have vanished men shall live in peace and quiet for a time (how long no one can say), and will continue in their former mode of life; and although the true faith shall then be general over the world, there shall be sinners who shall lead a very wicked life, and tepid Christians who shall lead a very slothful one. Under those circumstances then, when they least expect it, “in the twinkling of an eye,” as the Apostle says,(10) fire shall fall from heaven and reduce the world to ashes, and then the dreadful trumpet shall resound in all places, and the angel’s voice be heard crying out: ” Arise, ye dead, and come to judgment!” There, my dear brethren, we have all the preparation that shall be made to introduce the great day of the general judgment. And what conclusion are we to draw from this? “Make straight the way of the Lord; ” therefore we should now prepare ourselves most carefully for that day, as we shall see in the Second Part.
This conclusion is not mine, but that of Jesus Christ, as He tells us Himself plainly in the Gospel of St. Matthew. For after speaking of the uncertainty of the last day, and saying that no man nor angel knows anything about it. He adds: ” Watch ye, therefore, because you know not what hour your Lord will come.”(11) Be ready like to a householder who expects a thief to break in, and knows not when he will come. “Watch ye, therefore,” He says, after having foretold the signs that are to precede, “for you know not when the lord of the house cometh: at even, or at midnight, or at the cock-crowing, or in the morning, lest coming on a sudden He find you sleeping.”(12) And lest we should think this warning is intended only for the disciples, He adds the following words: “And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch;”(13) prepare yourselves for My coming; do penance for your sins; order your lives so now that when the Judge comes He may find you in the state of sanctifying grace; otherwise the fire that consumes your bodies shall be only a prelude to the eternal flames of hell.
But, you think, how does this concern us? It is of interest only for those who shall be in the world after the signs shall have vanished; there is no fear of our living till the last day. But, my dear brethren, who has told us that? Can any one produce a document to certify it? Have not most of the portents that announce the end of the world been seen already? Are they not still to be seen? “Nation shall rise against nation,” says Our Lord, speaking of the signs of the general judgment, “and kingdom against kingdom.” Has not sad experience already shown us the truth of this prophecy, and do we not even yet see it actually verified? ” And there shall be great earthquakes in divers places, and pestilences and famines, and terrors from heaven, and there shall be great signs.”(14) Has not the world already beheld them? “And because iniquity hath abounded, the charity of many shall grow cold.”(15) Alas! is not this only too true, in our days, of many Catholics amongst the chosen people of God? Where do we find any characteristics of the early Christians, who had but one heart and one soul? Their very name was sufficient amongst the heathens to absolve them from every suspicion of crime. Have not pride, vanity, avarice, treachery, injustice, intemperance, impurity, reached their highest degree? Has not a beginning already been made of the dismemberment of the Roman Empire, which is one of the proximate signs of the approach of the end of the world? What more do we wait for? The coming of Antichrist? But for all we know he may be already in the world. His reign and persecution of Christians will last for three years and a half; we know not how long the interval is to be between that and the last day; and therefore it is quite within the bounds of possibility that some of us shall see the end of the world.
But, be that as it may, perhaps we shall not live till the last day. To keep one’s self always prepared for that day means to profit by the warning signs, so as to be ready to withstand the temptations and persecutions with which Antichrist shall try to pervert mankind. But although we may be in no danger from him, and the world may last for another thousand years, yet it behooves each one of us to be always on guard, and to prepare most carefully so that all may go well with us in the general judgment. Hear what St. Augustine says: “In whatsoever state the end of life shall find each one, in that state too shall the last day of the world find him;”(16) for as a man dies, so shall he be judged on the last day. If I die in the state of grace, I need not fear judgment, but rather rejoice at it; the kingdom of heaven, the society of the elect is surely open to me. If I die in the state of sin, I have nothing good to hope for on the last day; the fire of hell amongst the reprobate is and will be my lot forever. Therefore the judgment that awaits me on the last day depends on my death and the last day of my life; hence, as I should always be prepared for that day, so, too, should I be always ready for the hour of death. Now, who can tell me when that hour shall come, or where it shall find me? God alone knows that; to no purpose should I expect a messenger to be sent to warn me. I know not whether it will be after ten or twenty years, today or tomorrow, or even in this very hour while I am preaching to you. One thing I know, and that is that the Lord has warned me and all men: “Wherefore be you also ready; because at what hour you know not the Son of man will come.”(17) In the hour when you are not thinking of it, death will come and take you out of the world before the tribunal of God to the particular judgment, and whatever sentence you receive then and no other shall be the one you shall hear in the general judgment.
Therefore, my dear brethren, the conclusion is evident; every one of us who values his soul and its salvation should and must now be ready for the coming of the Judge. And I say “be ready;” for it will be too late to begin to prepare when the Judge knocks at the door; and it will be forever too late. “Watch, therefore,” I say, or rather Our Lord says, “because you know not what hour your Lord will come.” And as you cannot know it, be on your guard at all times; keep in the friendship of God; let no one dare to remain even a quarter of an hour at enmity with Him in the state of mortal sin; for perhaps during that quarter of an hour death may come unexpectedly and hurry you off to the judgment-seat. “If the good man of the house knew at what hour the thief would come, he would certainly watch, and would not suffer his house to be broken open.”(18) He would take measures to prevent his property from being stolen. And if we knew the hour of our death, would any one of us be so reckless as not to repent of his sins beforehand and be reconciled to God? But since we do not know that hour, and since any hour maybe our last, we must be at all times intent on this important business, and be ready for the long journey into eternity.
Keep constantly before your minds the uncertainty of the hour of death, in which you shall have to appear before God to be strictly judged by Him. For the reckless lives that so many Christians lead can be traced to forgetfuluess of the last end, and we have the authority of the Holy Ghost for that: “Remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin.”(19) Hear the cunning yet holy strategem employed by a certain priest who was well skilled in the art of converting souls. A man old in years and wickedness came to him for confession, and told him a long story of iniquity; the priest, guessing that he had a hard case to deal with, imposed on him as a penance a fast of one or two days. “Oh,” exclaimed the man, ” I cannot fast; it makes me giddy!” “Then,” said the priest, “put on a penitential girdle.” “A penitential girdle?” replied the other; “what is that?” “It is a belt made of coarse horse-hair or iron, which is worn on the body next the skin,” answered the priest. “O Father,” said the man, ” I am altogether too weak to wear a thing of that kind!” “Well, then, would you like to try a discipline, and flog yourself a few times a week?” “Oh, still worse for a poor old man like me! Please give me a lighter penance.” “Then,” continued the priest, “say the Rosary once a day on your knees.” “But I cannot do that,” was the man’s reply, “because I am not accustomed to kneeling.” “Well, then,” said the confessor, “as none of these penances suit you, all I ask you to do is to stand before the looking-glass every morning when you get up, and every night before going to bed, and there stroke your long beard with your hand for a time.” The old man laughed at the droll penance, but accepted it, as it seemed a light one. When he had contemplated his beard for a few days in the manner prescribed, he remarked how grey his hair was becoming, and that was precisely what the priest wanted. ” Oh ho!” thought he, “it is winter time with me already; I am hastening to the grave and it will be soon time for me to go! And what is to become of me after the sinful life I have been leading? And I have done so little good!” This thought at first filled him with dismay, but the grace of God then touched him and he came back to the priest with tears of contrition in his eyes, repeated his confession with many sighs and groans, and said he: “O Father, I can kneel, and fast, and use a penitential girdle, and take the discipline, and I will do so very willingly; there is no penance too hard for my deserts; none that I am not ready to accept, that I may at least begin to prepare for the death which I now see is close at hand for me.” And in future he led such a penitential life that his confessor had to restrain him, instead of urging him on, in the practice of mortification.
My dear brethren, I cannot give the same advice to all here, for some of us have no grey hairs to contemplate in the looking-glass. And that is the very thing that serves many as an excuse. Oh, they say, I am not old yet; I am still young, strong, and healthy; I am not in danger of death; there is no hurry for me; I can begin later on to amend my life and prepare for death, etc. Alas! that wretched “later on!” I am not old! I am still young! How many thousand souls have been hurled into hell by those excuses! Do you mean, then, that young people cannot die? But very few attain old age; most people die in their best years; and no one knows the hour when the Lord will come for him; so that young as well as old should be prepared at all times. You will amend later on, you say. What! exclaims St. Augustine, later on? ” He who thinks in that way deceives himself, and treats his death as a joke.”(20) Consider the great risk of the last day, and what depends on it. Nothing less than eternal joys or eternal torments! It is no child’s play! Is heaven such a trifle that it can be allowed to depend on an uncertain “later on”? Is hell a trifle, that the escaping it can be left to a “later on” that you know nothing about? Do you know what is said of that servant in the Gospel who puts off everything to a future time, thinking to himself: “My lord is long a-coming, mean meanwhile enjoy myself and make merry,” etc.? But how shall he fare? “The lord of that servant shall come in a day that he hopeth not, and at an hour that he knoweth not, and shall separate him, and appoint his portion with the hypocrites; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”(21)
Therefore let each one, whether young or old, make this short meditation daily, like that old man; it need not be made before the looking-glass (although that might be good for some who spend the beautiful morning hours curling their hair, or even having it curled by a person of the opposite sex– a scandalous practice that it would be well for them to change for a short meditation); you might say to yourselves: how old am I now? Fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty or more years. Shall I live a year longer? I cannot tell; this very day or hour I may be summoned before the tribunal of the Almighty. If that happened to me this day or hour, should I be ready? Is there anything on my conscience that I should first repent of and confess? If such is the case, oh, go to confession at once! Perhaps in another day or hour it may be too late! A whole eternity depends on this, and I cannot and will not burn forever with the demons in hell. I am fully determined with God’s help to go to heaven, and be happy there with God and His elect. Now, my eternity depends on my last hour, on the state in which it finds me. Therefore, I shall always be ready for it. But, you think, these are sad and melancholy meditations. Not by any means! They are full of consolation for the soul that is determined to work out its salvation; for it must be a great consolation for such a soul to find itself prepared at all times for death. These thoughts are indeed sad and melancholy for those who are not minded to amend; but they should think of the sad and melancholy meditations they will one day make in hell, when they think: I could have been eternally happy, but I did not wish to be so!
O my good God! if I had during my past life made such a meditation seriously for the space of even one Miserere, would it have been possible for me to act so carelessly as I have hitherto done? Could I have spent so much precious time in idleness, vanity, and dangerous company, and so little in Thy service? Could I have committed this or that grievous sin so often, and have remained whole weeks, months, and years in the miserable state of mortal sin? I am terrified now when I think of my negligence, and of the constant danger of eternal damnation in which I was day and night. For I might have died at any hour, and been summoned before Thy strict tribunal. Infinite thanks to Thee, O God of mercy, for havingspared me! I now heartily condemn and detest all that I have done during my life to displease Thee.
In future I shall always keep before my mind my death and the judgment that awaits me. This will be a check on my evil inclinations and desires; it will spur on my sluggish will to zeal in Thy service; it will detach my heart and affections from earthly goods and pleasures; it will sweeten the short-lived trials of this uncertain life, so that I shall bear them with patience and resignation for Thy sake and to gain heaven; for I shall say to myself: this cross may possibly last only for an hour, and then I shall go to my God and possess Him in eternal joys. Daily, as Thomas a Kempis exhorts me, I will live as if I had daily to die, to appear before Thy judgment-seat. In the morning when I awake I will make such a resolution as I should make if I knew that at evening my body was to be lying dead in the coffin; and at night before retiring to rest I will purify my conscience as if I expected to be found dead in my bed next morning. Thus I shall be ready any moment to meet Thee, my future Judge, whenever it may please Thee to call me from the world; and I shall meet Thee, not with fear or terror, but with joy and consolation, confident in Thy promise that at the general judgment I shall be among Thy elect on Thy right hand in the valley of Josaphat, and shall hear the joyful invitation: “Come, ye blessed of My Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”(22) Come, My children, enter with Me into eternal joys! Ah! grant me that great grace. My dear brethren, “make straight the way of the Lord,” and it shall be done as you wish. Amen.