Third of a Four Part Series on the signs that are to precede the Last Judgment
“And there came one of the seven angels, who had the vials full of the seven last plagues”–Apoc. xxi. 9
Plan of Discourse.
I will do penance, O God of goodness, with Thy grace, which I beg of Thee through the merits of Mary and the prayers of our holy guardian angels; such is the conclusion that each one should make.
But what am I saying? That the signs that are to announce the coming of the Judge on the last day are signs and effects of God’s goodness and mercy? Those awful signs, the mere sight of which shall fill men with terror and dismay? Those signs that, as we have seen already, are ghastly portents showing forth the implacable hatred, anger, and wrath of God against sinners? Are they at the same time to be signs of His mercy towards the same sinners? Truly, my dear brethren, that is the case! They shall be signs of the implacable wrath of God that will be poured out without mercy on all sinners on the day of judgment; but at the same time they will be signs of the present goodness and mercy of God, according to the words of the Prophet: ” When thou art angry, thou wilt remember mercy;”(4) so that the sinners who are in the world in those days, frightened by the signs, may enter into themselves, do penance, be converted, and thus escape the anger of the Judge; as St. Thomas of Aquin says, “that the hearts of men may be prepared for the judgment, being forewarned by those signs.” (5)
“No one,” says St. Augustine, “who wishes to strike you will cry out to you to be on your guard.”(6) I am about to draw my sword to kill you! A man who threatens in that way gives clear proof that he is not in earnest, but that he wishes the other to escape his sword by running away. If a judge were to send to a thief whom he has caught in the act, telling him that when he hears the clang of arms or a certain bell toiling, it is a sure sign that the soldiers are on their way to apprehend him, put him in prison, and when sentence has been passed on him to bring him out to the place of execution, what would you think of that? Would the judge appear to you to be in earnest about putting the thief to death? No; quite the contrary; the judge in such a case must be a good friend of the tliief, and would be very glad to see him make his escape. For as the old saying has it, “the cat that mews too much will never make a good mouser,” So it is; he who intends to get hold of his enemy lets not a word of his purpose be known; he hides his weapons and does not draw them until he has the other completely in his power, so that he cannot escape. One of the first and most necessary qualities of a general is silence; he must know how to keep secret the plans he forms against the enemy; he should not reveal them even to his most intimate friends, much less to his own soldiers, that no one may betray them; and if sometimes he publishes that on a certain day, at a certain hour he shall make a sally to surprise the enemy, the latter think at once: “‘oh, that is only a blind! We need not fear that attack; but there is some other plan in his mind, and we must be on our guard not to be surprised by it.”
Mark, says St. Augustine, and be amazed at the wonderful long-suffering and mercy of God, which He will show even on that day when He will with terrible portents arm all creatures against sinners: “if He really wished to condemn sinners to hell He would conceal His wrath against, them,”(7) and would reserve His vengeance till the very last moment, when He might fall upon them unawares in the midst of their sins and vices. But as it is, He has already warned them long since by His prophets to be on their guard; for “there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars, and upon the earth distress of nations by reason of the confusion of the roaring of the sea and of the waves; “(8) so when you behold those signs be sure that the angry Judge shall soon come to condemn you to hell if you do not repent and amend your lives. What else, then, do the manifold signs that are to succeed each other signify, if not that God does not wish the sinner to be lost, and that He intends to warn him to do penance in time, so as to escape the divine anger?
When the disobedient Absalom rebelled against his father David with intention of usurping the crown, David at once raised an army and marched against him. Who would not have thought that the father’s intention was to punish his undutiful son and put him out of the way? Yet his loving, paternal heart was quite differently disposed. When he sent out his generals to fight, his strictest injunction on them was, ” Save me the boy Absalom.'(9) Whatever you do, see that he escapes unhurt. His wish was not merely that his son should not be killed, but that he should be taken care of; “Save me the boy!” But did David act consistently in this? If he wished Absalom to be saved, why did he send an army against him? Or was he forced to do so in order to protect himself? Otherwise could he not have kept his army at home if he wished his son to come to no harm? Truly he might have done all that, says St. Augustine; but he wished, to humble the pride of his rebellious son. I will show him, thought he, that I am not wanting in the power to punish him, so that, frightened at the sight of my army, he may submit and return to his father; but my generals must know that I do not desire his destruction, and therefore I command them to be careful of him and do him no harm. Such, too, is the reason “why the Almighty God will assume the appearance of anger when, as we have seen in the last sermon, He will with terrible portents call all creatures to arms to conquer sinners, His rebellions children. His object, namely, is to chastise their disobedience in such a way that through fear of the impending last judgment and the signs that are to precede it they may humble themselves, and by doing timely penance gain eternal life. ” Save Me the boy,” He says in His fatherly, loving heart. Save Me the souls of My children, although they are rebels and disobedient!
And as we read in Holy Writ, such is the manner in which God has always acted. When He was forced by the many sins of mankind to inflict some general punishment on the world, He hardly ever did so without having long beforehand announced it by His prophets, or by signs and portents, so that people by doing timely penance might escape the effects of His anger. Thus He acted towards the Ninivites, to whom He sent the Prophet Jonas to announce through all the streets of the city: “Yet forty days, and Ninive shall he destroyed.”(10) Who, on hearing this terrible threat, would not imagine that God was exceedingly embittered against the wicked city? Yet it is beyond a doubt that by that very threat He showed Himself most merciful and gracious to it. St. John Chrysostom, considering this circumstance, turns to God in wonder and asks Him: My Lord and my God! what art Thou doing? “Why dost Thou announce the punishment Thou art about to inflict?”(11) I do so, answers the Almighty, that I may not be obliged to punish; that My threats may not have to be fulfilled. And the Ninivites found out the truth of that; they knew God and were aware that He is a merciful Lord, says St. Ephrem.(12) When they heard the sermon of Jonas they entered into themselves, did penance, and thus appeased the anger of God, so that His threats against them came to nothing.
So He acted towards the wicked king Pharao, who so cruelly persecuted the people of Israel. The many and wonderful plagues with which He afflicted the whole land of Egypt are well known from Scripture, yet He did not actually inflict one of them until He had sent Moses to Pharao to give him warning. “Behold,” says the Lord, if thou wilt not let My people go, “I will kill thy son, thy first-born.”(13) I will send on thy land a plague of grasshoppers, etc. If Pharao had submitted, not one of the threats would have been fulfilled. And so the Almighty acted afterwards. When He was minded to give the city of Jerusalem into the hands of its enemies, Isaias had to wander about the streets for a long time beforehand without clothing, to give warning of the impending calamity. When He threatened the Jewish people with slavery under the hard yoke of the Assyrians, He sent Jeremias bound in chains on before. And again when about to punish the inhabitants of Jerusalem with famine, Ezechiel had to eat nothing but the dung of cows and oxen for three hundred and ninety days. All these things were signs of the future wrath of God; but at the same time they were proofs of His present mercy. With reason does the Prophet David say to his God: “Thou hast given a warning to them that fear Thee, that they may flee from before the bow, that Thy beloved may be delivered.”(14)
Now, my dear brethren, you see how it is that those terrible signs that are to announce the wrath of God before the last day are at the same time proofs of the divine mercy and goodness, intended for the conversion and amendment of the sinner. And yet, what should excite our utmost astonishment, a very small number of sinners shall then be moved to bewail and amend their wicked lives. The natural fear and anguish inspired by such awful phenomena will cause them to wither away with terror, that is true; but when their fear is past they will not be a whit better than before; they will be like the people of the time of Noe when he was preparing for the flood; they will not even believe that those signs are to announce the last day, nor that the general judgment is at hand; but will rather laugh at the good who will believe in them, and ridicule their credulity as too simple, and so they will continue in sin until the fire carries them off impenitent before the tribunal of God; and that shall be the case with many. Is not that, I ask, a most astonishing thing? Yet why should we be surprised at it, my dear brethren? Do we not act in precisely the same manner in our own days when the Almighty sends us or threatens us with public calamities? We shall see that in the
Public calamities are to us what the signs that are to precede the last day shall be to those who are to live towards the end of the world. They shall be exceedingly terrified and dismayed, “for there shall be then great tribulation, such as hath not been from the beginning of the world until now.”(15) Such, too, is the effect of calamities on us; they terrify us and fill us with anguish; when we feel them we commence to moan and sigh: alas! how wretched we are! etc. And yet, as with the signs of the last day, so with those calamities. For what else are they but proofs of God’s mercy and goodness to sinners, whose only object is to humble men, chastise them in a fatherly manner, make them enter into themselves, repent of their sins, amend their lives, and so escape eternal punishment in hell? For public calamities are never sent on a country except on account of the sins of the people, in order to eradicate them and put a stop to them. This truth has often been preached from the pulpit, and therefore it requires no further proof; it is a truth founded on the infallible word of God, and one therefore of which the holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church have not the least doubt.
The seraphic St. Francis, as St. Bonaventnre writes in his Life, being once on a journey, came to a country where there was nothing but weeping and lamentation among the people because their cattle were devoured by the wolves and their corn was destroyed by constant hail-storms. When Francis heard this he said to the people: “My dear people, do you know the cause of the evils you suffer from? Do you know the hand that inflicts them? It, is God, Who in His mercy visits you for your sins and misdeeds, that you may not be lost eternally. But do you wish to be freed from this scourge? Then the matter rests with yourselves; remove the cause; repent and amend your lives, and the evil will cease.” And wonderful to relate, because it is such a rare experience, this one exhortation was enough to induce the people to amend; they did penance for their sins and humbly begged God to forgive them, when, behold! the scourge ceased at once:(16) the wolves disappeared; the hail-storms, although they came now and then and did some damage in the neighborhood, melted before they arrived at the land of the penitent people, as if to say: we are not any longer commissioned by the Creator to injure this country. When Constantinople was shaken by terrible earthquakes, so that the people, filled with fear and anguish, knew not where to turn, St. John Chrysostom mounted the pulpit and began to preach in the following terms: Blessed be those earthquakes! What you, my brethren, think of them, I know not; the trouble and agitation you manifest give me to understand that you look on them as a calamity; but for my part I praise and bless my God on account of them, and am convinced He merits our sincerest gratitude for having sent them to us. Why so? “You have seen the goodness and mercy of God. The shaking and trembling of the earth is a voice that cries out to our hearts, that being led to repentance by fear we may avoid a far worse punishment.”(17)
With a similar reasoning St. Jerome shut the mouths of the Manichaens. These heretics advanced so far in error and malice that they did not hesitate to accuse God of cruelty and tyranny, and they tried to support this blasphemous assertion by the words of the Prophet Amos: “Shall there be evil in a city, which the Lord hath not done?”(18) See! they exclaimed, what sort of a God is that who causes so much evil in the world by plagues and pestilences, that carry off thousands; by unfruitful seasons, that cause many to be in want of proper nourishment; by wars, that devastate cities and countries, and reduce the inhabitants to the verge of poverty and despair? All these and similar hardships come from God, who persecutes poor mortals; and besides He boasts that He is the Author of them. What tyrant ever acted more cruelly to his unfortunate subjects than this God does to His creatures? O wicked, ignorant, and conceited heretics, cries out St. Jerome, what are you saying? What you call cruelty in the Creator we refer to the multitude of His mercies.(19) There is no evil, misfortune, trouble, or whatever else you may call it in the world, that does not come from the Lord. True; infallibly true! But what then? Do you think that God should allow your sins to remain unpunished? Should the God of infinite holiness look on calmly while the world is being turned into a nest of adulterers, drunkards, thieves, and murderers? Where is the righteous ruler in the world who does not ordain just punishment for the vices of his people? It is you, you, O wicked people, who, if there were no other sinners besides yourselves, would force the good and merciful God to have recourse to such chastisements. And besides your sins, what a mass of wickedness is not committed daily in the world? Is it any wonder then that the godless world should be chastised by so many calamities? Let us rather return humble thanks to the Lord whenever He visits us in that way. The punishments are hard indeed, but at the same time they are a wholesome medicine which we can and ought to use for the amendment of our lives and to gain heaven, lest being hardened in sin we should be hurled down to hell. Such was the sermon preached to the heretics by St. Jerome.
Therefore, my dear brethren, in our times, too, public calamities and troubles are proofs and effects of the divine mercy and goodness to sinners. But, alas! I must again ask, how do we receive them? Do we not generally act as the wicked will act towards the end of the world, when they shall behold the portents that announce the last day? The good and pious pray and cry out to Heaven, and redouble their penances and works of devotion to avert the punishments impending over us; but they who are almost the sole cause of the evil, who for years and years have been indulging in sin, how do they act? How are they affected? If there is nothing more than menaces at first; if there are signs of plagues, war, or famine in the distance to warn them to repent and amend, oh, they think, like the incredulous Israelites when warned of impending chastisement by the prophets, “the evil shall not come upon us: we shall not see the sword and famine. The prophets have spoken in the wind.”(20) No, there is no danger; preachers are talking of it, but their words are mere empty threats to frighten children; we have heard them often and not seen them fulfilled. We shall go on in the old way; “the evil shall not come upon us.” Others may feel the rod a little, but we shall remain unharmed. And if they, too, feel the chastising hand so that they are convinced that the threats are not idle, how do they act then? Do they amend their lives? Very few of them do; the most remain obstinate and refuse to see what is before their eyes. “O Lord, Thy eyes are upon truth,” so speaks the Prophet Jeremias to God: ” Thou hast struck them and they have not grieved; Thou hast bruised them and they have refused to receive correction; they have made their faces harder than the rock, and they have refused to return.”(21) But, holy prophet, how is that possible? If they have been beaten, surely they must have felt the blows? How then is it that they had no sorrow or repentance? I will tell you, answers the prophet; “they have denied the Lord, and said: It is not He.”(22) They feel the rod and it hurts them, but they refuse to believe that it is wielded by the hand of God; they will not acknowledge that it is God who punishes them, who sends, them wars, sickness, famine, misfortune, poverty, on account of their sins. “They have said: It is not He;” the Lord has not done this; the sickness comes from the impure air; princes and potentates are the cause of the war: this or that cruel man has brought misfortune on our country, etc. Thus they lay the whole blame on creatures; they try to get hold of the rod that beats them, but they do not look at the hand that wields it.
And why so? For what purpose do they refuse to acknowledge God as the Author and Cause of calamities and troubles? That they may not have to confess that such things are sent as a punishment of their sins, and be not forced to repent and amend their wicked lives. “O Lord, Thou hast struck them, and they have not grieved;” they have not entertained the least thought of repentance; Thou hast pressed hard on them, but they are not convinced; “they have refused to return.” It is not so in reality, my dear brethren? Is the world any better for the troublous times it has been passing through hitherto? Is there any diminution of pride, of vanity, luxury, and indecency in dress? Is avarice a thing of the past? Are people more scrupulous as to how they make money? Are unlawful intimacies given up? Is drunkenness, is the foul habit of cursing and swearing, abolished? Are parents more careful in looking after their children? Alas! is not the world just the same in these respects as it always was? Nay, does it not seem to have grown worse than ever? Must we not acknowledge with the Prophet Isaias: ” Behold Thou art angry, and we have sinned: in them we have been always”?(23) O Lord, Thou hast chastised us through mercy, yet we continue to sin; we remain as bad as we were before. There is no denying the evidence of our own eyes.
It seems to me that things are going on as in the ship that was carrying the obstinate Jonas. A furious storm burst upon the sea and exposed the ship to the greatest danger; the sailors and rowers ran hither and thither in a fright; with great trouble they succeeded in taking in sail; they pumped the water out, and cried and groaned to Heaven in their distress. Meanwhile what was Jonas, the sole cause of the disaster, doing? “Jonas,” says the Scripture, “went down into the inner part of the ship and fell into a deep sleep.” The cries and groans disturbed him not in the least, so that the sailors had to awaken him by force: “And the ship-master came to him, and said to him: Why art then fast asleep? rise up! call upon thy God, if so be that God will think of us, that we may not perish.”(24) In the same way, I repeat, we act in the storm of calamity; prayers and sighs and groans, entreaties for mercy and grace are sent up to Heaven; but by whom? Generally speaking by those who are least to blame for the storm; by good, pious souls who have always been zealous in the performance of works of devotion and piety, and faithful in the service of God. But on the other hand, what is done by sinners who alone are to blame for the evil on account of their bad and vicious lives, and for whose sake the innocent, too, have to suffer? Ah, little they care for the cries of the others! Like Jonas they sleep in the depths of their sins; the calamities they suffer do not make them more diligent in visiting the church; they do not dream of trying to avert the divine anger by doing penance for their sins.
Nay, some of them are so stupid as to give up praying; their despair drives them to curse when they feel the rod; they seek still more the occasions of sin and bad company, and rejoice when the carnival begins at Shrove-tide. Fine times indeed we have now to think of such things! Sinner, “why art thou fast asleep?” Rise up; call upon thy God! be converted; help us to pray and do penance, for God has visited us on account of your sins! Rise up, O unchaste man! give up your impurity, the intimacy in which you have been living unlawfully with this or that person! Call upon thy God; it is your adultery, your shameful acts, your unlawful love that has brought this chastisement on us! Rise up, vain child of the world! lay aside that scandalous dress and put on the garb of penance! Call upon God; humble yourself before Him whose anger you have aroused by your filthy pride and vanity! Rise up, O vindictive man, and be reconciled with your enemy! Call upon God for pardon of your sins; your hatred, anger, quarrelling, and fighting are the occasion of the evils we are suffering! Rise up, unjust man! give back what you have gained by usury and injustice; your greed of gold has brought us to poverty! Rise up, all of you, and call upon God! Awake out of your sleep; do penance; for God will not relax until they who are the cause of His wrath submit to Him. The sole object of the Almighty in thus chastising us is that we may amend our lives. But there is little use in preaching or exhorting. At the first call Jonas acknowledged that he was to blame: “Take me up,” he said, “and cast me into the sea, and the sea shall be calm to you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is come upon you.”(25) But they hear others groaning and lamenting and do not mind it in the least; they keep on in the sleep of sin and never think of repenting. But wo to us if we are not led to repent by the scourge! For what else have we to expect but that after the temporal evil, which is an effect of the divine mercy, we shall have to suffer eternal torments in hell as an effect of the divine justice?
No, O good God, let it not come to that! If I am the Jonas who has brought on the storm, behold! I give myself up to Thee; I acknowledge that I have deserved to be punished; I humbly implore Thy mercy, and kiss the fatherly hand that chastises me here. Truly, O Lord, I thank Thee for having thus awakened me from the torpor of sin! I will atone for my sins; even now I begin to detest them with all my heart; my life and all in me that has hitherto been displeasing to Thee shall with Thy help and grace be completely changed and amended. I only beg of Thee to turn away from so many innocent souls in this city and country the evils that menace them, and to save me from eternal punishment, for the temporal evils that I confess I have deserved I accept from Thee as an atonement for my sins. Amen.
2. Poenitentiam agite; appropinquavit enim regnum caelorum.–Matt.iii.2.
3. Dirigite viam Domini.–John i. 23.
4. Cum iratus fueris, misericordiae recordaberis.–Havac.iii.2.
5. Ut corda hominum ad judicium praeparentur, hujusmodi signis praemoniti.
6. Nemo volen ferire, dicit, observa.
7. Si damnare vellet, taceret.
8. Erunt signa in sole, et luna, et stellis, et in terris pressura gentium prae confusione sonitus maris et fluctuum.–Luke xxi. 25.
9. Servate mihi puerum Absalom.–II. Kings xviii.5.
10. Adhuc quadraginta dies, et Ninive subvertetur.–Jonas iii.7.
11. Cuju rei gratia quae facturus es mala, praedicis?–S.Chrys. Hom. de Jon.
12. Cognoverunt Deum ut misericordem.
13. Ecce ego interficiam filium tuum primogenitum.–Exod.iv.23.
14. Dedisti metuentibus te significationem, ut fugiant a facie arcus; ut liverentur dilecti tui.–Ps. lix.6.
15. Erit enim tunc tribulatio magna, qualis non fuit ab initio mundi, usquemodo.–Matt.xxiv.21.
16. Ab illa hora cessaverunt clades.
17. Vidistis Dei benignitatem; ut timore meliores effecti supplicium repellamus.
18. Si erit malum in civitate, quod Dominus non fecerit?–Amos iii.6.
19. Nos referamus ad magnitudinem misericordiae.–S. Hier. in c. 3. Amos.
20. Neque veniet super nos malum; gladium et famen non videbimus. Prophetae fuerunt in ventum locuti.–Jer.v. 12,13.
21. Dominie, oculi tui respiciunt fidem; percussisti eos, et non doluerunt; attrivisti eos, et resuerunt accipere disciplinam; induraverunt facies suas supra petram, et noluerunt reverti.–Ibid. 3.
22. Negaverunt Dominum, et dixerunt: non est ipse.–Ibid.12.
23. Ecce tu iratus es, et peccavimus in ipsis fuimus semper.–Is.lxiv.5.
24. Jonas descendit ad interiora navis, et dormiebat sopore gravi. Et accessit ad eum gubernator, et dixit ei: Quid tu sopore deprimeris? Surge, invoca Deum tuum, si forte recogitet Deus de nobis, et non pereamus.–Jonas i.5,6.
25. ollite me, et mittite in mare, et cessabit mare a vobis; scio enim ego quoniam propter me tempestas haec grandis venit super vos.–Jonas i. 12.