Remember Carnac the Magnificent?
He was the recurring character on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” who could “magically” divine the answers to questions before they were asked.
“Shovel-ready projects,” he might have said were he here today.
Then his side-kick might open an envelope to reveal the question, “What do we all become at the end of our lives?”
The late columnist William Safire once penned a hilarious column about the jogging craze when it first came into fashion.
Sure, he acknowledged, it may lower my cholesterol and reduce my chance of heart attack by some fantastic percentage. But my chance of dying remains what it always was: 100 percent!
Perhaps these dark reflections are not your style of humor, but the sobering truth they contain – that one day I will die and so will you—is something the Church asks us to meditate upon on a regular basis.
Specifically, we are to meditate on “the four last things.” Death, judgment, heaven, hell.
This is what the trio of days we celebrate each turn of November mean.
One day, we will die and face judgment. At that moment, the lives we have led and the things we’ve set our hearts on will cause one of two results.
The unpleasant end we remembered yesterday. Hell exists, and it is possible to go to it – though the good news is one need not, and this is why we’re able to mock the ghouls and goblins and monsters. We know who wins –Who has already won—the victory over sin and death.
The reality of hell discomfits us.
In once sense it ought to. There’s an old Waylon Jennings’ song, “Revelation,” which elaborates on that theme. The lyrics tell of a man having a highly realistic dream that Christ returns at the moment he’s lying in bed with another man’s wife:
“All at once the clouds rolled back and there stood Jesus Christ in all his glory;
And I realized the saddest eyes I'd ever seen were lookin' straight at me.
I guess I was awakened by the penetrating sounds of my own screamin';
And it didn't take me long to stumble out of bed and fall down on my knees.
As tears rolled down my face I cried, ‘Dear God, I'm thankful I was only dreamin'!;
And if I never go to hell, Lord, it'll be because you scared it out of me.’”
Many contemporary Christians find the doctrine of hell disturbing for another reason, though. We find the idea of a soul being damned to hell difficult to square with a loving God.
The Lord is a gentleman, though. As St. Augustine once put it, “God who created you without you, will not save you without you.”
And are we sure we really want to go to heaven? As Msgr. Charles Pope put it in an excellent post last year, of course we all want to go to a heaven of our own design. Desiring the real heaven is something else.
In heaven, God’s Kingdom, there is love for the truth, love for chastity, love for the poor, love for justice, love for one another, mercy and forgiveness are esteemed and God is at the center. But not everyone wants these things. Not everyone wants the truth, wants to be chaste, not everyone wants to forgive and love everyone. Not everyone wants God to be at the center, they prefer that spot for themselves or some other idol.
Msgr. Pope goes on to pose questions previously posed by C.S. Lewis.
“Many people can’t stand to go to Church at all, or if they do they want it to be as short as possible. If we don’t want to spend time with God here what makes us think we will want to do so after death? If the liturgy is boring or loathsome to someone now, what makes them think they will enjoy the liturgy of heaven?”
We have to pray to desire heaven truly, and allow the Lord to school us in his love, helping us to acquire a taste for the things which are noble and true, right and just.
What today’s feast of All Saints and tomorrow’s All Souls’ Day celebrate is the fact that this transformation into one who loves and desires to be with God in eternity is not only possible, but the ordinary way of a Christian – a path that we don’t walk alone, but together with those who have gone before us.