Today’s readings (with their apocalyptic tone) can evoke feelings of anxiety and even dread amid the dire descriptions of the end of the world and what Daniel terms a time unsurpassed in distress since nations began until that time. Indeed, these distressing features surrounding the Lord’s final return have been used by some to induce fear in an effort to call sinners to repentance and conversion. Not surprisingly, then, many prefer to not think about Christ’s return in glory, while others disbelieve it, and still others reassure themselves that it will not happen in their lifetime.
There are, of course, what might be described as two final comings of Christ: The one spoken of in today’s gospel and the other that is Christ’s “return” at the moment of our death. We have no personal experience of either to know exactly how they differ. Our Catholic perspective insists that this final encounter with Christ will involve some form of judgment and a subsequent entrance into the state of heaven, or a temporary sojourn in purgatory, or the terrible possibility of eternal separation from God and all the redeemed in heaven. Notwithstanding some of these unknowns, we need to remind ourselves that Christ has made abundantly clear some of the criteria upon which this final judgment on each of us will be based.
Some of these are surprisingly simple and don’t require what we might term heroic virtue. I was hungry and you gave me to eat; naked, and you clothed me; sick or in prison, and you came to visit me. Nevertheless, it is important not to equate these actions with winning our way into heaven. Rather, it’s what freely and consistently doing these charitable deeds says about who we are or, more accurately, who we have become through our union with Christ. This, in turn, requires that total openness to Christ and to the salvation and liberation he freely offers to all who will accept it. The person who has a deathbed conversion will thus not be excluded from heaven even if they never clothed the naked or fed the hungry. However, if that conversion were authentic and this deathbed convert restored to earthly life, he or she would find themselves spontaneously serving Christ in just this way by virtue of what they had become through turning to Christ.
All this is by way of saying that despite some of the decidedly frightening cosmic manifestations of Christ’s return in glory, those who love him and strive to open themselves to the salvation he so freely offers need not fear his arrival. Similarly, those who pass from this life before his return should welcome the approach of death as they near their final breath. For as Thomas Merton observes, if, at the moment of our death, death comes to us as an unwelcome stranger, it will be because Christ also has always been to us an unwelcome stranger. For, as he explains, when death comes, Christ comes also, bringing us the everlasting life which he has bought for us by his own death.
Therefore, to prepare for whichever final encounter we experience—his second coming or our death—let us look not at signs out there in the sky or in the world around us, but let us search within ourselves for those signs of our already belonging to Christ and his kingdom. For if we are presently seeing, loving, and serving Christ in one another, we already belong to him and are even now being judged and acquitted through the saving mercy of Christ, so that when he comes in glory he will say to us: Come you blessed of my Father and inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.