“‘And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’”
The old saying tells us that there are two things we can’t escape: death and taxes. In fact, there is actually a way to escape taxes, but it’s death: by leaving this world and all its burdens behind.
This time each year, as the days get shorter, and the Church’s year comes to a close, the Church compels us to think about our own lives growing darker and darker, and finally coming to a close. What will we face, after we face death?
The Church points our attention towards what our Faith calls the Last Things. There are four “Last Things”: death, judgment, Heaven and Hell. Three out of those four are things that most people would probably rather not think about. Unfortunately, because of the effects of Original Sin, most of us aren’t going to reach the goal of Heaven without some sober consideration of the other three.
So the Church begins this last month of her year on a high note, by celebrating the Solemnity of All Saints. The Church proclaims: “It’s actually possible! Ordinary men and women like you have made it to Heaven, so have hope as you strive for this goal!”
But from there, throughout the rest of the month, the Church challenges us. The very day after All Saints’, the Church commemorates All the Souls in Purgatory, who need our prayers because they themselves didn’t fix their attention fully on God during their lives in this world. Yes, they’re on their way to Heaven, but their souls need to be purified. Although they didn’t reject God outright, He wasn’t first and foremost in their lives. At the same time that we pray for the Poor Souls in Purgatory, the Church is implicitly asking us whether we’re likely to spend time there also, after we face death. If so, then we have the chance to do something about it now, while we are still here on earth.
But as the last Sundays of Ordinary Time are celebrated, the Church challenges us even further. The Scripture passages are demanding. Today our Scripture readings help us consider how important our good works are when it comes to the day of our death.
Today’s First Reading reminds us that so much of what we think is important passes away with time. The reading uses the example of a woman, but it just as easily applies to men: “Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”
And yet, our good works, if they are rooted in the Lord—if they are directed towards His will—are not fleeting: or at least, their effects continue to ripple through time. Speaking again of the soul who follows God faithfully, Scripture says: “Give her a reward for her labors, and let her works praise her at the city gates.” We can imagine this referring to the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem, where St. Peter stands with those keys that Jesus gave him.
There are some rich people who establish foundations to continue good works after their deaths, but these foundations are often subverted. Some universities, where such foundations were established, have been sued by descendants of the founders, because the descendants allege that the foundations are not being faithful to the intentions of the founders.
The fact is that we only have one life on this earth, and we can only control our own actions during the days that are given to us here below. Our actions will only be godly, and lead us closer to Him, if they are nurtured by God’s own grace: the grace we’re offered most especially through the Holy Eucharist.