Psalm 66:1-7, 16, 20
Luke 10:1-12, 17-20
“Do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in Heaven.”
Friday evening I went to a gathering with some brother priests at Sacred Heart parish in Baton Rouge. We began the evening with a Eucharistic Holy Hour and about midway through it I began to look at and pray with the stained glass and paintings all around me. Then something caught my eye – a small pane of glass by the side door about 3 feet tall and a foot wide. At the top it read clearly “Hell” and below were flames and a serpent. After the Holy Hour we toured the church and I found that in addition to that window there were three others containing the phrases “Heaven”, “Judgment” and “Death,” each with appropriate pictures. As I showed a few of the other priests I joked that if I were a parishioner there I would have to find some other doors to exit the building each week. But as I reflected on it through the evening I was struck by the fact that the last thing we saw before we walked out the door was a reminder of what is traditionally known as the Four Last Things and noticed a change in the way I thought, spoke, and acted for the rest of the evening.
Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell are not exactly the most popular conversation pieces, nor are they the most exciting thoughts to take to prayer and reflection. The uncertainty of the afterlife and the understandable fear of death, judgment, and hell is one reason to avoid the topic, as is our the difficulty at grasping the reality of spiritual things and concepts like ‘eternity’. But in my reflections I came to see that, at least for myself, the main reason why I fail to reflect enough on these Last Things is because of a sin called presumption. ‘Surely that won’t happen to me!’ we can think. It’s not always a conscious thought, but there is something in me – and maybe in you as well - that presumes because I am a good person my name is already written in Heaven and I expect to get in.
Expecting to get to heaven, though, isn’t a bad thing. In fact that Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that hope is “the theological virtue by which we desire and expect from God both eternal life and the grace we need to attain it” (Glossary, referencing #1817). So what is the difference between expecting heaven as a virtue (hope) and expecting heaven as a sin (presumption)? It all comes down to our willingness to work with the Lord. The definition of hope includes the recognition of our need for grace to work with the Lord to attain salvation. Presumption is when we simply expect to get to heaven but fail to put forth the effort to make that expectation a reality. It’s a subtle difference, but that’s how the devil works. He takes something of the truth and tweaks it to be also a lie. We usually don’t accept things that are blatantly false. But, as the devil knows well, we will often take in that little truth that we see and fail to see the negative effects that are included alongside it.
For instance: Is God merciful? Absolutely! God is mercy itself, manifested most clearly through the sign of the Cross. We’ve heard week after week how merciful God is, that there is nothing that we can do that will make Him quit loving us. And every bit of that is true. But I guarantee that everyone in this church has experienced this scenario: you’re in a little gathering with friends and it’s a lighthearted conversation. You get to a point when someone is talking about doing something that is a sin, and then the little joke comes – ‘oh, it’s not a big deal. That’s what confession is for! God will forgive you!’ Presumption upon God’s mercy. We know the Lord is merciful and we use it to our advantage to do as we please because ‘we can always go to confession.’
Or this one: God understands! Does God understand us? Absolutely! He created us and knows us more than we know ourselves. And when we’re in the midst of a struggle – or maybe not much of a struggle – with a thought of doing something that we know is wrong the easy out is always ‘God understands’. ‘God knows my heart. God understands that I’m weak. God understands.’ And then we give ourselves permission to do as we please, presuming on God’s love and awareness of our brokenness.
And the most grievous is presumption that we’re going to heaven. I’m pretty sure most of us would think of ourselves as good people. We do things for the Church here and there, we make our Sunday obligation, we try to live good most of the time and we content ourselves with that. We become comfortable being good. But the problem is that the devil wants us to be good people. Think about that. The devil wants us to be good people. Why? Because the Father calls us to be perfect. If we content ourselves with being good, then we cease striving for perfection. One day we were talking about striving for perfection in class at the seminary and our professor wisely said, “Men, I don’t want to live a good life hoping to flop over the line into purgatory because if I fall short I wind up in hell. I want to live a life striving to be perfect and get straight to heaven because then if I fall a little short, I still wind up in purgatory.” We don’t like to think that we could go to hell. It’s not a thought any of us enjoys hearing, but the truth is that if we don’t actually try to get to heaven, with God’s grace, then we might well miss the boat.
God doesn’t want us to miss out on the joys of heaven; it was for eternal LIFE that we created us in the first place, but we must choose that life and show my our actions here on earth that we long to be with him forever in heaven. So let us today as the Lord for the grace in this Eucharist to root out any sins of presumption that may rest in our hearts and fill us with zeal to strive for holiness here on earth that we can rejoice at beholding His face for eternity in Heaven.
|Stained Glass of Four Last Things at Sacred Heart Church, Baton Rouge, LA|