By Nathaniel Richards
Perhaps it is our spiritual default at times to see Advent as a sort of Christmas Day countdown. Of course, Advent is a holy season dedicated to prayer, penance, and preparation of one’s heart for the coming of the Lord Jesus. But we Catholics might go about this season rather commercially if we’re not careful: eating the little chocolates from the cardboard Advent calendars sold at the grocery store, lighting candles in the Advent wreath just for the aesthetic, maybe buying an Advent-themed devotional that we think we’ll read (but ends up collecting dust on our nightstands). But how often do we think about the Second Coming of Christ in the season that inaugurates the Church Year? Further, how often do think about the state of our souls? How often do we think of The Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Hell, and Heaven?
The answer to those questions could vary. However, I’ll venture that we might write off such thoughts as being gloomy and not in keeping with holiday cheer. Maybe we should think of the Last Judgement during Lent or something. Even during Lententide we probably only think of what we might give up as a penance to advertise as a conversation piece. Indeed, whether in Lent or in Advent, we do not live as if the Lord is coming soon. The empty manger in the crèche we’ve set up in our homes might remind us of Our Lord’s First Advent, but we give little thought to how that was just the beginning. Truly, it is the Final Advent of the Lord that brings to completion salvation history. The Incarnate Son of God, born of a Virgin as a tender babe in Bethlehem is the same Son of God that will separate the sheep from the goats.
What’s Missing? What’s Necessary?
Yet to keep watch for the Son of God and to be found pleasing when He does come? That means being busy doing the Master’s work. For if we are found doing what we are supposed to be doing we shall surely please him. How do we please him? By allowing the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love to transform us. These virtues are supernatural gifts, true, but they also are necessary to merit Heaven.
Sacred Scripture informs us that “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). Holy Writ also says that “faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, a conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). But as St. Paul says, “there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity” (I Corinthians 13: 13). Charity of course, is the purest kind of love because it is completely selfless and likewise a gift of self. Indeed, as Our Lord says, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Without faith, hope, and especially love, we cannot be true disciples of Christ.
To prepare for the End of All Things in the Lord’s Final Advent, to be in state of grace, and to exercise all three of the theological graces is a tall order. We can’t mince words, however, because Our Lord did not. He told us simply: “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Perfection is the final goal of a Christian—and we can’t do it on our own. We need God’s Grace to begin the work, move in and with us, and complete our perfection, for without Him we are stuck in the miserable condition of sin. The war of our salvation has been ultimately won on the Cross, but as soldiers of Christ we must still battle under His banner and be crucified with Him. Catholicism is nothing else then dying to self and rising again…practicing for the Final Day of the Resurrection and Judgement. Faith, hope, and love sustain and prepare our souls for that ultimate moment.
An Augustinian Take (Sort of)
As a happy circumstance, St. Augustine wrote about the theological virtues and the End of All Things in a handbook for a spiritual son of his named Laurentius. It mostly concerns the virtue of faith and goes through basic tenets of the Creed, but the last portion of his book touches lightly on the other two virtues as well. If the reader will indulge me, I would like to touch briefly on each of the virtues and how they pertain to the Final Things. Of course, I shall have aid from St. Augustine in this endeavor with a quote here and there.
Firstly, faith is the foundation and the launching point of the spiritual life. Catholics must confess something after all, and not just anything. Augustine says that out of a “confession of faith…is meat for strong men” and it “springs hope of believers…and this is accompanied by a holy love” (Enchiridion, 132). Our Catholic Faith is revealed and given to us through Sacred Scriptures and Tradition. It must be studied, certainly, but it must be confessed. It is not enough to have read the Bible—one must believe what’s in the Bible too.
Without getting too bogged down in Augustine, I would posit to the reader: why do you believe what you believe? Further, what is it that you believe? Do you pray the Apostles Creed daily? Do you know Who Jesus is? Why did He die? Did He rise again from the dead? These sorts of questions are what faith supplies the answers for. They can be answered. If one does not have an answer or understand why the Catholic Faith is unique and greater than other religions, Christianity is probably not going to be practiced. Our religion requires something of you. Not just your assent to facts, but your own personal testimony that these facts have been revealed by God Almighty. We must “contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints” and settle for nothing else (Jude 1:3). What one settles for is what one gets. We must be like St. Paul and say with confidence “I know whom I have believed” (II Timothy 1:12).
Having treated faith, let’s treat on hope. Where are you going, Catholic soul? What are you receiving or need to receive? Who do you go to? Is it to God, Our Father? Or do you run to be nurtured by drugs, or alcohol or a p*rnography addiction? Do you aim at Heaven being your eternal home? Do you actively try to avoid sin because you wish to avoid the perpetual pains of Hell? Is God suppling your daily bread? If not, you should ask Him for it because there is in this life “constant need for as much nourishment as the spirit and flesh demand” (Enchiridion, 133). Frequent the Sacrament of Confession when you fall into sin, and the Sacrament of the Eucharist to flee from sin and preserved from it. Let Jesus and His Grace be your refuge. For these things sanctify us so that we may share in “eternal life, where we hope to live forever” (133). Despair has no place in a soul that rests in the arms of the God. “The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and torment shall not touch them” (Wisdom 3:1).
Now as to love, Augustine says “the greater the measure in which it dwells in a man, the better is the man in whom it dwells” (Enchiridion, 135). God pours Himself into vessels that are receptive and open—Grace perfects nature. All that is good in a man comes from God. We can keep His commandments if we commune and walk with Him by practicing our Holy Faith. “Faith,” notes Augustine, “obtains through prayer what the law commands” (136). The Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy are good habits to help excite and imitate the Divine Love that dwells within us but above all, do you love God for God’s own sake? Do you love men in God as God loves them? For that is the end of the law, to love God and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self (Matthew 22:37-39). To imitate that self-giving act of the Triune God and to live in everlasting communion in this relationship of self-gift that He is. He is our first cause and last end.
Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell are the end of the line. Salvation is the goal. God has provided the victory in the Paschal Mystery of His Son. By living out the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus in the theological virtues, dying to self, and knowing that our end can only be in God—we will be ready to see Him. For “when he shall appear, we shall be like to him: because we shall see him as he is” (I John 3:2). Augustine says also, “We love God now by faith, then we shall love Him through sight” (Enchiridion, 140).
We must use Advent—and our entire lives—to allow the gifts of faith, hope, and love to turn us into Christ Jesus. It is a journey unlike any other and it is excruciating at times—a Via Crucis. But it is the only journey truly worth making because it ends in Resurrection. Eternal Life with or without God is what is certain, we do not know what tomorrow holds. Light candles, maybe eat some chocolate, read that new Advent devotional you purchased—but don’t stay in a superficial realm as a Catholic. Practice the traditions of piety, but also “be zealous for the better gifts…I will shew unto you a more excellent way” (I Corinthians 12:31). Seek after that way which abides, for the Lord is coming.
Augustine, and Thomas S. Hibbs. The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope and Love. Regnery, 1996.
The Holy Bible Douay-Rheims Version: Translated from the Latin Vulgate. Baronius Press, 2003.
Nathaniel Richards is a Catholic husband and father who lives in the Ozarks. He enjoys collecting Catholic books and promises that one day he will read most of them—eventually, maybe. Starting a Catholic bookstore that sells books rather than gifts is a dream of his. He converted from Oneness Pentecostalism to Anglicanism and eventually made his way to Catholicism in 2015. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.