Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
December is the month of Advent and Advent is about not just the First Advent at Christmas but the Second Advent on the Last Day. Accordingly, it confronts us with the reality of Judgment.
Lots of folks wonder how to get ready for the Last Judgment. Everything in your life and mine, as well as in all the rest of the Universe, is moving inexorably toward That Day. Yet when we look at the saints, we find some remarkably unconventional advice. St. Therese of Lisieux, for instance, when asked what she would do if you knew the world was about to end, said, “I would have confidence.”
The question, of course, is “In what would she have confidence?” and the answer was light years from what our culture places its trust in.
After all, consider: When some inspirational Oprah video smears the air with a schmaltzy soundtrack and we are breathily invited to “Believe” what instantly follows that word?
“…in yourself!” Again and again, when our culture talks about “confidence” what it invariably means is “self-confidence”. Our kids are, likewise, constantly taught to “believe in themselves” and “feel good about themselves”.
For Therese, all this self-help prattle was nonsense. For her, the only place for confidence was Jesus Christ. She knew herself as a sinner, so she simply threw herself into his arms like a child knowing that, while she could never get to heaven on her own steam, she could not fail to get there if he carried her.
This sort of Christian trust is (to a person like Therese) simplicity itself. To people like you and me, maybe not so much. We can play games. We can, for instance, tell ourselves “So long as I am doing good things in Department X of my life, God will forgive all the bad stuff I’m doing in Department Y.”
This is the trick that Jesus warns against when he tells us:
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.'” (Matthew 7:21-23)
This sounds dire—as though no matter how hard you try, you can’t please God or get him to love you. And, in fact, that’s true: you can’t get God to love you.
But that’s because he loves you already and we can no more buy his love with favors than we can get the sun to shine brighter by holding a mirror up to it or kick open a door that already stands wide to invite us in. Salvation is not achieved by doing something to buy God off. It is not achieved at all. It is received from God, who desires to give us himself. So nothing we do, no matter how great, will make him love us any more, because nothing we do, no matter how terrible, will make him love us any less. He is love. He himself has already bought you and paid for you sins with his blood. Your sins can no more quench that love than your spittle quench the sun.
If you would know a favorable judgment on that day, then receive that love and live in it, letting it flow out of you into the lives of others. If you do, then however you may stumble, God will help you walk all the way to heaven. For as St. John of the Cross (who successfully faced Judgment on December 14, 1591) says, “At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.”