I am very glad to be posting on this day, the first Sunday of Advent, because it affords me the opportunity to meditate on a theme which one seldom hears preached from the ambo but upon which our very salvation rests! This theme, of course, is Christ’s return (parousia) in judgment over the living and the dead on the last day (eschaton).

ChristMost Christians, and many non-Christians for that matter, could easily identify Jesus’ resurrection is the central belief of Christianity. In fact, it is only in the light of Christ’s resurrection that other Christian dogmas, such as the Trinity and Incarnation, can be seen as revealed truths. But what is often obscure is the meaning of Christ’s resurrection for us. Jesus’ resurrection is the “first fruit,” i.e., the sign and the promise, of the transformation that awaits all of creation (cf. 1 Cor 15:23-24). To put it plainly: a heaven of disembodied spirits is not our ultimate destination. Our ultimate destination, what we hope for, is the transformation of the entire cosmos, God’s Kingdom on earth, and our own resurrection into eternal life.

The celebration of Christ’s first coming at Christmas ought, therefore, to make us “groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23). Just as at the birth of an earthly prince, an heir to the throne, we might anticipate the time when he finally rules over his kingdom, so too do we anticipate at Christmas the time when Christ’s Kingship (last Sunday) will be manifest “on earth as in heaven” (Mt 6:10). The Preface Prayer from today’s Mass reminds us that this is the fulfillment our hope.

For he assumed at his first coming the lowliness of human flesh,

and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago,

and opened for us the way to eternal salvation, that,

when he comes again in glory and majesty and all is at last made manifest,

we who watch for the day may inherit the great promise in which we now dare to hope.

One might say that our very lives while here on earth are preparation for the Kingdom. Jesus’ own Gospel proclamation announced its arrival. “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15; cf. Mt 3:2). Jesus’ life, his teachings, and the grace which he bestows upon us through the sacraments of the Church, are all preparations for this Kingdom; a Kingdom which will only be consummated at his return. In this regard, all Christians are called to be Echatological Christians; that is, Christians who pray and long for Christ’s return. We are all called, with St. Paul, to pray “Marana tha” (1 Cor 16:22), which means “Our Lord, come,” or, as elsewhere in the NT, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).

Sistine ChapelThus, perhaps for reflection on this First Sunday of Advent, we ought to ask ourselves: Do I pray for the coming of the Lord or would I prefer that he take his time in returning? Have the goods of this world captured my imagination so that, in my everyday life, I have made them ends in themselves rather than means to my salvation? Do I live St. Paul’s exhortation to “not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of [my] mind” (Rom 12:2). Will the Master of the house arrive and find me sleeping, at rest with the comfortable life I have made for myself? In today’s Gospel Christ reminds all of us to be prepared for his return at any and every moment. “Watch!” (Mk 13:37).

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

 Don’t miss Saint Joseph’s College Online faculty (and blogger!) Susan Timoney presenting a webinar through the Catholic Apostolate Center on December 2. Click here for details!

Making Sense of Suffering

The tragic choice of Brittany Maynard for (physician-assisted) suicide (here are Brittany Maynard’s first and second videos) and of the response of Raleigh (NC) seminarian Phillip Johnson (see his open letter, “Dear Brittany: Our Lives Are Worth Living, Even With Brain Cancer”) draw into sharp relief two different views about how to handle suffering at the end of life. Both had aggressive forms of brain cancer. Both were terrified, as anyone would be, of passing through a horribly debilitating state before death and of the effect on their loved ones of seeing them in that state.

ignatius of antiochWhile it is important to give well-founded arguments against physician-assisted suicide, it is equally important to give a thoughtful, nuanced response to the problem and mystery of suffering as we encounter it in our society today. In an effort to consider this topic from a Christian perspesaint-thomas-more-00ctive, I have introduced into my bioethics courses readings by and about saints on the problem of suffering and death. One such book is On Christian Dying by Matthew Levering. Reading through this book, one notices that some saints willingly—even eagerly—embrace suffering, that other saints strive mightily to avoid it, and that in each case, suffering is a very personal experience.

For example, consider the very different experiences of two martyrs: Saint Ignatius of Antioch and Saint Thomas More. St. Ignatius sounds positively gleeful that his execution might mark for him an “auspicious beginning” to eternal life “if only I obtain the grace of taking due possession of my inheritance without hindrance.” He writes the Christians in Rome not to intervene with Roman authorities to commute his sentence. Rather he asks “suffer me to be the fruit of wild beasts, which are the means of my making my way to God” (On Christian Dying 2-3).

Yet St. Ignatius’s letter to the Christians in Rome acknowledges the evil of his suffering, as when he refers to his guards as “wild beasts… who prove themselves the more malevolent for the kindnesses shown to them” (On Christian Dying 3). His words even suggest his own fear of a slow, agonizing death when he hopes that the lions finish him quickly: “Better still, coax the wild beasts to become my tomb and to leave no part of my person behind: once I have fallen asleep, I do not wish to be a burden to anyone. Then only shall I be a genuine disciple of Jesus Christ when the world will not see even my body” (On Christian Dying 3). But does St. Ignatius seem a bit too eager to die? Perhaps he fails to appreciate the goodness of remaining in this earthly life. Or perhaps his eagerness is explained by the fact that he is a bishop and recognizes the need to set a perfect example of the willingness to accept martyrdom rather than abandon his faith to escape persecution.

St. Thomas More was also motivated by the need to set a faithful example for his fellow Christians, but he hardly displayed St. Ignatius’s eagerness to be a martyr. More was sentenced to death for refusing to acknowledge Henry VIII’s supremacy over the Church of England and spent the days before his execution in the tower of London, where he wrestled with his own fear and sorrow by meditating on Christ’s final hours. He writes to console himself and to edify anyone who might later read his writings. He earnestly did not want to die, observed that Jesus didn’t either, and struggled to share Christ’s willingness for self-sacrifice. More takes Jesus’s fear as “evidence” that fear and avoidance of death is entirely natural and proper to human beings.

As averse as he is to suffering death at the hands of his executioners, More never accepts sin to avoid death. Rather, he recalls Saint Paul’s comforting words to the Corinthians: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13) Then he wrote, “[W]hen things have come to the point of a hand-to-hand combat with the prince of this world, the devil, and his cruel underlings, and if there is no way left to withdraw without disgracing the cause, then I would think that a man ought to cast away fear and I would direct him to be completely calm, confident, and hopeful.” (On Christian Dying 83)

With these words Saint Thomas More brings us to one of the most difficult decisions a person can make, the decision to confront intense suffering without compromising moral integrity. He had to accept hopefully a different life than the one he had planned when tragedy was thrust upon him. In his weaker moments, being “completely calm, confident, and hopeful” was more aspiration than reality. But the way he died displayed a deep faith and a willingness to wrestle with the problem of suffering and death. I do not know what Britney Maynard’s faith commitments were and have no judgment to make about her existence now. At the same time, her videos do not express a grappling with the problem of suffering that each person must at some point confront. Perhaps she did. I hope so and would like to know what she thought. I do know the faith commitments of seminarian Philip Johnson. When his diagnosis dashed hopes and dreams, he did the hard, messy work of discerning new reasons to live. Thank you, Philip Johnson, for your example.

Grattan Brown teaches Ministry to the Sick and Dying for Saint Joseph’s College Online.