John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
The next to last Sunday in every Church year always features a Gospel about the Last Day and the Last Judgment. As the liturgical year winds down, eschatology—that part of theology that deals with the “last things,” like death, judgment, hell, and heaven—comes to the fore. It all happens every year in November, the month the Church traditionally dedicates to prayer for the dead.
Yet we would be profoundly mistaken if we thought it’s all about death. On the contrary, it’s all about life.
It’s worth recalling that, from a Christian perspective, death is not a normal part of life. Death, at least as we experience it, is a punishment for sin (see Genesis 2:17). And sin is not the way God made man.
Now, death is not an extrinsic punishment for sin, in the sense that God could have or could have not “attached” some punishment to sin and for some reason He chose capital punishment for all of humanity. When God told Adam and Eve that, by sinning “you will certainly die,” He meant that death was an intrinsic punishment, i.e., something that necessarily followed from the choice. If you choose to walk off a cliff, gravity will “punish” you. If you choose to break your connection with God, God who is the “Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6), then death is inevitably going to follow … not because God wants to “punish” you but because by choosing to separate yourself from Life, death must ensue. As my first theology professor, Fr. Valerius Jasiński put it: God is no more “punishing” you than the electric power plant “punishes” the lamp when you disconnect it: cut off from its power, the “streetlamp dies,” the light goes out. Cut off from the vine, the blossom withers (John 15:5). Cut off from God, man dies.
God never intended man to be cut off from Him.
Nor did God intend to leave man in his disconnected state.
That is the whole answer to St. Anselm’s famous question: Cur Deus homo? Why did God become man? We answer that every week in the Creed: “for us, and for our salvation He came down from heaven and, by the power of the Holy Spirit He became man. The same Holy Spirit who, as “Lord and giver of Life,” breathes life into every man and woman that walks or has walked this planet.
So, by “dying He destroyed our death, and rising He restored our Life.” Today’s Gospel finishes what Easter began. On Easter Sunday, death itself acquired a mortal illness. Between the “already” of Easter and the “not yet” of the Last Day, it can continue in fits and starts to wreak evil, but its sentence is fixed: “and the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).
That’s what the Resurrection of the Body (which we say “look for” every week) means. The Resurrection of the Body is, like death, not something extrinsic but intrinsic: if Christ has defeated sin, He has also defeated its effects, which include death, including its effect in our bodies. One whole person—body and soul—was created by God. One whole person—body and soul—lived a good or evil life. One whole person—body and soul—will be judged and, in the light of that judgment, live forever.
Which leads us to a central truth we often forget: God gives life forever.
God is not an “Indian giver.” He does not give life and take it in death. That’s why He took our death on Himself. That’s why He came to redeem us: so that we could “have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
Once the Holy Spirit gives it, the “breath of life” He breathes into man will not go away. We’re used to talking about the “right to life” as encompassing conception to natural death, but God’s horizon is bigger: for God, life extends from conception through eternity.
The life that begins in a woman’s womb through an act which ought to be an expression of love, will never end. The life that begins a woman’s beating heart will continue, in this world and the next, in heaven or in hell, always.
Which is what makes our refusal to be open to God’s gift a particular sacrilege and our willingness to murder it—especially by abortion—a crime crying to heaven for vengeance. (Willful murder has always been enumerated by the Church as a “crime calling to heaven for vengeance.”) What God has joined together—in the body and soul of a new human being, conceived in a man’s and woman’s love—no man can put asunder (and woe to him who tries).
So, on this Sunday of the Last Judgment, we should recognize that death is not part of God’s plan for human history, and will not have the last word. The “culture of death” is itself bound to perish. The last word of human history is life, as the whole of humanity and its history stands before the Judgment Seat of God.
That vision should not scare us as much as it should impel us, in the words of St. Josemaría Escrivá, to make our souls “burn with the desire to make your Father God happy when he has to judge you” (The Way, 746). Scripture speaks of the Last Judgment as the moment when Jesus hands over humanity and its history to the Father, to Him “from whom every family on earth takes its origin,” (Ephesians 3:15) so that “God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:26-27). Like Jesus, who presents the completed work of humanity and creation to the Father, let us aspire to make Our Father proud of us on that Last Day.
Because the Resurrection of the Body means that the last word of human history is life. Life in glory or, as Daniel puts it, in “everlasting horror and disgrace.” But the final word for humanity is life. Because God never takes back the good He gives.
That’s something we might consider the next time we think about parenthood or, more properly, when we look at our children. They’re worth more than just “a firework.” They will last longer than “the splendor of the firmament” and shine even when the stars have fallen from the heavens. (Daniel 12:1-3; Markk 13:25).
What a gift we are offered!