I heard the phrase on my first full day of basic training when I was 19: “If you’re early, you’re on time and if you’re on time, you’re late.”

My drill sergeant was scolding us for not being to formation on time. We were all confused: he told us the previous night to be downstairs, lined up, ready to get haircuts at 0600. We were in our places are 0600. Did punctuality have no meaning in the Army?

Well, as any good soldier, anything my drill sergeant told me was gospel, so I immediately kept the less on in mind: being early is best. Now, I’ve tried to teach my wife this important lesson. She believes in strict punctuality. But don’t remind her of that when she’s getting ready to go anywhere out of the house!

I tease, but this week I got to thinking, “What if I applied this to my life with Christ?” I’m not just talking about going to Mass on time, or perhaps early to get in a few prayers, or to confession early in order to examine my conscience better. No, I’m thinking of the difference between lifelong followers of Christ, and those who are like the thief on the cross.

One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” – Luke 29: 39-43, NAB

Some people find it hard to believe that deathbed conversions are possible, let alone deserving of the merits of the Cross. However, Jesus looks the dying man right in the eye and promises him some atonement. Not even just some atonement — he promised the confessed criminal that he would be in the dwelling place of Christ!

When speaking about heaven, then, should we say, “If you’re early, you’re on time and if you’re on time, you’re late” — or should we say “better late than never”?

Blaise Pascal was a French philosopher and mathematician who expanded upon the probability theory in his famous “wager” which pits one’s own life against the probability of God existing. It posits that humans all bet with their lives either that God exists or that he does not. Pascal argues that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.), whereas they stand to receive infinite gains (as represented by eternity in Heaven) and avoid infinite losses (eternity in Hell).

I admit, when I was a teen, even though I was going to Church often, volunteering, and reading the Bible for earnest understanding, I was doing these things more out of the fear of God possibly existing. I didn’t yet know God, but even if He was there and I didn’t know it, I wanted to be safe. Call it “fire insurance”.

But there’s a better way than mere insurance. Nobody works for years to buy a home, insures it, and lets the whole thing fall apart! Just like no car owner knowingly neglects to change the oil on their car every so many thousand miles. Why should we do the same with our souls?

I have a friend from high school that I’ve tried to evangelize for years and he always tells me the same thing: “Don’t worry. Right before I die, I’ll confess and ask God for forgiveness.”

Gee! I just have this feeling that most people don’t know right before they’re going to die … that they’re going to die. Just a guess. It’s not a very smart bet, and that’s what Pascal’s Wager is all about. My friend is literally betting his life against God. But it’s odd because he’s not just betting on his existence: he’s betting against God’s timing!

So we can see that late – even if it is on time – is better than never. But while being late might still get us into heaven, the wager is very risky. My pastor once said about people who narrowly get into heaven, “you might get to heaven smoking, but you’ll get there.” He’s actually right. St. Paul tells the Corinthians:

For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. —1 Corinthians 1:11-15

I’m borrowing from Tim Staples, and what this says is that our works will go through “fire,” figuratively speaking. In Scripture, “fire” is used metaphorically in two ways: as a purifying agent (Mal. 3:2-3; Matt. 3:11; Mark 9:49); and as that which consumes (Matt. 3:12; 2 Thess. 1:7-8). The problem with being late is that there are few works left over as merit from purification, and much work that will be burned up from the consuming purgatory!

How do we arrive early, then? How do we build up our works to be “early” then? Simple: we cooperate with God’s grace. The Catechism tells us that the works performed in merit of the Kingdom are never ours, but that they belong to God who gives us the grace to perform them. Here are a few examples from CCC 2008-2027:

  • The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace.
  • The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful.
  • Man’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.
  • The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness.
  • Our merits are God’s gifts.
  • Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion.
  • Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.
  • The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace.
  • Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ.
  • We can have merit in God’s sight only because of God’s free plan to associate man with the work of his grace.
  • Merit is to be ascribed in the first place to the grace of God, and secondly to man’s collaboration.
  • Man’s merit is due to God.
  • Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life, as well as necessary temporal goods.

See, we cannot go through life and make works that are good, but they are always in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. These works are done for God, by God. We are vessels. The merit that is received from these, too, comes from God as a gift. Why else, if not because He has already gifted to us the power to perform the works worthy of merit?

So we can see, being early really is better than being on time. In the army of God, the formations do not revolve around uniform inspections, dress right dress, spacing, marching, and flanking movements. In God’s army, formation revolves around the development and shepherding of souls. Having an early formation by choosing to cooperate with God on a daily basis – and as soon as possible — is the best means of being on time to the heavenly feast. Here’s the truth: it is damning to be late. It’s good to be on time. But it’s best to be early.