"The Reality of Heaven and Hell" (2nd Sunday of Advent)
Today is the 2nd Sunday of Advent, a time of preparation, and the Gospel today has a profound message for us. The Gospel begins with the words of the prophet Isaiah, declaring that God was sending a messenger to prepare the way. The messenger would be a voice crying out in the desert. That voice was to be John the Baptist. Understanding John the Baptist is not an easy task, probably not unlike the task posed to those of his time. Few people, 2000 years ago, probably truly and completely understand what he meant when he declared his mission “To prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight.” However, the gospel states that John the Baptist who appeared in the desert proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And what was the response of the people of that time: The scripture states that people of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. John further stated that one greater than he would be coming. John the Baptist is the very voice of Advent, the voice of the coming of the Lord Jesus to earth to intervene in the relationship between God and ourselves. What John stated when he said “I baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit", was not just a word about Jesus, It was the Gospel – It was the beginning of the good news for the world. John and his message happened at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry on this earth, and John and his message still are the beginning today for all those who want to find their way out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land.
However, there is one reality that so many Christians have lost sight of, and because so, their whole faith foundation has become weak and makes them easy prey for temptation and sin. This reality that I speak of, is having a clear distinction and belief in Heaven and Hell. That’s right, I said Hell. I would be shocked to hear of a Christian that didn’t believe in Heaven, but you would not believe how many Christians I have met that question the reality of Hell. Without a clear understanding of the reality that your behaviors and actions in this world do have consequences, and that the result of those actions either lead you to heaven or hell, could leave a person confused, and lost, and can lead to a rationalization for behaviors that are clearly sinful and in opposition of God. What is missing, and what I am speaking of, is the understanding of a healthy “Fear of the Lord.” The “Fear of the Lord” as it is spoken of in the Bible, is not just a concept, but an experience that predisposes us to wisdom. In fact, “The Fear of the Lord” is the beginning of wisdom. The “Fear” is not the fear of a tyrannical God who arbitrarily inflicts punishment, but a fear that gives proper respect to a God who administers “Just punishment” for those who deserve it. The biblical “Fear of the Lord” is an intelligent fear, based on a deep perception of the holiness and majesty of God, which rightly recognizes the possibility of violating the law of God, despising His love, rejecting His mercy, and meriting eternal separation from Him. While the fear of the Lord is simply the beginning of wisdom, the end of wisdom is love. The scriptures tell us in fact, “blessed is the man who fears the Lord.”
Saint Catherine of Sienna, a Doctor of the Church, relays to us from a vision from God the Father that there is much more depth to the reality of heaven and hell than many commonly suppose. She states that sin and evil are far more ugly and more horrendous than most of us can imagine, but so too are the beauty, glory, and goodness of heaven greater than we can comprehend. Saint Catherine states that there are four torments of hell.
• The first is that souls are deprived of seeing God.
• The second is that the souls agonize ceaselessly with regret about what has been lost.
• The third is that unlike the beatific vision in heaven, the souls in hell will be immersed in the demonic vision, the source of evil itself. God even showed Catherine a brief vision of hell and reminded her of the vision by stating, “You will recall that when I once let you see him (the devil), for a tiny while, hardly a moment, as he really is. You said, after coming to your senses again, that you would rather walk on a road of fire even till the final judgment day than see him again. But even with all you have seen, you do not really know how horrible he is.”
• And the fourth torment is the ceaseless burning of an immortal fire that has as many forms as the forms of the sins that were committed. Stating that:
- Misers will be plunged into the filth of greed
- Violent souls will be engulfed in cruelty
- The indecent will be engulfed in indecency and wretched lust
- The envious in envy
- And those who were hateful and bitter toward their neighbors will be engulfed in hate.
So why do I go on and on about the reality of heaven and hell, it is because heaven and hell is a reality, a reality that so many have allowed to fade away in their conscience. Without this acknowledgment and understanding, Saint Augustine, Saint Catherine, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Theresa of Avila, Saint Therese of Lisieux all warn of the ease and likelihood of falling for the traps of the devil and spending eternity in hell.
So where do we go from here? This brings me remembering a story I once heard that involved a professor and a great master. The professor traveled to the Far East to meet with a great master and the professor asked the master to teach him what he needed to know to have a happy life. The professor stated: - I have studied the sacred scriptures - I have visited the greatest teachers in the land, but I have not found the answer, please teach me. At this point, the master served tea to his guest. He poured the professor a cup full and then kept on pouring and pouring so that the tea began to run over the rim of the cup and across the table, and he still poured, until tea was cascading upon the floor. The professor watched this until he could no longer restrain himself. “It’s overfull, stop, no more will go in,” he cried out! “Like this cup” the master stated, “you are full of your own opinions, your own ideas, your own speculations, you are full of yourself. How can I show you the way, until you first empty your cup.” Doesn’t this story represent our own lives so very much! We want to be shown the way, yet at the same time, we want to pursue and follow our own desires, our own ideas.
John the Baptist called to the people with the message of repentance. He called to them to hear his message and then to take action so that they would be able to greet the Messiah and walk in his way. He preached to “repent.” Repent, what does the word repent mean? Quite simply, it means to “turn around”, to change directions, to face a new way, and to begin to walk in that way, leaving the old way behind. Just as the professor had to empty himself to learn the way of the master, so each of us must change direction if we are to truly see the Lord and walk with him from the wilderness to the promise land.
Advent is a time to empty ourselves. It is a time of Quiet and reflection. It is a time for acknowledging our sins, it is a time for enjoying the sacrament of penance, it is a time of forgiveness, it is a time for change. It is a time to purge ourselves of habits and behaviors that draw us away from God, and it is a time to cultivate holiness in our lives and in the lives of others.
When we realize this and make room for God in our lives, then we are on the way to true repentance after the example of John the Baptist and can joyfully accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior.