Pentecost - Last Sunday
Matthew 24: 15-35
The flower blows and blooms a little time, and turns its face to heaven, that has given its beauty, and then it dies. The bud pushes out from the tree in spring, and in the summer comes the blossom, and the autumn brings the fruit, and then, when the fruit is at its ripest, it is gathered, or it falls. The sun comes forth at morning from the gateways of the dawn, and it climbs the heavens with ever-growing splendor, and then, at its very brightest, it turns westward, sinking as it goes, and in the late evening, with one last flush of parting, it sinks behind the hills; and though the day had been the fairest of all days that ever came, yet, when the night has fallen, then the day is dead. Up amidst the loneliness of the mountain, a spring leaps forth, a tiny silver thread, from the hard bosom of the rock; it grows into a stream winding always to the plains below, and the stream gains dept as it descends, and the rivulet swells into river, and the river rolls majestic through all the land; but, when mightiest and most majestic, it sinks into the sea and is lost.
These are things that have no life; things that the hand of man – the mind of man can dominate, but it is otherwise, with man himself, the master?
Well, the infant smiles up into its mother’s face, then the child becomes a boy, then years add themselves to boyhood, and the boy has grown into a man, crowned for a little time with the crown of youth, and then the world comes and flings its fuel on the fire of life and makes it burn fiercely for a while, but in due time it sinks and burns low, and almost before the man dreams of it the fire that blazed so brightly is almost smothered in the ashes of life’s grey age, and then, though the man have made himself a name, thought his hands be full, even though it may be hard to see how the world can do without him; yet, some day he is missed from his place, his second mother, mother earth, has caught him to her breast; but he smiles not now, for the man is dead.
And these are common things that you see, or can see every day; for, this doom is written on the face, and at the heart of everything that is – that everything shall have an end. To everything the worlds sees and holds, to everything that the human brain can plan and the human hand achieve, to all that man does and suffers and enjoys, comes, sooner or later, an end. Men call joy “sunshine;” it is a good name; for, like sunshine, it shall fade into darkness. We talk of a cloud of sorrow, again a good name, for, however great the sorrow, sometime a cloud like it will pass. Life itself, even the lives you are living at this moment, what are they? Are they not made up of dead yesterdays, that shall no more live again, than the trodden leaves of autumns past shall life themselves and fasten in their former beauty on the trees from which they fell?
Time, joy, sorrow, wealth, sadness, poverty, pleasure, life itself, all shall, one day, reach their inevitable end.
And what is true in the little is true also in the large. What expresses the fate of the leaf that dies in autumn tells also, as if prophetically, the fate of the world of which it is an atom. What holds for the individual holds also for the race. And as the interests we prize shall one day slip, for each of us, from his dead hand, so of the great world also, with its history and its hope, with all that it has attempted and all that it has achieved, an end shall surely be. Our Lord has said it, and beginning as He does, in the Gospel I have read for you, with the prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem, where He lived and labored, and which saw His death, He ends with a description of the signs that shall go before the destruction of which the destruction of Jerusalem was the merest figure, the destruction of the world itself, which before the closing of its doom shall have witnessed the varied fortunes of the Church, which is Christ’s mystic Body, and which, in its teaching and its sacraments, displays to men the infinite goodness of His divine nature, and the tender graces of His human soul.
And it is only fitting that the Church should fix on this day to bring before us the passage of the Gospel that reminds us that the world will have an end, and that that end will be accompanied by portent and by prodigy, such as we might naturally expect to signalize the closing of a history so long and so eventful. To-day the Church is reminded of the end of all things, because she is drawing to the close of another of her own years. To-day is the last Sunday of the Ecclesiastical year; next Sunday, the first of Advent, the Church begins a new year; but, before she parts from the old one that is ending, she feels herself in such solemn mood as such an anniversary is wont to produce. She looks back to the changes that have been, and forward to the infinitely greater change that shall be; and she wishes us to end one year and begin another, with the awful picture before our eyes of the doom that waits the world, and the judgment that shall be.
The time will come when the world will have fallen on its last days, and when the shadow of approaching doom shall fall deep and dark on nature and the human heart. A time, when the system of the thousand worlds that were sown in space by the creative Hand of the almighty, shall have grown their several harvests, and shall begin to give token to their purpose is wearing its completion. There shall be signs in the stars, and the very light of heaven shall be dimmer than it used. Rumor shall follow rumor, as shadow follows shadow, when clouds are blown across the troubled sky, raising vague forms of some awful horror in the hearts of the world’s latest generation. The things that had been used by God as extraordinary chastisement of His people, wars, famines, earthquakes, shall become so rife as to lose their strangeness, though they shall not lose their sting; and the very voices of the wind and the stormy music of the sea shall begin to speak of some awful doom that is at hand. Stronger words to describe the effects of the terror of those days, cannot be found than the words of one Evangelist, who says, that “men shall wither away with fear.”
And then shall come the end. The time will come when the last man shall die, and there shall be none to bury him; earth shall afford a grave no more. Life shall be swept utterly away, and a silence as deep, but far more awful than that which preceded the creation, shall fall on the dead world. And that silence, how shall it be broken? The angel’s trump of doom shall send its wailing not through all the silent spaces of the world. The graves shall yawn wide open at the summons, the sea give up its drowned. Earth shall render back the spoils of dead humanity that it treasured so faithfully, and the countless hosts that have peopled all the centuries shall be marshaled together in the valley of Judgment.
And we shall be there, shall hear that trumpet sound, and our bodies, that we had done with and laid aside so long, shall stir in the dust, and when all shall wait the judgment, we shall not be absent. As surely as we stand to-day before the hidden presence of Jesus in the tabernacle; as surely as God’s heaven bends above us, and His earth sustains our feet, so surely shall we one day fall into our places at the bidding of the angel’s trumpet. Well, what shall our thoughts be then?
The bitterest hour that man can know on earth is the hour when his sin has found him out, with the lash in its hand, and when the passions he has been indulging turn to a nest of scorpions in his bosom; when the still small voice of conscience is louder than the thunder on the inner ear, and when the sinner in his remorse becomes loathsome even to himself, and when men have found him out, and point the finger of scorn at him, and shudder at the very mention of him, and when he knows that, for all time to be, the very memory of him will be unholy. These are bitter hours to those they visit, but what is this to the awakening of conscience and the gaze of men that shall take place before the judgment-seat of Christ. The light of God Himself shall pierce the utmost recesses of the sinner’s soul. “He will search Jerusalem with lamps.” Concealment shall be possible no more. The smile upon the lip shall no longer hide the treachery of the heart, and holiness of exterior that came not from virtue but from hypocrisy, shall be a garment no longer of honor, but of ignominy and shame.
Then shall the judgments of the world be signally reversed. Then shall be discovered how delusive were the standards by which the world measured men and things. The worldly prudence of which the world makes so much, but the basis of which is selfishness and its highest motive self-interest, shall appear contemptible beside that heavenly wisdom, which was so far above worldly wisdom, that worldly wisdom could not understand it but sneered at it and called it folly; so it was, St. Paul had long ago called it the folly of the cross. Then shall it be found that things which men had long agreed to call successes had been signal failures in the sight of heaven, and the poor souls who were thought to have failed in life had succeeded to an extent which it had never entered into the heart of man to conceive. For, mark you, success is a very different thing, as estimated by men, and as estimated by God. And what shall be the subject of the judgment? All the thoughts that men have thought from the first feeling of rapture that rose in the heart of the world’s first Father when He looked forth on the fresh beauty of the newly-made universe, down to the latest thought of the man who shall be last to die. All the words that have ever fallen from human lips in blessing or in cursing, in tenderness or in anger, in seriousness or in sport. All the actions that have found a place in the written or unwritten annals of the world that shall be no more. All shall be made manifest, and men shall see them all, before that judgment-seat of Christ.
The sinner in this life may do his sin in secret. He may seek the lonely places and wrap himself around in the darkness of the night. He does not parade his sins before the world; poor fool! He deems himself too wise for that. He worships his passions in the depths of his own heart, which no human eye can see, and he seems to succeed; for he, whose every additional breath of life is a proof, did men but know it, of the infinite forbearance of the outraged majesty of heaven, may live his life and sink into his grave without any one ever knowing what a hypocrite he was. Poor fool! Did he never cast a thought upon the inevitable hour when his secret sins will be made manifest before the assembled universe?
“What partings shall be there.”
There are partings, even on this side the grave, that are hard to bear. Bitter is the exile’s sorrow when he turns his back upon the land he loves, and knows that, for all time to be, an ocean shall roll between him and the scenes where his childhood played, and which even his man’s heart almost broke to leave. Bitter is the hour when life-long friends must part to see each other no more, save in such dreams as memory can wake from the dead past. Bitter is the day when time and circumstance, and what men call fate, send forth on widely diverging paths those who loved each other so well, that each losing each, seems to lose some dearer portion of his very self. But what are partings such as these to the parting that will take place before the judgment-seat of Christ? The line of separation will run between those who were bound by the closest ties; between the child and the mother that bore him; between the father and the son of his affection; between the friend and his bosom friend. Mother shall be parted from daughter, wife from husband, friend from friend, priest from people, and one part shall go with God and His angels to the happiness of heaven; and the other to the sleepless misery of everlasting torment.
And when shall these things be? Shall the end of the world be soon? Yes; it shall be soon. Not that I mean to imply that I have any special knowledge of a time that God has chosen to conceal. But, so far as we are concerned, the judgment shall be soon, and the world shall soon end. When a man dies, when his body is hidden away, has not the world ended for him to all intents and purposes? What matters it to him what goes on above his grave; he shall never have a part in it again. What matter what men talk about, not a word of anything they say shall ever pierce the “dull, cold ear of death.” Each of us shall die, shall see the shadows deepen and the coming of the night, and they will come and close our sightless eyes, and fold our dead hands across the breast and look their last on the dead face, and, long before they shall have carried us to the grave, we shall have been presented before the judgment-seat of Jesus Christ, and heard the sentence that shall decide our fate for all the ages of eternity. After that the world may go on for a long time, or for a little time; but long or short we shall feel no impatience; for it shall have ended for us with the day we died, and the last Judgment shall only confirm the particular sentence that has been already written in the Judgment Book of God.
On every sin, judgment must be passed. We may hide it in our troubled hearts, we may keep it from the eyes of men, we may carry it to the grave; but, should we do so, one day it shall be dragged to light and the lightning of God’s vengeance will brand it on our brow for all the world to read in the valley of the Judgment. But before we come to that tribunal, we must pass by another, where our sin might have been washed away, where a Judgment not of rigorous justice, but of tender mercy would have hidden it away from God and man for ever and for ever. I speak of the tribunal of confession. There we may go aside from the gaze of men, whisper the sin into the ear of one who is bound by his hope of heaven to bury it in a silence deeper and more sacred than the silence of the grave.