Perfect in the Day of Christ
The Sermon Preached at St. Cuthbert's,
“Waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”—1 Cor. i. 7, 8.
HUMAN life is divided into two parts—life in time and life in eternity. According to common notions the dividing line between these is death. Thus the saintly life is thought of under one of two aspects, either as (1) in this world in trial and suffering, or (2) in the state of perfect glory and bliss, which very many Christians believe the faithful departed attain immediately after death. This notion plainly contradicts the doctrines of Resurrection and Final Judgment which we confess in the Catholic creeds; and it takes away the force and practical meaning of that very solemn but most comforting article in the Apostles’ Creed of the Lord’s descent into Hades. But in Holy Scripture we are taught that time does not end at death: it goes on till the Judgment Day. That is the end for which we are taught to look: it is for the revelation of Jesus Christ that we are to wait and to prepare. Thus St. Paul prays for the Philippian converts that they “may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ.” He is confident that God Who began a good work in them “will perfect it until the day of Christ.” And that this teaching does not depend on the belief in the speedy return of the Lord is plain from the Apostle’s words just before his death—“I am already being offered, and the time of my departure is come. . . Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the Righteous Judge, shall give me”—not when I die, but—“at that Day.” And thus, too, he prays for his friend Onesiphorus, who had probably departed this life—“The Lord grant unto him that he may obtain mercy of the Lord in that Day.” May it not be possible that the doctrine of the particular judgment of a soul at death has [2/3] been too much pressed by modern theologians, Roman and Anglican, so as to have overshadowed the sense of reality of the final Judgment and the importance of the intermediate state?
Life, then, is divided into two—life in time and in eternity—not by death, but by the Judgment. And the former part is the preparation for the latter. Time is given to man to prepare for eternity. But time itself is divided into two parts—before and after death. The Christian pilgrim has to travel through a wilderness, guided and protected by the Holy Spirit of God, fed with Good from heaven, till he reaches a river, the river of death, which has to be passed through. And then another, an unknown land, has yet to be traversed; but his Leader and master has travelled that way before him, and the same Holy Spirit will guide him across that land, too, till at last he embarks, not alone, but with all the saints, on the boundless, trackless ocean of eternity, of the heaven of the unsearchable love of God. Both these parts of life in time are of momentous importance. We may not with safety think lightly of either. Life in this world, short though it be, is our time of probation. Some, in rejecting the notion of the final state being entered on at death, have been led to think that probation extends to the intermediate state, or even on into eternity. But as there is no temptation after death, and no opportunity of fall, so on the other hand there would seem to be no opportunity of repentance of conversion. If we deliberately choose the evil, and die choosing it, we have no right to expect any opportunity of reversing our choice after death. If we choose the good, however imperfect we may be when we are called out of this world, we may commit our souls to God, trusting that He Who hath begun a good work in us will, weak and sinful as we are, perform it until the day of Christ. But we may not waste our time in this world. Because there is still preparation for the Judgment to be made after death, we may not neglect preparation before death. Even if the neglect is not such as to bring eternal ruin, are there not myriads of souls which for all eternity will bear the mark of having suffered loss, of having been saved so as by fire?
To speak more particularly of Christian life after death: What do we know about it? What are the saints doing now? [3/4] The Apostles, Prophets, Martyrs, Confessors, Virgins, Hermits—nay, all who have been “called to be saints,” and who have not forfeited their high calling; all who have departed in the Faith of Christ; our own dear ones who have been withdrawn from our gaze behind the veil—what are they doing? They are all waiting, all expecting something—the revelation of Jesus Christ. Some, we believe, are, as regards their souls, perfected, and in the full enjoyment of the Beatific Vision. They, we are sure, are actively engaged in working towards the great purpose of God, helping by their prayers to hasten the time when Christ’s kingdom shall fully come and the King be revealed in all His glory. Others, still imperfect, are being prepared for that Vision of God, in God’s hands being purified and cleansed from all stain of sin, and freed from every infirmity of soul; that they too may be ready against that Day, that they may be blameless in the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ. Towards that end they are all looking, for that Day they are all in some way or other, passively or actively, preparing. For they are all alive, all “bound in the bundle of life with the Lord our God.” Alive, that is, with the spiritual life, of which St. John says, “God hath given unto us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.” And life means work. As in the natural body work goes on as long as the body is alive, even in the profoundest sleep, and in some departments of the living organism the work seems to go on with greatest activity during sleep, so in the Body of Christ there is ceaseless activity. The Holy Spirit, the Divine principle of life, dwelling in the Incarnat Son of God and in all the members of His mystical Body, energizes in each and in all. In those members of Christ who are still in the natural world the Holy Spirit works through sacraments. Now it is a characteristic of sacraments that they touch both the natural and the spiritual worlds, bringing them together. The Divine action in sacraments takes things of the material world and infuses into them a power which is supernatural and spiritual. The real sphere of the life which sacraments infuse and maintain is the spiritual world. They are means to an end—means or instruments [4/5] which are taken from this visible world, working to an end which is in the unseen world—the end, namely, of building up the Church of God, the development and perfecting of the mystical Body of Christ. By a right use of sacraments we get behind the veil which hides the unseen world and work there. In Holy Baptism we were made partakers of that life; we were admitted within the veil, into the unseen world. We were endowed with supernatural powers—faith, hope, and charity—all in the germ or tender beginning, but with the promise of growth. Faith, that we might live in the unseen world and realise its powers, and the presence of God; Hope, that we might live for the unseen, reaching forward from the things which are temporal to the things which are eternal; Charity, that we might live in the power of the unseen, and be drawn by the love of God to work together with Him for the bringing of all into harmony with Himself. And we have the further power of the indwelling Spirit to make perfect, stablish, and strengthen to the end the good work once begun. This work too, begun through the Sacrament of Confirmation, has its sphere in the unseen world. And, above all, in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar our living Lord in all His power and love comes to us to dwell in us. He is in the unseen world, and it is there that He works, renewing in us, by imparting to use His very self, that life which is eternal, according to His own word—“As the living Father hath sent Me, and I live by the Father; so he that eateth Me, even he shall live by Me”; and “Whoso eateth My Flesh, and drinketh My Blood, hath eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Now the work of the Church is one. Through all the diversities of operations of the Divine Spirit, He is ever tending to the fulfilment of one purpose, the perfecting of the revelation of Christ in His new creation. And that work is in the unseen and spiritual world. The departed are withdrawn entirely from this world of sense, and are in that world only. We are in both worlds. Outwardly in the visible world, by the sacraments of Christ we are brought within [5/6] the veil, where Christ is, and are called to share in the one life-work of His mystical Body. Those who are wholly within the veil have no sacraments, but the same Holy Spirit energizes in them Who works in us through sacraments. And as in the natural body it is during repose that the processes of nutrition are most active, repairing and strengthening the wasted and worn tissues; and as for the fulld development of the human frame there are needed both the periods of outward activity in which there is wear and tear, and trial and strain and fatigue, and the periods of rest in which there is renewing and building up; so may it be in the spiritual life. We have the period of struggle and trial in this life, and of silent working—the secret fashioning and building up by the Spirit of God—in the unseen world. But there is this great difference between the natural and the spiritual life. The former is isolated in each individual bound up in his own personality; the latter is one in all he whole Catholic Church, and it is bound up with the Being of God and with the Person of Christ. “God hath given unto us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.” The life, we repeat, is one in the one Body of Christ. No supernatural actions of members of that Body can be isolated, for they are actions of the one Life which is by the one Spirit of God. The souls of the departed are still His temples. His working in them and in us is not two separate things, but one. It is true the method and the condition of His working in us and in them are not the same. We are tempted, they are not. In us He works through sacraments, in them, since they are not in the flesh, without sacraments. But the powers of the spiritual life, which was begun in them through sacraments, are being developed and going on to perfection. And we, in offering the Holy Sacrifice, plead for them. The Church Militant, by drinking of the precious Blood of the Saviour, and thus renewing her strength, causes the pulses of that Life-blood to beat with increased force throughout the whole Mystical Body. We members of the Church on earth, by our prayers, are putting forth the spiritual force which is destined to do its part in [6/7] accomplishing the eternal purpose of God: the Holy Spirit in us working both to will and to do of His good pleasure, guiding our wills to work in perfect accord with the will of God. For the one real force in the whole universe of God is will. This is the highest product of life. In the natural world we see the will of God creating, directing, upholding; and also the angelic wills co-operating with Him in part of that His work. In the spiritual world He calls us also, His human creatures, to take our part, to use our wills. There are two supreme actions of the spiritual world—worship and prayer, the one directed to God alone, without reference to the creatures; the other directed to God, but also having regard to the creatures. It is the Divine purpose that by prayer—i.e., the action of our wills in accord with the will of God—the purpose of God in the new creation should be accomplished. In this we all have our part: the souls of the Martyrs pleading beneath the heavenly Altar, each little Christian child learning to utter its first prayer, each band of devout worshippers at the Holy Sacrifice—all are putting forth spiritual energy, the power of their wills, for one end—“Thy Kingdom come.” And so each is working for all. When we say “Our Father,” we pray for all, for the faithful living and departed, that he would send His grace upon them to enable them to worship and serve and obey Him; we pray that He would give them all things needful for them, that they may obtain remission of all their sins, and find mercy of the Lord in that day. And the prayers of all are directed and inspired by the one Spirit, “Who helpeth aour infirmities, for we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit Himself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered . . . . because He maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.”
But while we think of God’s eternal purpose in the new creation, of the perfection and glory of the whole, we must not forget that each integral part of the new creation, each regenerate human being, is, unless he falls away, to be perfected according to God’s plan. Each one of us, each one [7/8] of the great host of the faithful departed, has a form of perfection set before him to be attained. Each stone of the spiritual building has to be shaped and graven in order that it may be fit for its own proper place in the spiritual building. And the Master Builder attends to each one as if it were the only one requiring His care. And we have our part to do in this work, both for ourselves and for others.
I have thought it well, my brethren, in speaking to you to-night, to try to set forth the fundamental principles which underlie the special work you have undertaken, rather than to dwell on any particular features or developments of that work. And though the attempt has been a feeble one, I do not apologize for having made it; for any work of Christian devotion which is to be solid and lasting must have its foundation on the sure rock of Catholic truth. And in these days of multiform activity and zeal we have need to look to the foundations. This work of prayer for the departed, to which to have set yourselves, is assuredly according to the will of God. Be not weary in your good work. Do not be content with its outward extension. Seek that it may deepen as well as spread, that you may pray more earnestly, and live more nearly as you pray. “While we have time, let us do good unto all men, and especially unto them that are of the household of faith.” Now we have an opportunity, and the call is to work, in the work of intercession. Soon, it may be, we shall be lying passive in God’s hands, no longer so much actively working with Him, as being worked upon by Him. It may be His will that we should be dependent for the progress of that work in our souls, in some measure, on th eprayers of those we have left behind in the world. Let us work while it is day; soon it may be true—it assuredly will in some sense be true of us—“the night cometh when no man can work.”