Sober but Serene Themes of Judgment in the Spirituals

I’ve often been impressed by the ability of old African-American spirituals to treat serious subjects in a clear, memorable, and almost joyful way. This is true even of weighty matters like sin and judgment. During early November we are focused on the four last things (death, judgment, Heaven, and hell) and November is also Black Catholic History Month. So, this seems like a good time to look at some of the creative lines from different spirituals that articulate these topics.

It can be very helpful to the preacher, teacher, and parent in recovering an ethos of coming judgment, but in a way that is almost playfully bright while at the same time deeply soulful.

In a certain sense, the spirituals are unimpeachable, even by hypersensitive post-moderns who seek to shame preachers for announcing sterner biblical themes. Most of the spirituals were written by slaves, who creatively worked biblical themes into these songs that helped accompany both their work and their worship.

The spirituals were written in the cauldron of great suffering. If any people might be excused from thinking that the Lord would exempt them from judgment day, it was surely the enslaved in the deep South. If any people might be excused from crying out for vengeance, it was they. Yet the spirituals are almost entirely devoid of condemning language; enslaved blacks sang in ways that looked also to their own sins and the need to be prepared. If they were prepared, God, who knew their trouble, would help them steal away to Jesus. They did not see themselves as exempt from the need to be ready.

If they, who worked hard in the cotton fields and endured the horrors of slavery, thought these texts applied to them, how much more do they apply to us, who recline on our couches and speak of our freedom to do as we please?

Here are some lines from a few of the many spirituals that speak to judgment and the last things:

  • I would not be a sinner, I’ll tell you the reason why. I’m afraid my Lord might call my name and I wouldn’t be ready to die.
  • Some go to Church for to sing and shout, before six months they’s all turned out!
  • Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven ain’t a goin’ there, Oh my Lord!
  • Where shall I be when the first trumpet sounds? Oh where shall I be when it sounds so loud, when it sounds so loud as to wake up the dead? Oh where shall I be when it sounds? How will it be with my poor soul, Oh where shall I be?
  • Better watch my brother how you walk on the cross! Your foot might slip and your soul get lost!
  • God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but the fire next time!
  • Old Satan wears a hypocrite’s shoe, If you don’t watch he’ll slip it on you!
  • Noah, Noah let me come in!
    The doors are fastened and the windows pinned! fastened an’ de winders pinned
    Noah said, “Ya lost your track
    Can’t plow straight! you keep a-lookin’ back!
  • Knock at the window knock at the door
    Callin’ brother Noah
    Can’t you take more?
    No said Noah cause you’re full of sin!
    God has the key you can’t get in!
  • Well I went to the rock to hide my face
    The rock cried out, no hiding place
    There’s no hiding place down here
    Oh the rock cried I’m burnin’ too!
    I wanna go to heaven just as much as you!
  • Oh sinner man better repent!
    Oh you’d better repent
    for God’s gonna call you to judgment
    There’s no hiding place down there!
  • No signal for another train
    To follow in this line
    Oh sinner you’re forever lost
    When once you’re left behind.
    She’s nearing now the station
    Oh, sinner don’t be vain
    But come and get your ticket
    Be ready for that train!
  • Sinner please don’t let this harvest pass
    And die and lose your soul at last.
  • My Lord, what a morning
    When the stars begin to fall

    You’ll hear the trumpet sound, to wake the nations underground
    Looking to my God’s right hand,
    When the stars begin to fall
    You’ll hear the sinner moan,
    When the stars begin to fall

    You’ll hear the Christian shout,
    Oh, when the stars begin to fall!

Most of these songs are deeply scriptural and make serious appeals to the human soul, but they do so in a way that is creative. They get you tapping your foot and invite you to a joyful consideration of the need to repent before it’s too late. Others are more soulful, even mournful, in their pentatonic scale.

Given all the reluctance to discuss the four last things (death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell), songs like these may help to reopen the door to necessary conversations between preacher and congregation, parents and children. They are a valuable resource.

I’d like to conclude with a creative spiritual about the last judgment. Note that it is rich in biblical references. It is joyful—a real toe-tapper—and makes a serious point along with a wish.

In That Great Getting’ Up Mornin’ Fare You Well

I’m gonna tell ya ’bout da comin’ of da judgment
Dere’s a better day a comin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well!

Chorus:
In dat great gettin’ up mornin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
In dat great gettin’ up mornin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Oh preacher fold yo’ bible,
For dat last souls converted,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Blow yo’ trumpet Gabriel,
Lord, how loud shall I blow it?
Blow it right and calm and easy,

Do not alarm all my people,
Tell dem all come to da judgment,
Fare thee well, fare thee well!

Do you see dem coffins burstin’,
do you see dem folks is risin’
Do you see dat fork of lightnin’,
Do you hear dat rumblin’ thunder?
Fare thee well, fare thee well!

Do you see dem stars a fallin’,
Do you see da world on fire?
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Do you see dem Saints is risin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
See ’em marchin’ home for heaven,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Oh! Fare thee well poor sinners, fare thee well, fare thee well
Fare thee well poor sinners, fare thee well, fare thee well!

See What the End Shall Be – A Homily for Palm Sunday

The Passion, which we read in the liturgy for Palm Sunday, is too long to comment on in detail, so we will only examine a portion of it here.

It may be of some value to examine the problems associated with the more moderate range of personalities involved. The usual villains (the Temple leaders, Judas, and the recruited crowd shouting, “Crucify him!”) are unambiguously wicked and display their sinfulness openly. But there are others involved whose struggles and neglectfulness are more subtle, yet no less real. It is in examining these figures that we can learn a great deal about ourselves, who, though we may not openly shout, “Crucify him,” are often not as unambiguously holy and heroic as Jesus’ persecutors are wicked and bold.

As we read the Passion we must understand that this is not merely an account of the behavior of people long gone, they are portraits of you and me; we do these things.

I. The Perception that is Partial – Near the beginning of today’s Passion account, the apostles, who are at the Last Supper with Jesus, are reminded of what the next days will hold. Jesus says,

This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed.” But after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.

Note that the apostles are not being told these things for the first time; Jesus has spoken them before on numerous occasions:

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life (Matt 16:21).

When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief (Matt 17:22-23).

We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life” (Matt 20:18-19).

Thus we see that the Lord has consistently tried to teach and prepare them for the difficulties ahead. He has told them exactly what is going to happen and how it will end: not in death, but rising to new life. But even though He has told them over and over again, they still do not understand. Therefore He predicts that their faith in Him will be shaken.

Their perception is partial. They will see only the negative, forgetting that Jesus has promised to rise. Because they cannot see beyond the apparent defeat of the moment they will retreat into fear rather than boldly and confidently accompanying Him to His passion and glorification (for His passion is a lifting up; it is His glorification). Instead they will flee. He has shown the “what the end shall be,” but they can neither see nor accept it. Thus fear overwhelms them and they withdraw into a sinful fear, dissociating themselves from Jesus. Only a few (Mary, His Mother; John; Mary Magdalene; and a few other women) would see Him through to the end.

As for the rest, they see only what is gory and awful, missing what is glory and awesome. Their perception is quite partial. Paradoxically, their blindness comes from not hearing or listening to what Jesus has been telling them all along.

We, too, can easily suffer from a blindness caused by poor listening. The Lord has often told us that if we trust in Him, then our struggles will end in glory and new life. But, blind and forgetful, we give in to our fears and fail to walk the way of Christ’s passion boldly. We draw back and dissociate ourselves from Jesus, exhibiting some of the same tendencies we will observe in the people of that day.

Next, let’s examine some of the problems that emerge from this partial perception and forgetful fear.

II. The Problems Presented – There are at least five problems that emerge. They are unhealthy and sinful patterns that spring from the fear generated by not trusting Jesus’ vision. Please understand that the word “we” used here is shorthand and does not mean that every single person does this. Rather, it means that collectively we have these tendencies. There’s no need to take everything here personally.

1. They become drowsy – A common human technique for dealing with stress and the hardships of life is to become numb and drowsy; we can just drift off into a sort of moral slumber. Being vigilant against the threat posed to our souls by sin or the harm caused by injustice (whether to ourselves or to others) is just too stressful, so we just “tune out.” We stop noticing or really even caring about critically important matters. We anesthetize ourselves with things like alcohol, drugs, creature comforts, and meaningless distractions. Prayer and spirituality pose too many uncomfortable questions, so we just daydream about meaningless things like what a certain Hollywood star is doing or how the latest sporting event is going.

In the Passion accounts, the Lord asks Peter, James, and John to pray with Him. But they doze off. Perhaps it is the wine. Surely it is the flesh (for the Lord speaks of it). Unwilling or unable to deal with the stress of the situation, they get drowsy and doze off. Grave evil is at the very door, but they sleep. The Lord warns them to stay awake, lest they give way to temptation, but still they sleep. Someone they know and love is in grave danger, but it is too much for them to handle. They tune out, much as we do in the face of the overwhelming suffering of Christ visible in the poor and needy. We just stop noticing; it’s too painful, so we tune out.

The Lord had often warned them to be vigilant, sober, and alert (Mk 13:34, Matt 25:13, Mk 13:37; Matt 24:42; Luke 21:36, inter al). Other Scriptures would later pick up the theme (Romans 13:11; 1 Peter 5:8; 1 Thess 5:6, inter al). Yes, drowsiness is a serious spiritual problem.

Sadly, God described us well when He remarked to Isaiah, Israel’s watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all mute dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep (Is 56:10).

We do this not only out of laziness, but also out of fear. One strategy is to try to ignore it, to go numb, to tune out. But despite the sleepiness of the disciples, the wicked are still awake; the threat does not go away by a drowsy inattentiveness to it. Thus we ought to be confident and sober. Life’s challenges are nothing to fear. The Lord has told us that we have already won if we will just trust in Him. The disciples have forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days; we often do the same. So they, and we, just give in to the stress and tune out.

2. They seek to destroy – When Peter finally awaken, he lashes out with a sword and wounds Malchus, the servant of the high priest. The Lord rebukes Peter and reminds him of the vision: Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me? (John 18:11) Jesus then heals Malchus, who tradition says later became a follower.

In our fear, we, too, can often lash out and even seek to destroy our opponents. But if we are already certain of our victory, as the Lord has promised, why do we fear? Why do we need to suppress our opponents and enemies ruthlessly? It is one thing to speak the truth in love, boldly and confidently. But it is quite another to lash out aggressively and seek to win a debate. In so doing, we may lose a soul. The Lord healed Malchus, seeing in Him a future disciple. The Lord saw what the end would be. Peter did not. In fear, he lashed out with an aggression that did not bespeak a confidence in final victory.

It is true that we are required to confront evil, resist injustice, and speak with clarity to a confused world. But above all, we are called to love those whom we address. There is little place for fear in our conversations with the world. The truth will out; it will prevail. We may not win every encounter, but we do not have to; all we must do is plant seeds. God will water them and others may well harvest them. In Christ, we have already won. This confidence should give us serenity.

Peter has forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days; we often do the same. So Peter, and we, give in to fear and lash out, driven by a desire to win when in fact we have already won.

3. They deny – Confronted with the fearful prospect of being condemned along with Jesus, Peter denies being one of His followers or even knowing Him at all. He dissociates himself from Christ. And we, confronted with the possibility of far milder things such as ridicule, often deny a connection with the Lord or the Church.

Regarding one of the more controversial Scripture teachings (e.g., the command to tithe; the prohibition against divorce, fornication, and homosexual activity) some might ask, “You don’t really believe that, do you?” It’s very easy to give in to fear and to respond, “No,” or to qualify our belief. Why suffer ridicule, endure further questioning, or be drawn into an unpleasant debate? So we just dissociate from, compromise, or qualify our faith to avoid the stress. We even congratulate ourselves for being tolerant when we do it!

Jesus says, If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels (Mk 8:38). But too easily we are ashamed. And so, like Peter, we engage in some form of denial. Peter is afraid because he has forgotten to “see what the end shall be.” He has forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days; we often do the same. We lack confidence and give in to fear; we deny in order to avoid suffering with Jesus.

4. They dodge – When Jesus is arrested, all the disciples except John “split.” They “get the heck out of Dodge.” They are nowhere to be found. After Jesus’ arrest, it is said that Peter (prior to his denials) followed the Lord at a distance (Mk 14:54). But as soon as trouble arose, he “scrammed.”

We, too, can run away. Sometimes it’s because of persecution by the world. But sometimes it’s our fear that following the Lord is too hard and involves sacrifices that we are just not willing to make. Maybe it will endanger our money (the Lord insists that we tithe and be generous to the poor). Maybe it will endanger our playboy lifestyle (the Lord insists on chastity and respect). Maybe we don’t want to stop doing something that we have no business doing, something that is unjust, excessive, or sinful. But rather than face our fears, whether they come from within or without, we just hightail it out.

The disciples have forgotten that Jesus has shown them “what the end shall be.” In three days, he will win the victory. But, this forgotten, their fears emerge and they run. We too, must see “what the end shall be” in order to confront and resist our many fears.

5. They deflect – In this case our example is Pontius Pilate, not one of the disciples. Pilate was summoned to faith just like anyone else. “Are you a king?” he asks Jesus. Jesus responds by putting Pilate on trial: “Are you saying this on your own or have others been telling you about me?” Pilate has a choice to make: accept that what Jesus is saying as true, or give in to fear and commit a terrible sin of injustice. The various accounts in Scripture all make it clear that Pilate knew Jesus was innocent. But because he feared the crowds he handed Jesus over.

Note that Pilate did this. The crowds tempted him through fear, but he did the condemning. Yet notice that he tries to deflect his choice. The text says, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility” (Mat 27:24). Well actually, Pilate, it is also your responsibility. You had a choice and you made it. Your own career and your own hide were more important to you than justice was. And though you wanted to do what was right and were sympathetic with Jesus, merely wanting to do what is right is not enough.

So, too, for us. We also often favor our career or our hide over doing what is right. And in so doing, we often blame others for what we have freely chosen. “I’m not responsible because my mother dropped me on my head when I was two.”

We are often willing to say, in effect,

“Look, Jesus, I love you. You get my Sundays, and my tithe, and I obey you (generally, anyway). But you have to understand that I have a career; I need to make money for my family. If I really stand up for what’s right, I might not make it in this world. You understand, don’t you? I know the company I work for is doing some things that are unjust. I know the world needs a clearer witness from me. I’ll do all that—after I retire. But for now, well, you know… Besides, it’s really my boss who’s to blame. It’s this old hell-bound, sin-soaked world that’s to blame, not me!”

We try to wash our hands of responsibility. We excuse our silence and inaction in the face of injustice and sin.

And all this is done out of fear. We forget “what the end shall be” and focus on the fearful present. We lack the vision that Jesus is trying to give us: that we will rise with Him. We stay blind to that and only see the threat of the here and now.

III. The Path that is Prescribed – By now you ought to know the path that is prescribed: see what the end shall be. In three days we rise! Why are we afraid? Jesus has already won the victory. It is true that we get there through the cross, but never forget what the end shall be! Today we read the Gospel of Friday, but wait till Sunday morning! I’ll rise!

We end where we began with this Gospel: This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed;’ but after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.

Yes, after He has been raised He goes before us into Galilee. And for us, Galilee is Heaven. Whatever our sorrows, if we are faithful we will see Jesus in the Galilee of Heaven. Never forget this vision. After three days, we will rise with Him and be reunited with Him in the Galilee of Heaven.

So take courage; see what the end shall be! The end for those who are faithful is total victory. We don’t need to drowse, destroy, deny, dodge, or deflect; we’ve already won. All we need to do is to hold out.

I have it on the best of authority that Mother Mary was singing the following gospel song with St. John for a brief time while at the foot of the cross, as they looked past that Friday to the Sunday that was coming:

It’s all right, it’s all right.
My Jesus said he’ll fix it and it’s all right.

Sometimes I’m up sometimes I’m down.
But Jesus he’ll fix it and it’s all right.

Sometimes I’m almost on the ground.
My Jesus said he’ll fix it and it’s all right.

Multitudes in the Valley of Decision! A Meditation on the Dramatic Battle in Which We Live

092114A grave deficiency of modern times is the loss of the sense that our lives are caught up in a tremendous, epic battle. Yet here we are living in the midst of a great drama—in the greatest story ever told.

Behind the scenes is a deadly enemy, one of whom many rarely speak: Satan. Yet, he is active and involved, manipulating both the world and the flesh (our sinful nature). We are on the front lines of a fierce spiritual war, a war that is to blame for most of the casualties you see around you. Yes, fellow Christians, there is a dragon, a roaring lion—Satan—who seeks to devour our souls.

Ah! But there is also a Son, a Savior, who is born to us and whom we call Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace (cf Is 9:6). He shall reign forever. His hand is outstretched, first on the cross, but now outstretched to you to save you and to draw you up out of the raging waters, to deliver you from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light!

Will you take hold of His hand, or not? This is the decision—your decision—is the great drama of your life and of every life; it is your chapter in the greatest story ever told.

Yes, the battle rages all around us, and we are swept up in it! It’s happening in our world, our culture, our families, and in our hearts. The sequence hymn from Easter says dramatically of it, Mors et vita duello; Conflixere Mirando (death and life at battle in a stupendous conflict).

The Book of Joel vividly describes the great drama. It is not merely an eschatological battle but a battle that is already around us in the decision we must make, in the war we must wage (with God’s grace) against the evil that is in and around us. It is a vivid and dramatic war, and we must choose sides. Our decision will one day be revealed in the great judgment that is coming on this world.

Prepare war, stir up the mighty men! Let all the men of war draw near, let them come up. Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weak say, ‘I am a warrior.’ Hasten and come, all you nations round about, gather yourselves there. Bring down thy warriors, O LORD. Let the nations bestir themselves, and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat; for there I will sit to judge all the nations round about. Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the wine press is full. The vats overflow, for their wickedness is great.  Multitudes! Multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision (Joel 3:9-14).

Text after text in the Bible describes the awesome drama and the great decision we must make, a decision on which hinges our very destiny. Here are just a few:

    • I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the LORD, your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him. For that will mean life for you (Deut 30:19-20).
    • Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against  (and a sword will pierce through your own heart also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk 2:34-36).
    • Jesus said to the unbelieving Jews, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. I have told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I AM” (John 8:23-24).
    • Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation (Matt 26:41).
    • And he said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mk 16:15).
    • For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand (Eph 6:12-14).
    • I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed! (Gal 1:4)
    • Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith (1 Peter 1:8).
    • A great sign appeared in the heavens, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. And another portent appeared in heavens; behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth; she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne … And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth … Rejoice then, O heaven and you that dwell therein! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had borne the male child … The dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus (Rev 12, selected verses).
    • “Lo, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is he who is awake, keeping his garments that he may not go naked and be seen exposed!” And they assembled them at the place which is called in Hebrew Armageddon (Rev 16:15-16).

So here we are in the Valley of Decision (in Hebrew, the Valley of Armageddon). Here is the drama of our life! Multitudes in the Valley of Decision! All of us have a decision to make, an army to join, a direction to choose! Tertium non datur (No third way is given). There are only two armies on the field of battle; there are no demilitarized zones, no sidelines. Choose an army! What will it be, light or darkness, grace or sin, Jesus or Beelzebub?

Yes, here is the immense drama in the greatest story ever told; it is our drama and our story.

Yet this drama is rarely discussed today. In the very times in which the contrast between the two ways has never been clearer or starker, there is near silence. If anything, our times are marked by boredom and a lack of awareness of the battle that is raging around us.  We have “spiritual ADHD”: endlessly fidgeting but never focusing on what matters. There is also a kind of “spiritual myopia,” in which the two armies are lost in the blur of perceived (but not real) pluralism.

Put plainly, if you don’t think that this drama is real and that a choice between the two sides is required, if you think that the biblical texts cited above are histrionic and hysterical, you have been deceived. You have been lulled to sleep by the spirit of this age.  You’ve been deceived by Satan, as was Eve long ago when he said to her, “You surely will not die.”

All of us must wake up to the battle raging around us, to the great drama in our life, a drama that is unfolding before our eyes. If you insist on sleeping through the drama or ignoring the summons to wake up, beware! For Scripture says of such dreamers that there will come upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false, so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness (2 Thess 2:11-13).

Awaken to the drama! Choose the Lord! Be a soldier in His army! Only Jesus can save us from this “present evil age.” His grace and mercy are there for us in abundance, but His respect for our freedom means that our choices matter; they build in one direction or the other. This is the drama of our life, and it is also our dignity. Scripture pronounces a great blessing on those who choose the Lord:

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen  (Gal 1:1-2).

Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending

Gustave Doré (1868)

As we continue to ponder various advent hymns, let’s turn our attention to one that is much more familiar to Anglicans and Methodists than to Catholics: “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending.” In fact, it is considered one of the “Great Four Anglican Hymns.” Its text was written by John Cennick and Charles Wesley in 1758. Deriving much of its content from the Book of Revelation, it is a magnificent meditation on the glorious Second Coming of Christ.

Let’s consider the hymn verse by verse. Several of the verses draw on an opening vision in the Book of Revelation: Behold, he cometh with the clouds, and every eye shall see him: and they also that pierced him. And all the tribes of the earth shall bewail themselves because of him. Even so. Amen (Rev 1:7). Depending on their state some will be consoled, and others confronted, but they shall all behold him. The opening verse sets the scene:

Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favored sinners slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending,
Swell the triumph of His train:
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
God appears on earth to reign.

Scripture attests that Christ alone is the judge. Jesus says, The Father judges no man: but has given all judgment to the Son, that all men may honor the Son, as they honor the Father. He who honors not the Son honors not the Father who has sent him (John 5:22-23). However, although He alone is the Judge, He does not come alone. Myriad holy ones, saints, attend Him. Here we need not think of saints as merely human beings, for among the holy ones are angels, such as Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael. Scripture says, When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him (Matt 25:31-32). Similarly, of the heavenly company it is said that in addition to the 144,000 from the tribes of Israel, there is also a multitude too large to count, from every nation and tribe and people and tongue, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands (Rev 7:9).

It is as Joel prophesied: Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision (Joel 3:14).

Every eye shall now behold Him
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at naught and sold Him,
Pierced and nailed Him to the tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see.

The Book of Malachi describes the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord. In that vision there are two groups whose reactions and experiences are quite different. Of unrepentant sinners it is said, For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace, when all the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble; the day is coming when I will set them ablaze,” says the LORD of Hosts. “Not a root or branch will be left to them (Malachi 4:1). But of those who repented and sought the Lord it is said, But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings, and you will go out and leap like calves from the stall (Mal 4:2). Yes, for those who have been brought up to the temperature of glory and are accustomed to the light, the Day of the Lord will be as a beautiful, sunlit day. For the unrepentant, that same fiery light will seem an inferno of blazing heat and blinding light. This distinction unfolds in this and the following verses.

Here and in the next verse, those who pierced and nailed him now see what they have done—they opposed and killed our very God and Lord, Jesus Christ. The Lord speaks of their angry lament as the “wailing and grinding of teeth” (e.g., Matt 22:13, 24:51).

Every island, sea, and mountain,
Heaven and earth, shall flee away;
All who hate Him must, confounded,
Hear the trump proclaim the day:
Come to judgment! Come to judgment!
Come to judgment! Come away!

Creation itself falls back before the glory of God. The entire cosmos seems swept aside. The Lord judges the living and the dead by fire. This fiery judgement will remake and renew the created world, which has longed for this day. St. Paul attests, Creation waits in eager expectation for the revelation of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not by its own will, but because of the One who subjected it, but in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. Yes, we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now (Romans 8:19-22). But now the trumpet has sounded (1 Cor 15:52); the earth yields its dead, and all creation with humanity stands before God.

Now redemption, long expected,
See in solemn pomp appear;
All His saints, by man rejected,
Now shall meet Him in the air:
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
See the day of God appear!

In this verse, attention is turned to those who rejoice on this Great and Terrible Day of the Lord. Here, the Lord answers the martyrs cry, which John heard; I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony they had upheld. And they cried out in a loud voice, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe and told to rest a little while longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers, were killed, just as they had been killed (Rev 6:9-11). Yes, here is the reckoning and revelation of those who won through by the Blood of the Lamb, as opposed to those who rejected His offer of salvation.

Answer Thine own bride and Spirit,
Hasten, Lord, the general doom!
The new Heaven and earth inherit,
Take Thy pining exiles home:
All creation, all creation,
Travails! groans! and bids Thee come!

Here, the Church, the Lord’s Bride, also rejoices, for her stance has always been, as St. John says, [The Spirit and the bride say,] “Come!” Let the one who hears say, “Come!” And let the one who is thirsty come, and the one who desires the water of life drink freely…. He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus (Rev 22:17,20). All creation groans, too, seeking to hasten the Lord’s return: We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until the present time (Rom 8:22).

The dear tokens of His passion
Still His dazzling body bears;
Cause of endless exultation
To His ransomed worshippers;
With what rapture, with what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars!

The Lord’s scars are the glorious sign of His love and His conquest. Another hymn of the Church, “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” has this among its lyrics:

Behold His hands and side;
Rich wounds yet visible above
In beauty glorified:
No angel in the sky
Can fully bear that sight,
But downward bends his burning eye
At mysteries so bright.

Finally, let’s look at last verse our great hymn, the doxology:

Yea, Amen! let all adore Thee,
High on Thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory,
Claim the kingdom for Thine own;
O come quickly! O come quickly!
Everlasting God, come down!

It is truly a literary masterpiece; it masterfully sums up the Book of Revelation and paints a picture of the Second Coming in sweeping, majestic poetry. Cherish it and meditate on it frequently.

In the performance below, it is sung to the tune “Helmsley,” which was first published in 1763:

A Prophetic Interpretation of Reality for Our Times?

The first reading from Mass for Tuesday of the 28th week of the year is rich in meaning for us today. Scripture is a prophetic interpretation of reality, showing us what is really going on from the perspective of the Lord of History. It describes not only the current of the times but the end to which it is tending. It is important for us to read Scripture carefully with the Church and to submit our understanding to the rule of faith and the context of Sacred Tradition.

With those parameters in mind, I would like to consider this passage from Romans, in which St. Paul describes the grave condition of Greco-Roman culture in the 1st century. Although he was, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, prophetically interpreting that age, it is clear that the situation today is frighteningly similar.

St. Paul saw a once-noble culture in crisis, in the process of being plowed under by God for its willful suppression of the truth.

Let’s take a look at the details of this prophetic interpretation and apply it to our own times.

I. The Root of the Ruin The text says, The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness.

As the curtain draws back, we not eased into the scene at all. We are confronted at once with the glaring light of judgment and the frightening word “wrath.” Note that the wrath of God is being “revealed”; His wrath is the revelation!

This is directly contrary to the modern tendency to view God as an “affirmer in chief” whose love for us is a sentimental one rather than a true love that insists on what is right, on what we need rather than what we want.

What exactly is the wrath of God? It is our experience of the total incompatibility of unrepented sin before His holiness. The unrepentant sinner cannot endure the presence and the holiness of God. For him, there is wailing, grinding of teeth, anger, and even rage when confronted by God and the demands of His justice and holiness. God is not simply “angry,” as if emotionally worked up into a fury. He is not moody or unstable. He does not have temper tantrums the way we do. Rather, it is that God is holy, and the unrepentant sinner cannot endure His holiness, experiencing it as “wrath.”

To the degree that God’s wrath is in Him, it is His passion to set things right. He is patient and will wait and work to draw us to repentance, but His justice and truth cannot forever tarry. When judgment sets in on an unrepentant person, culture, civilization, or age, His holiness and justice are revealed as wrath.

What was the central sin of St. Paul’s day (and is that of our own today)? It is the sin that leads to every other problem: they suppress the truth by their wickedness.

On account of wickedness and a desire to persist in sin, many suppress the truth. The Catechism of the Catholic Church warns,

by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin … it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 37).

Similarly, St. Paul told St. Timothy,

… the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear (2 Tim 4:3).

And Isaiah described,

They say to the seers, “See no more visions” and to the prophets, “Give us no more visions of what is right. Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions…” (Isaiah 30:10).

The desire to cling to sin and to justify one’s behavior leads people to suppress the truth. While this human tendency has always existed, it has become widespread and collective today, just as it did in St. Paul’s age. There seems to be an increasing tendency for people of our own time in the decadent West to call “good” or “no big deal” what God calls sinful.

The text makes clear that on account of the repeated, collective, and obstinate suppression of the truth, God’s wrath is revealed. This is true both in St. Paul’s day and today in the decadent West.

II. The Revelation that is Refused The text goes on to say, what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

God the Holy Spirit and St. Paul attest that the suppression of the truth is willful. It is not merely ignorance. Even though the pagans of St. Paul’s day did not have the Scriptures, they are “without excuse.” Why? Because they had the revelation of creation, which reveals God. It speaks not only to His existence but to His attributes, His justice, His power, His will, and to the good order He instilled in what He made and thus expects of us.

All of this means that even those raised outside the context of faith, whether in the first century or today, are “without excuse.”

The Catechism states that the responsibility to discover and live the truth is rooted in the conscience.

Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. …For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. … His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. … It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. … [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1776-1778).

Because of the witness and revelation of the created order and on account of the conscience in all who have attained the use of reason, those who suppress the truth are without excuse.

It has been my experience as a pastor working with sinners and as a sinner myself, that people realize, deep down, they are doing. They may have tried to suppress the still, quiet voice of God. They may have tried to keep His voice at bay with layers of rationalization. inking. They have collected false teachers to confirm them in their sin. They may have permitted deceivers to tickle their ears. Deep inside, though, they know that what they are doing is wrong. They are without excuse. Not only is there the revelation of creation, but for many there is also the Word of God, which they have heard in various ways.

To justify their wickedness, many today, like those in St. Paul’s time, willfully refuse revelation. They are without excuse.

III. The Result in the Ranks – The text says, For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but became vain in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles (Romans 1:21-23).

This should sound very familiar. In St. Paul’s day, and even more so in ours, a prideful culture set aside God through atheism and secularism or through neglect and tepidity. God has been escorted to the margins of our proud, anthropocentric culture. His wisdom has been forcibly removed from our schools and from the public square. His image as well as references to Him are increasingly being removed by force of law. Many mock His Holy Name, His truth, and our faith.

Faith, and the magnificent deposit of knowledge and culture that has come with it, is denigrated as a relic from ancient, unenlightened, unscientific times.

Our disdainful culture has become a sort of iconoclastic anti-culture, which has systematically put into the shredder every vestige of Godly wisdom it can. The traditional family, chastity, self-control, moderation, and most virtues have been scorned and willfully smashed by the iconoclasts of our time. To them, everything of this sort must be destroyed.

As a prophetic interpretation of reality, the passage describes the result of suppressing the truth and refusing to acknowledge and glorify God: they became vain in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools.

Yes, there is a powerful darkening effect that comes from suppressing the truth and refusing the wisdom and revelation of God. While claiming to be so wise, intelligent, and advanced, we have become foolish. Our intellects grow dimmer and darker by the day. Our interest in passing and frivolous things is intensifying, while we rarely attend to the things that really do matter: death, judgment, Heaven and Hell. We have difficulty exercising even a modest amount of self-control. We cannot make or keep commitments. Addiction is widespread and becoming ever more serious. The most basic indicators indicate grave problems: graduation, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, divorce, cohabitation. The rates that should be going up are going down, and the ones that should be going down are going up.

Even our ability to think clearly and have intelligent, meaningful conversations has decreased. We cannot agree on even the most basic points. We talk past one other and live in our own bubbles, which are increasingly self-defined.

Even the part of the passage about idolatry (… images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles) applies today. People are into stones and all sorts of strange combinations of religions, including the occult. This is the age of the “designer God.” People no longer tolerate the revealed God of the Scriptures. Rather, they recast, reinvent, and remake Him into a “God of their own understanding,” who just so happens to agree with everything they think.

Many people today congratulate themselves for being tolerant, open-minded, and non-judgmental. It is hard not see that our senseless minds have become dark, our thoughts vain, and our behavior foolish.

Our culture today is in the grave condition that this Scripture, this prophetic interpretation of reality, describes. There is much about which to be concerned.

IV. The Revelation of the Wrath – The text says, Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men and received in themselves the due penalty for their error (Rom 1: 24-27).

Here the “wrath” is revealed. The text says, God gave them over to their sinful desires. This is the wrath, the revelation of the total incompatibility of unrepented sin before the holiness of God and the holiness to which we are summoned.

In effect, God says, “If you want sin and rebellion, you can have it, but I will let you experience the consequences. You will feel the full fury of your own sinful choices.” Yes, God gave them over to their sinful desires.

It seems obvious that God has also given us over to our sinful desires.

Note that the first and most prominent effect of being given over to sinful desires is sexual confusion. The text describes sexual impurity, the degradation of their bodies through shameful lusts and shameful acts of homosexual perversion. It also speaks of bodily penalties for such action, probably disease and other deleterious effects that result from doing what is unnatural, from using the body in ways for which it was not designed.

Welcome to the decaying West in the 21st century.

Many misunderstand this passage, interpreting it as saying that God will punish us for engaging in, condoning, and celebrating homosexual acts. But the text does not say that God will punish us, it says that the widespread behavior is God’s punishment; it is the revelation of His wrath.

Let us be careful to make an important distinction. The text does not say that only those with same-sex attraction are punished (and in fact some may have this orientation but live chastely). Rather, the text says that we are all punished.

Why? For decades, the West has celebrated promiscuity, pornography, fornication, cohabitation, contraception, and even to some extent adultery. The resulting carnage of abortion, STDs, AIDS, broken families, single mothers/absent fathers, and the effects of these on our children, has not been enough to bring us to our senses. Our lusts have become wilder and more and more debased.

Through contraception, we severed the connection between sex and procreation. Sex has been reduced to adults doing what they want in order to have fun, feel pleasure, or “share love (lust).” This has opened the door to increasingly debased sexual expression and to irresponsibility.

Then came the rise of the homosexual community and its demands for acceptance and celebration. Our wider culture, now debased, darkened, and deeply confused, cannot comprehend what is obvious: homosexual acts are wholly contrary to nature. The very design of the body shouts against it. Deeply immersed in its own confusions about sex via contraception, increasingly depraved pornography, and the celebration of oral and anal sex among heterosexuals, our culture has no answer to the challenge.

Our senseless minds are darkened, confused, foolish, and debased. This is wrath. This is what it means to be given over to our sinful desires. This is what happens when God finally says, “If you want sin, you have it … until it comes out of your ears.”

How many tens of millions of aborted babies have been sacrificed to our lusts? How many children have experienced the pain of living without both parents? How many have died from AIDS? How many have lived with STDs? Yet we have not repented.

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness. Notice again that homosexuals are not being singled out; the wrath is against the godlessness and wickedness of all who suppress the truth. When even the carnage has not been enough to bring us to our senses, God finally gives us over to our own sinful desires to feel their full effect. We have become so collectively foolish, vain in our thinking, and darkened in our intellect, that we now as a culture “celebrate” homosexual acts, which Scripture rightly calls disordered. (Paraphysin, which means “contrary to nature” is the word St. Paul uses in this passage to describe homosexual acts.) Scripture also speaks of homosexual acts as crying out to heaven for vengeance.

V. The Revolution that Results – The text says, Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.

When proper understanding of sexuality, marriage, and family go into the cultural shredder, countless social ills are set loose.

This is because children are no longer properly formed. The term “bastard” is often used to refer to a despicable person, but its more strict meaning is someone born of parents not married to each other. Both senses are related. This text says, in effect, that people start to act like bastards.

Large numbers of children raised without their mother and father in a stable marriage is a recipe for the social disaster described in these verses. It is another way in which wrath is revealed, in which God seems to have given us over to our sin.

 VI. The Refusal to Repent Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

Here, too, is the mystery of our iniquity, of our stubborn refusal to repent no matter how high the cost or how clear the evidence. Let us pray that we will still come to our senses. God has a record of allowing civilizations to come and go, nations to rise and fall. If we do not love life, we do not have to have it. If we want lies rather than truth, we can have them, but we will feel their full effects.

Remember that God said,

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place (2 Chron 7:14-15).

Oremus!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Prophetic Interpretation of Reality for Our Times?

The Destination Must Direct the Way

Many people say that they don’t hear too many sermons about Hell anymore. I believe this is true in general, but I will say that I preach about it a good bit. However, I would like to point out that the same could be said about sermons on Heaven. Try to remember the last time you heard a sermon that dealt with the topic let alone inspired a longing for Heaven. Too many sermons focus on this world: how to live in it, how to deal with moral and ethical problems, and how to be happier in it. It is not wrong to preach about such things as long as it does not divert focus from our ultimate destination: Heaven or Hell. To be vague, uninspiring, or silent about our goal and desired destination is spiritually disastrous.

To illustrate, consider a man who sets out in his car for New York City from Washington, D.C. His destination guides every turn he takes, every navigational decision he makes. If he sees a sign that says, “South to Richmond” he knows not to take that exit. He doesn’t have to deliberate; the answer is clear because his destination is clear. Consider, though, what might happen if he were uncertain about where he was going or forgot: The road signs might cause stress and confusion. He might think, “Perhaps this is the way I should go … or maybe not. How do I know? Maybe there will be fun things to see and do along that route.” Soon enough he might be driving all over the map, lost in diversions, distractions, and—ultimately—dead ends. He might in fact see some pleasant sights along the way, but deep down he would begin to sense that none of this driving around was adding up to anything.

Without a destination we are lost, confused, and worried. To live without a clear goal is stressful because we have little basis on which to make good decisions; every choice seems difficult. With little ability to determine what is truly good for us, we focus on temporary pleasure, becoming easy prey for the hucksters of this world. So, our credit cards are maxed out, our hearts are divided, and we feel unmoored.

Where are we going? When was the last time we really thought about it? Too many of us are living unreflective, directionless lives. We don’t really know where we are going, but we’re sure in a big hurry to get there!

Have a goal: Heaven! Focus on it. Dream about it. Long for it. Make it direct your modus vivendi. We should want to die loving God and our neighbor so that we can go home to Heaven and be with God forever. Let every decision you make be in service of this one, clear goal. Carefully review your life and ask yourself, “Am I moving closer to my goal? How? What things have hindered me or diverted me from it?”

I have written more on this topic previously (When Was the Last Time You Meditated on Heaven? That Long? Try This.”)

Consider this beautiful meditation from Pope St. Gregory the Great, which is in the Office of Readings this week:

If anyone enters the sheepfold through me, he shall be saved; he shall go freely in and out and shall find good pasture. He will enter into a life of faith; from faith he will go out to vision, from belief to contemplation, and will graze in the good pastures of everlasting life.

So our Lord’s sheep will finally reach their grazing ground where all who follow him in simplicity of heart will feed on the green pastures of eternity. These pastures are the spiritual joys of heaven. There the elect look upon the face of God with unclouded vision and feast at the banquet of life for ever more.

Beloved brothers, let us set out for these pastures where we shall keep joyful festival with so many of our fellow citizens. May the thought of their happiness urge us on! Let us stir up our hearts, rekindle our faith, and long eagerly for what heaven has in store for us.

To love thus is to be already on our way. No matter what obstacles we encounter, we must not allow them to turn us aside from the joy of that heavenly feast.

Anyone who is determined to reach his destination is not deterred by the roughness of the road that leads to it. Nor must we allow the charm of success to seduce us, or we shall be like a foolish traveler who is so distracted by the pleasant meadows through which he is passing that he forgets where he is going (From a homily on the Gospels by Pope St. Gregory the Great, Hom. 14, 3-6: PL 76, 1129-1130).

In his Letter to the Philippians, St. Paul wrote,

This one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize of God’s heavenly calling in Christ Jesus. Whatever was an asset to me I count as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things as loss compared to the surpassing excellence of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him …. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been perfected, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me … (Phil 3: 7-9; 12-14).

Onward, upward, to the goal!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Destination Must Direct the Way

Pulling Back the Veil – An Overview of the Book of Revelation

In daily Mass we are currently reading selections from the Book of Revelation—not a bad choice as the end of the liturgical year swiftly approaches.

While many suppose that the Book of Revelation is merely about the end of the world, it is about far more; it is also about what is happening right now. It was not written only for the end of the ages but for all ages. It is a book of glory that discloses the victory Jesus has already won. Don’t get lost in lots of exotic theories; Revelation is a prophetic book of glory.

Its title in Greek is ποκάλυψις ησο Χριστο (Apokalupsis Jesou Christou), which literally means “The Unveiling of Jesus Christ.” It is as if Jesus is pulling back the veil to show us what is really going on. He shows us the great drama of history and tells us that He has already won the victory. He declares that we should not to lose heart while the dust settles, while the wheat is separated from the chaff and the harvest is brought in.

We are too easily mesmerized or terrified by our limited view of history. We think that life depends on which political party wins, or whether a cure is found for some disease, or whether nations of the world can reach rapprochement—but the battle is far higher and deeper than our tiny slice of time. It is far deadlier and concerns more dramatic issues than what will happen to the GNP of the U.S. or which of the latest political theories will prevail.

This is a great drama between good and evil. It concerns the fundamental issue of where you will spend eternity. Yes, there is a great and cosmic battle in which we are all caught up; it is happening all around us. St. Paul says,

For we do not contend against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the high places. Therefore, take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm (Eph 6:11-13).

The Book of Revelation is speaking to the same reality. It unveils the true and cosmic battle. In so doing, it declares without ambiguity who the victor is: Jesus Christ our King, who has already won. There are only two kingdoms, two armies, two sides. You must decide whom you will serve: the prince of this world or the King and Lord of all creation.

Revelation opens with a vision of the glory of Jesus the Great Lord and Son of Man:

I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.” Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead (Rev 1:10-17).

Yes, this is our Lord Jesus in His resurrected and conquering glory! At the name of Jesus every knee shall bend in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth, and every tongue proclaim to the glory of God the Father that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil 2:10-11).

Yes, Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming amid the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen (Rev 1:5-7).

The second part of the Book of Revelation calls the Church and us as individuals to repentance and perseverance. The cosmic battle reaches the Church and individual disciples. The battle is in the Church and in the heart of every person. Thus, the letters to the seven churches referred to in Revelations 1. We are not to lose the love we had at first. We must be willing to endure hardship and persecution. We are to reject the fornicators and all those who propose any sort of sexual immorality. We are to resist syncretism and every form of false religion. We must resist Satan’s deep secrets; we must not be in any agreement with his ways. We must resist sloth and not fall back. We must resist lukewarmness as well as every sort of pride and self-satisfaction. The Church, clergy and laity, must fight the good fight, must persevere. We must endure hardship, keeping in mind the reward that awaits the courageous and the eternal disgrace that is coming to cowards and to all those who embrace the world, the flesh, and the devil.

John is then caught up into Heaven to see the glory of God and the heavenly liturgy. He has revealed to him what must take place soon. Historically, the Book of Revelation pointed to the destruction of Jerusalem and to the end of an era. Down through the ages, empires and nations have crumbled; eras and epochs have come and gone. Only God’s Kingdom, as proclaimed and made sacramentally present by the Church, has survived or will survive.

Today we are arguably at the end of another era and epoch. The West is crumbling, and decadence abounds. Confusion about basic reality is so widespread that our current world can credibly be compared to a lunatic asylum. Even within the Church, voices that should speak out prophetically remain silenced by fear. There is among Church leaders, clergy, and laity a widespread softness and a feeling that the risk of speaking out is too great.

The message of the Book of Revelation is a strong antidote to times like these—to all times past, present, and future: be strong, be prepared, and be willing to suffer, realizing that no matter how powerful evil may seem, Jesus is the victor. We are swept up into a cosmic battle that is much larger than our current situation but that reaches us nonetheless. Don’t think that you can sit on the fence; you must choose a side. Satan owns the fence and he is coming for you; he will say, “You belong to me.”

The seals, the bowls, and the trumpets of Revelation are but a further description of the cosmic battle and the wretched defeats that ultimately come to the defiant and disobedient. God will not leave unpunished those who despise His Kingdom and His holy ones. These seven ordeals times three are a call to repentance to those who survive. They are also a manifestation of God’s justice and ultimate authority over history.

A crucial battle comes in Revelation 12, when the red dragon with seven heads and ten horns besets Mother Mary, who is also an image of the Church. But the devil cannot prevail in the war that breaks out in Heaven. He is hurled to the earth, where he unsuccessfully pursues the woman (who is Mary and the Church). In a rage, he continues to pursue us. For the time being, the cosmic battle continues; Satan rages because he knows his time his short.

Satan is a big loser, but even losers have an uncanny ability to impress and dupe foolish, gullible people. Satan still makes empty promises and dangles passing pleasures before us. Sadly, many of the worldly and unspiritual fall prey to his lies. Mysteriously, God permits this until the full number of the elect is gathered in.

Then comes the end:

And fire came down from heaven and devoured Satan and his armies and followers. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new.” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true” (Rev 20:9-21:5).

Yes, it is good that we read the Book of Revelation. In it, the Lord is telling us what is really going on and what the outcome will be. He is telling us not to lose heart. “In this world you shall have tribulation, but have courage, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Be not dismayed, fellow Christians. Do not be fearful of what is coming upon this world. Even if it is the end of the era or epoch, the Church has endured such sea changes before. Christ has already won the victory and has promised that the Church will remain indefectible. When the current foolishness has run its course, we will still be here preaching the Gospel, even if we have become a small remnant and are preaching from our prison cells!

Do not be fearful. Do not be a coward. Preach boldly and with love. Continue to shine the light of the gospel in the darkness. The gospel will win; it always wins.

Don’t get lost in the details of the Book of Revelation and miss its message: victory in the midst of persecution and trial. It is a call to persevere. It is a pulling back of the veil to show us what the end shall be! Be strong, courageous, and certain. Jesus has already won the great victory in the cosmic battle. The dust is still settling, but know for certain that Jesus has won, and if you choose Him, so will you!

He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death (Rev 21:7-8).

Regardless of what you think is going on, this is what is really going on. Choose sides. I urge you to choose Christ with courage. Don’t look back. Come what may, Viva Cristo Rey!

Sober but Serene Themes of Judgment in the Spirituals

Julia Eckel, Smithsonian American Art Museum

I’ve often been impressed by the ability of old African-American spirituals to treat serious subjects in a clear, memorable, and almost joyful way. This is true even of weighty matters like sin and judgment. During early November we are focused on the four last things (death, judgment, Heaven, and hell) and November is also Black Catholic History Month. So, this seems like a good time to look at some of the creative lines from different spirituals that articulate these topics.

It can be very helpful to the preacher, teacher, and parent in recovering an ethos of coming judgment, but in a way that is almost playfully bright while at the same time deeply soulful.

In a certain sense, the spirituals are unimpeachable, even by hypersensitive post-moderns who seek to shame preachers for announcing sterner biblical themes. Most of the spirituals were written by slaves, who creatively worked biblical themes into these songs that helped accompany both their work and their worship.

The spirituals were written in the cauldron of great suffering. If any people might be excused from thinking that the Lord would exempt them from judgment day, it was surely the enslaved in the deep South. If any people might be excused from crying out for vengeance, it was they. Yet the spirituals are almost entirely devoid of condemning language; enslaved blacks sang in ways that looked also to their own sins and the need to be prepared. If they were prepared, God, who knew their trouble, would help them steal away to Jesus. They did not see themselves as exempt from the need to be ready.

If they, who worked hard in the cotton fields and endured the horrors of slavery, thought these texts applied to them, how much more do they apply to us, who recline on our couches and speak of our freedom to do as we please?

Here are some lines from a few of the many spirituals that speak to judgment and the last things:

  • I would not be a sinner, I’ll tell you the reason why. I’m afraid my Lord might call my name and I wouldn’t be ready to die.
  • Some go to Church for to sing and shout, before six months they’s all turned out!
  • Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven ain’t a goin’ there, Oh my Lord!
  • Where shall I be when the first trumpet sounds? Oh where shall I be when it sounds so loud, when it sounds so loud as to wake up the dead? Oh where shall I be when it sounds? How will it be with my poor soul, Oh where shall I be?
  • Better watch my brother how you walk on the cross! Your foot might slip and your soul get lost!
  • God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but the fire next time!
  • Old Satan wears a hypocrite’s shoe, If you don’t watch he’ll slip it on you!
  • Noah, Noah let me come in!
    The doors are fastened and the windows pinned! fastened an’ de winders pinned
    Noah said, “Ya lost your track
    Can’t plow straight! you keep a-lookin’ back!
  • Knock at the window knock at the door
    Callin’ brother Noah
    Can’t you take more?
    No said Noah cause you’re full of sin!
    God has the key you can’t get in!
  • Well I went to the rock to hide my face
    The rock cried out, no hiding place
    There’s no hiding place down here
    Oh the rock cried I’m burnin’ too!
    I wanna go to heaven just as much as you!
  • Oh sinner man better repent!
    Oh you’d better repent
    for God’s gonna call you to judgment
    There’s no hiding place down there!
  • No signal for another train
    To follow in this line
    Oh sinner you’re forever lost
    When once you’re left behind.
    She’s nearing now the station
    Oh, sinner don’t be vain
    But come and get your ticket
    Be ready for that train!
  • Sinner please don’t let this harvest pass
    And die and lose your soul at last.
  • My Lord, what a morning
    When the stars begin to fall

    You’ll hear the trumpet sound, to wake the nations underground
    Looking to my God’s right hand,
    When the stars begin to fall
    You’ll hear the sinner moan,
    When the stars begin to fall

    You’ll hear the Christian shout,
    Oh, when the stars begin to fall!

Most of these songs are deeply scriptural and make serious appeals to the human soul, but they do so in a way that is creative. They get you tapping your foot and invite you to a joyful consideration of the need to repent before it’s too late. Others are more soulful, even mournful, in their pentatonic scale.

Given all the reluctance to discuss the four last things (death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell), songs like these may help to reopen the door to necessary conversations between preacher and congregation, parents and children. They are a valuable resource.

I’d like to conclude with a creative spiritual about the last judgment. Note that it is rich in biblical references. It is joyful—a real toe-tapper—and makes a serious point along with a wish.

In That Great Getting’ Up Mornin’ Fare You Well

I’m gonna tell ya ’bout da comin’ of da judgment
Dere’s a better day a comin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well!

Chorus:
In dat great gettin’ up mornin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
In dat great gettin’ up mornin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Oh preacher fold yo’ bible,
For dat last souls converted,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Blow yo’ trumpet Gabriel,
Lord, how loud shall I blow it?
Blow it right and calm and easy,

Do not alarm all my people,
Tell dem all come to da judgment,
Fare thee well, fare thee well!

Do you see dem coffins burstin’,
do you see dem folks is risin’
Do you see dat fork of lightnin’,
Do you hear dat rumblin’ thunder?
Fare thee well, fare thee well!

Do you see dem stars a fallin’,
Do you see da world on fire?
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Do you see dem Saints is risin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
See ’em marchin’ home for heaven,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Oh! Fare thee well poor sinners, fare thee well, fare thee well
Fare thee well poor sinners, fare thee well, fare thee well!

Here are renditions of a few other spirituals: