Suppose you wished to live the season of Advent this year in the spirit of St John Henry Newman, what would you do? You would reflect seriously on two things and then devote yourself to a third. At least, so the saint tells us in his great Advent sermon, “Worship, A Preparation of Christ’s Coming”.
You would put yourself in the right frame of mind first by reflecting on old age and death. We may think of children awaiting Christmas presents as conveying the true spirit of the season. Yet, for Newman, it is not an accident that Advent arrives at the same time as winter, which stands for the end of life, not its beginning:
The year is worn out: spring, summer, autumn, each in turn, have brought their gifts and done their utmost; but they are over, and the end is come. All is past and gone, all has failed, all has sated; we are tired of the past; we would not have the seasons longer; and the austere weather which succeeds, though ungrateful to the body, is in tone with our feelings, and acceptable. Such is the frame of mind which befits the end of the year; and such the frame of mind which comes alike on good and bad at the end of life.
His logic is that in Advent we await Christ. But we await Him in order to meet Him. And we meet Him upon death, which for most of us follows old age. The inhabitants of nursing homes tell us more about Advent than the inhabitants of nurseries. Their enforced severity could even be a model for us, who “by profession are penitents and mourners”. “True faith does not covet comforts,” he remarks. “It only complains when it is forbidden to kneel.” Advent is a penitential season.
Second, you would dwell on what it will be like to meet Christ face-to-face, immediately after death. Much is made of Newman’s “personalism”, that he thinks of the Christian faith as a matter of personal relationships, not abstractions. But we are loath to follow out the implications of personalism for judgment after death. Newman insists that we grasp this truth. The very first time we meet Our Lord, Newman says, we will be judged by Him. Not greeted, embraced or escorted in, but judged. “We are destined to come before Him; nay, and to come before Him in judgment; and that on our first meeting; and that suddenly. We are not merely to be rewarded or punished, we are to be judged.”
We will be sent to heaven, purgatory, or hell, not through some kind of fluid unfolding of a general course of providence, but because the Lord will assess us each individually, and reach a judgment: “We have to stand before His righteous Presence, and that one by one. One by one we shall have to endure His holy and searching eye.”
Make judgment after death as personal an encounter as possible, and then you will arrive at the truth. “Such is our first meeting with our God; and, I say, it will be as sudden as it is intimate,” Newman warns us.
But if this is so, then what should we do to prepare? So we might wonder anxiously – which leads to the third thing.
It all depends on what we are preparing for, Newman says. We are preparing to appear before God in his majesty and to live in His presence – “a very different thing from being merely subjected to a system of moral laws”. Thus, simply striving to be a good person, which most people imagine is enough, could not possibly be an adequate preparation for that meeting.
Fortunately, Newman says, God provides the means and tells us through the Church that they are the means. The liturgy of the Church, and especially the sacraments, we know, are manifestations of the Lord as if through a veil. “In these is manifested in greater or less degree, according to the measure of each, that Incarnate Saviour, who is one day to be our Judge, and who is enabling us to bear His presence then, by imparting it to us in measure now.” Thus our main task in Advent is, with austerity and watchfulness, to prepare to meet the Lord personally, by devoting ourselves to the worship of God and to receiving the sacraments.
Newman wrote his sermon as an Anglican. A natural Catholic transposition of this advice would be: during Advent, in a penitential spirit, frequently hear Holy Mass, receive Communion, and go to sacramental Confession. “He, who is to glorify us, prepares us to be glorified, that He may not take us unawares; but that when the voice of the Archangel sounds, and we are called to meet the Bridegroom, we may be ready.”
Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. He lives with his wife, Catherine, an Assistant Professor of Economics at the university, and their eight children, in Hyattsville, Maryland