As the leaves continue to change colors and the brilliance of autumn unfolds, we know well that the death of winter will soon be upon us. The leaves, now so stunning in their gorgeous array of reds, oranges, and yellows, will soon lose their brilliance and turn brown and then slowly fall from their branches onto the ground below. The skies, once illuminated for long and pleasant hours by the light of the sun and filled with a bluish hue, will soon be dominated by clouds even as the darkness of night settles over us.
We see this happen each year we each have our methods and ways of coping with this change of the seasons; we have our rituals and so we adjust to the seeming gloom of winter. The manifold life of summer gives way to the death of winter and as we experience again the change of the seasons - and as the liturgical year draws to an end - Holy Mother Church calls us to reflect upon our deaths as we see nature die around us. And even as we know that the suffocating grip of winter will lose its hold and be overpowered by the bright dawning of spring, so, too, do we know that our own death is not the end of all things. The Church calls us to reflect not only upon our deaths at this time, but also upon the ever-lasting life of heaven, especially on Sunday as we celebrate the great day of the Resurrection of the One who died for us.
November is, and has been for many centuries now, a fitting time to reflect upon our death and to seek to prepare ourselves for this inevitable moment, whenever it may be. Jesus commands us today, “Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13). These sobering words can light a spark of fear within us, but they are not meant to inspire terror and dread at the thought of our death. Rather, Jesus reminds us that we do not know the time when we will die. None of us knows how many years or months or days we have left and because of this we must always be prepared for the moment when our “life will be demanded of [us]” (Luke 12:20). When we, at long last, finally come to the kingdom of heaven, we do not want to cry out, “Lord, Lord, open the door for us” only to hear him reply, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you” (Matthew 25:11-12).
From this chilling response with which our Lord warns us today we can learn how we should prepare for our death: we must know the Lord Jesus. The foolish virgins who did not bother to plan ahead so as to bring a sufficient supply of oil, were not turned away because there was something they had not done; they were turned away because they did not know the groom. They had not spent time with him, they had not learned from him, they had not rested in his presence.
But how do we come to know the Lord? He says to us, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, [then] I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). Finding Jesus is not a difficult task for those who seek him with sincerity and trust, for he “is readily perceived by those who love [him], and found by those who seek [him]” (Wisdom 6:12). Indeed, Jesus “hastens to make [him]self known to” us (Wisdom 6:13).
When we find the Lord, when we find the God whom we seek and for whom our “flesh pines and [our] soul thirsts,” we will come to know him by being with him (Psalm 63:2). As we read the Scriptures we will know him. As we spend time with him in other forms of prayer – the rosary, the Stations of the Cross, novenas, meditation and adoration – when we receive the Sacraments, we will daily come to know him more and more. When we receive him in the Most Holy Eucharist, not only will we come to know him better but we will be changed into him. This is our ultimate goal: to know him and to be united with him forever.
The more we come to know the mercy and love of Jesus, the more we come to know his tender compassion, the more we will also come to know his will for us. The more we know his will the more we will want to be with him and the easier it will be for us to follow his will.
The great spiritual classic of the Middle Ages, The Imitation of Christ reminds us that
“Every action of yours, every thought, should be those of one who expects to die before the day is out. Death would have no great terrors for you if you had a quiet conscience . . . . Then why not keep it clear of sin instead of running away from death? If you aren’t fit to face death today, it’s very unlikely you will be tomorrow” (1.23.1).
In truth, we who have been baptized have already died once and the second death that we will experience is not something to be feared. It is not to be feared for those who know the Lord, “For the Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise” (I Thessalonians 4:16). Indeed, St. Paul asks us,
“are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).
When we, like those wise virgins who prepared themselves for a long night as they watched for the coming of the groom, prepare ourselves well for the coming of Christ, cooperating with his grace, will stand before the Lord and cry out to him, “Lord, lord, open the door for us.” When he hears our voice and sees us calling out to him, he will not say to us, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.” Rather, “we shall always be with the Lord” (I Thessalonians 4:17) because we have known him. St. Francis of Assisi concludes his great Canticle of the Creatures with these lines:
“Praised are you, my Lord, for our sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape.
Woe on those who will die in mortal sin!
Blessed are they who will be found
in your most holy will,
for the second death will not harm them.”