We hear a lot of people making a lot of predictions about the end times when something bad happened, to tell people that they know when the world is going to end. We have seen many predictions, some even in recent times, but they never seemed to happen; yet, many people still want to believe in these people who seem to hold the secret to the parousia. From our humanistic desire to know the unknown, we see a lot of fear-mongers who capitalized and gained traction for themselves using fears and scares as a way to get their agenda-driven messages across or make people believe in their words out of fear of imminent judgment. Of course, all of these are extreme cases, but we do get to see them in actions many times! While it seems to be that the subjects of free will and hell, suffering and divine justice tend to be popular discussion topics, they are also some of the hardest subjects to talk about in theology. I am not an advance theology professor, but I would like to introduce three different readings (Isaiah 66, in particular, verses 18-21; Hebrews 12:5-13; Luke 13:22-30) to give a general perspective of how we can understand these hard topics in the scope of eternity and love.
The last chapter from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah was written to the people who just returned to Jerusalem from the Babylonian Exile. They finally settled down a little bit, from a long period of survival, stress, and uncertainty; hence, the prophecy began with the important reminder of God‘s fidelity. He was faithful to them, even in their time of exile without a home! Now, as they were rebuilding their homes, they were reminded that their first and foremost vocation as His chosen people was not dependent on having and possessing the ancestral land alone. They were His people because He chose them, and they can only be His people when they are faithful to His covenant.
The Letter to the Hebrews text encouraged early Christians who were going through tough times, ones that were filled with divisions, persecutions, hardships, and struggles caused by both internal and external turmoils. What seemed to be like divine abandonment and rejection of God‘s fatherly love because of human factors and unfortunate events is not His ignorance of them. The author reminded believers that He is always with them. He will never abandon them, and even though those trials seemed like punishments or hard disciplines, He was using all things to help them mature in faith. They are called to trust in His fatherly love, for all things are permitted for our greater and eternal good.
And yes, while God desires all to come to Him and share in His life-giving banquet, the Gospel reading from St. Luke reminded us that we have to conform ourselves, let go of our baggage and self-preoccupation to fit through the narrow gate of the Heavenly Kingdom. We have to learn to let go and die to ourselves in order to be spiritually healthy and fit to receive the greater strengthening of grace, more disposed, free, and able to receive the fullness of His loving grace that He has willed and prepared for us.
Let us be honest, we are living in a very legalistic but very cheapened world. We think that as long as we do not get caught breaking the law or commandments, we are good enough. We often give the minimum to God and others but expect so much from Him and those around us. We think that only we have it right and possess the right standards while others failed in one way to another to meet our expectations. And the bad thing is, we tend to do that to God, too! We blame Him when things are wrong or do not meet our expectations, yet we give little in the relationship, make a lot of excuses; however, we want to make sure that the Almighty has to be available for us — for everything.
We expect eternal life of bliss in heaven immediately after death but have not spent the time to really love Him in this life or prepare for the next. Of course, God is merciful in recognizing that we cannot be fully perfect, but He is also very just in His judgment. We cannot fool Him or think that He is only docile to do whatever we want from Him! If we are not prepared for eternity now, imagine how lost we will be. If we have not loved Him now and willing to live according to His will, eternity will be hellish. Our eternity with God begins now with how we prepare ourselves to receive Him — now. If we do not have enough time and room interiorly to welcome and have Him dwell within us, we will never have enough room and priority even in the afterlife to be with Him. We build our eternal home and fix its size now by how much we empty ourselves for the Almighty!
Of course, to be in conformity to God‘s will is not easy. At times, it will make us feel like hard punishments and disciplines! Yet, the dying of ourselves, embracing oppositions, hardships, trials, and sufferings are opportunities for us to unite ourselves to Christ‘s own redemptive suffering. As a matter of fact, our human mishaps and sufferings are not always divine punishment or abandonment in the impoverished understanding of transactional and favor-based understanding of grace. If that is the case, Jesus Christ would be the most despicable and failed case in human history, and all the saints would be ignorant fools!
The Church teaches us that by enduring Christ’s sufferings in every age, especially in her members, she bears true witness to His redemptive love to all. In a self-centered and materialistic world, the generosity of genuine self-donating love, even if it means to suffer, testify to Christ‘s own redemptive love for humanity. At times in our spiritual journey, we will feel like we have lost everything, hated by many, abandoned by God, and left for dead! We might feel like we are in the darkness by ourselves — cannot feel His presence in our psyche or natural senses — just like St. Mother Teresa in her own dark nights of the soul for forty years; however, we continued to choose to love and serve so that His light shined in and through her darkness.
Hence, I would like to share with you my own mother’s conversion story. When she married my father, she was not Catholic. Even though she went to a Catholic school, she chose to remain as a Buddhist / ancestor worshipper when they got married. My mother wanted to be free to learn, understand, and accept the faith in her own time and without pressures. Nevertheless, she came to her own conversion when my father was imprisoned by the Vietnamese Communists after the war. Many of her friends and distant family members told her to let him go because she was still young. She struggled a lot because she was alone, sent to undeveloped “new economic regions” by the government, and had to handle a lot of things on her own. On top of that, people told her that she should not waste her time waiting for someone who was uncertain of his release time and will not have a future in this new regime. Even though she felt discouraged, she turned to someone that she felt comfortable from her previous Catholic education at Regina Pacis — the Blessed Virgin Mary. She began to come to the popular Redemptorist parish and religious community house to pray at their Marian shrine. Little by little, her faith grew and she chose to become a Catholic.
Even though my mother’s Catholic faith is very basic and rudimentary, she understands God‘s faithfulness. She understands deep within her heart that He was always there with her and her marital commitment even though there were so many people trying to pull her in different places. Out of the hardest time in her life, she found the faithful and loving God and trusted in Him. Even now, her faith is dependent on that whole encounter and understanding, even at times when she does not understand the other aspects of our Catholic teachings. Hence, my mother and her simple faith remind us that we do not have to know and have everything in order to believe in God and His loving faithfulness, as long as our heart understand that His love never fails!
The Lord is always with us, even at times we cannot sense Him. He has and will always be faithful to us, giving us and sufficient grace to embrace all trials and hardships that have arisen and given to us by others and because of life itself. No matter what, do not give up but allowing our lives to be light for those who are around us so we can testify to His love in all circumstances — in good time and in bad, in sickness and in health, now and for the rest of our lives.