SERMON XXXIII. FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST. – DEATH IS CERTAIN & UNCERTAIN
Let down your nets for a draught.” LUKE v. 4.
IN this day’s gospel we find that, having gone up into one of the ships, and having heard from St. Peter, that he and his companions had laboured all the night and had taken nothing, Jesus Christ said: “Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught.” They obeyed; and having cast out their nets into the sea, they took such a multitude of fishes, that the nets were nearly broken. Brethren, God has placed us in the midst of the sea of this life, and has commanded us to cast out our nets, that we may catch fishes; that is, that we may perform good works, by which we can acquire merits for eternal life. Happy we, if we attain this end and save our souls! Unhappy we, if, instead of laying up treasures for heaven, we by our sins merit hell, and bring our souls to damnation! Our happiness or misery for eternity depends on the moment of our death, which is certain and uncertain. The Lord assures us that death is certain, that we may prepare for it; but, on the other hand, he leaves us uncertain as to the time of our death, that we may be always prepared for it two points of the utmost importance.
First Point. It is certain that we shall die.
Second Point. It is uncertain when we shall die.
First Point. It is certain that we shall die.
1. “It is appointed unto men once to die.” (Heb. ix. 27.) The decree has been passed for each of us: we must all die. St. Cyprian says, that we are all born with the halter on the neck: hence, every step we make brings us nearer to the gibbet. For each of us the gibbet shall be the last sickness, which will end in death. As then, brethren, your name has been inserted in the registry of baptism, so it shall be one day written in the record of the dead. As, in speaking of your ancestors, you say: God be merciful to my father, to my uncle, or to my brother; so others shall say the same of you when you shall be in the other world; and as you have often heard the death-bell toll for many, so others shall hear it toll for you.
2. All things future, which regard men now living, are uncertain, but death is certain. “All other goods and evils,” says St. Augustine, ”are uncertain; death only is certain.” It is uncertain whether such an infant shall be rich or poor, whether he shall enjoy good or ill health, whether he shall die at an early or at an advanced age. But it is certain that he shall die, though he be son of a peer or of a monarch. And, when the hour arrives, no one can resist the stroke of death. The same St. Augustine says: “Fires, waters, and the sword are resisted; kings are resisted: death comes; who resists it ?” (in Ps. xii.) We may resist conflagrations, inundations, the sword of enemies, and the power of princes; but who can resist death? A certain king of France, as Belluacensis relates, said in his last moments: “Behold, with all my power, I cannot make death wait for a single hour.” No; when the term of life has arrived, death does not wait even a moment”Thou hast appointed his bounds, which cannot be passed.” (Job. xiv. 5.)
3. We must all die. This truth we not only believe, but see with our eyes. In every age houses, streets, and cities are filled with new inhabitants: their former possessors are shut up in the grave. And, as for them the days of life are over, so a time shall come when not one of all who are now alive shall be among the living. “Days shall be formed, and no one in them.” (Ps. cxxxviii. 10.) “Who is the man that shall live, and shall not see death?” (Ps. lxxxviii. 49 ) Should any one flatter himself that he will not die, he would not only be a disbeliever for it is of faith that we shall all die but he would be regarded as a madman. We know that all men, even potentates and princes and emperors, have, utter a certain time, fallen victims to death. And where are they now? “Tell me,” says St. Bernard, “where are the lovers of the world? Nothing has remained of them but ashes and worms.” Of so many great men of the world, though buried in marble mausoleums, nothing has remained but a little dust and a few withered bones. We know that our ancestors are no longer among the living: of their death we are constantly reminded by their pictures, their memorandum books, their beds, and by the clothes which they have left us. And can we entertain a hope or a doubt that we shall not die? Of all who lived in this town a hundred years ago how many are now alive? They are all in eternity in an eternal day of delights, or in an eternal night of torments. Either the one or the other shall be our lot also.
4. But, God! we all know that we shall die: the misfortune is, that we imagine death as distant as if it were never to come, and therefore we lose sight of it. But, sooner or later, whether we think or think not of death, it is certain, and of faith that we shall die, and that we are drawing nearer to it every day. ”For we have not here a lasting city, but we seek one that is to come.” (Heb. xiii. 14.) This is not our country: here we are pilgrims on a journey. ”While we are in the body we are absent from the Lord.” (2 Cor. v. 6.) Our country is Paradise, if we know how to acquire it by the grace of God and by our own good works. Our house is not that in which we live; we dwell in it only in passing; our dwelling is in eternity. “Man shall go into the house of his eternity.” (Eccl. xii. 5.) How great would be the folly of the man, who, in passing through a strange country, should lay out all his property in the purchase of houses and possessions in a foreign land, and reduce himself to the necessity of living miserably for the remainder of his days in his own country! And is not he, too, a fool, who seeks after happiness in this world, from which he must soon depart; and, by his sins, exposes himself to the danger of misery in the next, where he must live for eternity?
5. Tell me, beloved brethren, if, instead of preparing for his approaching death, a person condemned to die were, on his way to the place of execution, to employ the few remaining moments of his life in admiring the beauty of the houses as he passed along, in thinking of balls and comedies, in uttering immodest words, and detracting his neighbours, would you not say that the unhappy man had either lost his reason, or that he was abandoned by God? And are not you on the way to death? Why then do you seek only the gratification of the senses? Why do you not think of preparing the accounts which you shall one day, and perhaps very soon, have to render at the tribunal of Jesus Christ? Souls that have faith, leave to the fools of this world the care of realizing a fortune on this earth; seek you to make a fortune for the next life, which shall be eternal. The present life must end, and end very soon.
6. Go to the grave in which your relatives and friends are buried. Look at their dead bodies: each of them says to you: “Yesterday for me; Today for thee.” (Eccl. xxxviii. 23.) What has happened to me must one day happen to thee. Thou shalt .become dust and ashes, as I am. And where shall thy soul be found, if, before death, thou hast not settled thy accounts with God? Ah, brethren! if you wish to live well, and to to have you accounts ready for that great day, on which your doom to eternal life or to eternal death must be decided, endeavour, during the remaining days of life, to live with death before your eyes. ”death, thy sentence is welcome.” (Eccl. xli. 3.) Oh! how correct are the judgments, how well directed the actions, of those who form their judgments, and perform their actions, with death before their view! The remembrance of death destroys all attachment to the goods of this earth. ”Let the end of life be considered,” says St. Lawrence Justinian, ”and there will be nothing in this world to be loved.” (de Ligno Vitæ, cap. v.) Yes; all the riches, honours, and pleasures of this world are easily despised by him who considers that he must soon leave them forever, and that he shall be thrown into the grave to be the food of worms.
7. Some banish the thought of death, as if, by avoiding to think of death, they could escape it. But death cannot be avoided; and they who banish the thought of it, expose themselves to great danger of an unhappy death. By keeping death before their eyes, the saints have despised all the goods of this earth. Hence St. Charles Borromeo kept on his table a death’s head, that he might have it continually in view. Cardinal Baronius had the words, “Memento mori” “Remember death” inscribed on his ring. The venerable P. Juvenal Anzia, Bishop of Saluzo, had before him a skull, on which was written, “As I am, so thou shalt be.” In retiring to deserts and caves the holy solitaries brought with them the head of a dead man; and for what purpose? To prepare themselves for death. Thus a certain hermit being asked at death, why he was so cheerful, answered: I have kept death always before my eyes; and therefore, now that it has arrived, I feel no terror. But, oh! how full of terror is death, when it comes to those who have thought of it but seldom.
Second Point. It is uncertain when we shall die.
8. ”Nothing,” says the Idiota, ”is more certain than death, but nothing is more uncertain than the hour of death.” It is certain that we shall die. God has already determined the year, the month, the day, the hour, the moment, in which each of us shall leave this earth, and enter into eternity; but this moment he has resolved not to make known to us. And justly, says St. Augustine, has the Lord concealed it; for, had he manifested to all the day fixed for their death, many should be induced to continue in the habit of sin by the certainty of not dying before the appointed day. ”Si statuisset viam omnibus, faceret abundare peccata de securitate”(in Ps. cxliv). Hence the holy doctor teaches that God has concealed from us the day of our death, that we may spend all our days well. ”Latet ultimus dies, ut observentur omnes dies. ” (Hom. xii. inter 50.) Hence Jesus Christ says: “Be you also ready; for at what hour you think not the Son of Man will come.” (Luke xii. 40.) That we may be always prepared to die, he wishes us to be persuaded that death will come when we least expect it. ”Of death,” says St. Gregory, ”we are uncertain, that we may be found always prepared for death.” St. Paul likewise admonishes us that the day of the Lord that is, the day on which the Lord shall judge us shall come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night, ”The day of the Lord shall so come as a thief in the night.” (1 Thess. v. 2.) Since, then, says St. Bernard, death may assail you and take away your life in every place and at every time, you should, if you wish to die well and to save your soul, be at all times and places in expectation of death: ”Mors ubique te expectat tu ubique earn expectabis :” and St. Augustine says: ”Latet ultimus dies, ut observentur omnes dies. ”(Hom, xii.) The Lord conceals from us the last day of our life, that we may always have ready the account which we must render to God after death.
9. Many Christians are lost, because many, even among the old, who feel the approach of death, flatter themselves that it is at a distance, and that it will not come without giving them time to prepare for it. ”Dura mente,” says St. Gregory, ”abesse longe mors creditur etiam cum sentitur.” (Moral, lib. 8.) Death, even when it is felt, is believed to be far off. O brethren, are these your sentiments? How do you know that your death is near or distant? What reason have you to suppose that death will give you time to prepare for it? How many do we know who have died suddenly? Some have died walking; some sitting; and some during sleep. Did any one of these ever imagine that he should die in such a manner? But they have died in this way; and if they were in enmity with God, what has been the lot of their unhappy souls? Miserable the man who meets with an unprovided death! And I assert, that all who ordinarily neglect to unburthen their conscience, die without preparation, even though they should have seven or eight days to prepare for a good death; for as I shall show in the forty-fourth sermon, it is very difficult, during these days of confusion and terror, to settle accounts with God, and to return to him with sincerity. But I repeat that death may come upon you in such a manner, that you shall not have time even to receive the sacraments. And who knows whether, in another hour, you shall be among the living or the dead? The uncertainty of the time of his death made Job tremble. “For I knew not how long I shall continue, or whether, after a while, my Maker may take me away.” (Job xxxii. 22.) Hence St. Basil exhorts us in going to bed at night, not to trust that we shall see the next day. ”Cum in lectulum ad quicscendum membra tua posueris, noli confidere de lucis adventu.” (Inst. ad fil. spirit.)
10. Whenever, then, the devil tempts you to sin, by holding out the hope that you will go to confession and repair the evil you have done, say to him in answer: How do I know that this shall not be the last day of my life? And should death overtake me in sin, and not give me time to make my confession, what shall become of me for all eternity? Alas! how many poor sinners have been struck dead in the very act of indulging in some sinful pleasure, and have been sent to hell! “As fishes are taken by the hook, and as birds are caught with the snare, so men are taken in the evil time.” (Eccl. ix. 12.) Fishes are taken with the hook while they eat the bait that conceals the hook, which is the instrument of their death. The evil time is precisely that in which sinners are actually offending God. In the act of sin, they calm their conscience by a security of afterwards making a good confession, and reversing the sentence of their damnation. But death comes suddenly upon them, and does not leave them time for repentance. “For, when they shall say peace and security, then shall sudden destruction come upon them.” (1 Thess. v. 3.)
11. If a person lend a sum of money he is careful instantly to get a written acknowledgment, and to take all the other means necessary to secure the repayment of it. Who, he says, can know what shall happen? Death may come, and I may lose my money. And how does it happen that there are so many who neglect to use the same caution for the salvation of their souls, which is of far greater importance than all temporal interests? “Why do they not also say: Who knows what may happen? death may come, and I may lose my soul? If you lose a sum of money, all is not lost; if you lose it one way you may recover the loss in another; but he that dies and loses his soul, loses all, and has no hope of ever recovering it. If we could die twice, we might, if we lost our soul the first time, save it the second. But we cannot die twice. ”It is appointed unto men once to die,” (Heb. ix. 27) Mark the word once: death happens to each of us but once: he who has erred the first time has erred for ever. Hence, to bring the soul to hell is an irreparable error. ”Periisse semel æternum est.”
12. The venerable Father John Avila was a man of great sanctity, and apostle of Spain. What was the answer of this great servant of God, who had led a holy life from his childhood, when he was told that his death was at hand, and that he had but a short time to live?”Oh!” replied the holy man with trembling, ”that I had a little more time to prepare for death!”St. Agatho, abbot, after spending so many years in penance, trembled at the hour of death, and said: ”What shall become of me? who can know the judgments of God ?” And, O brethren, what will you say when the approach of death shall be announced to you, and when, from the priest who attends you, you shall hear these words: ”Go forth, Christian soul, from this world ?” You will, perhaps, say: Wait a little; allow me to prepare better. No; depart immediately; death does not wait. You should therefore prepare yourselves now. ”With fear and trembling work out your salvation.” (Phil. ii. 12.) St. Paul admonishes us that, if we wish to save our souls, we must live in fear and trembling, lest death may find us in sin. Be attentive, brethren: there is question of eternity. ”If a tree fall to the south or to the north, in what place soever it shall fall there shall it be.” (Eccl. xi. 3.) If, when the tree of your life is cut down, you fall to the south that is, if you obtain eternal life how great shall be your joy at being able to say: I shall be saved; I have secured all; I can never lose God; I shall be happy for ever. But, if you fall to the north that is, into eternal damnation how great shall be your despair! Alas! you shall say, I have erred, and my error is irremediable! Arise, then, from your tepidity, and, after this sermon, make a resolution to give yourselves sincerely to God. This resolution will insure you a good death, and will make you happy for eternity.