A sermon of St. Jean-Marie Vianney for the 1st Sunday of Advent.
"Tunc videbunt Filium hominis venientem in nube cum potestate magna et majestate." —
"And then they shall see the Son of man coming in a cloud with great power and majesty." —St. Luke xxi. 27.
Not a God clothed with our weaknesses, hidden in the darkness of a wretched stable, housed in a crib, treated with derision and mockery, bowed to earth by the heavy burden of his cross; but a God who, clad in the glorious splendour of his great power and majesty, makes known His advent by the most terrifying manifestations, by the darkening of the sun and the moon, by the falling of the stars and by the upheaval of all creation. Not a Redeemer who comes with the meekness of a lamb to be judged by men whom He tries to gain over to Himself; but a judge in righteous wrath, to judge mankind with the awful measure of His justice. Not a loving shepherd, who tries to find His stray sheep and who pardons them when they have returned, but a God of vengeance, who will separate forever the just from the unjust, who will make the sinners feel His terrible vengeance and overwhelm the just with celestial bliss. O terrible moment, O fearful moment, when wilt thou arrive? O unhappy moment! perhaps in a few days from now we may observe the harbingers of this, for sinners, so terrible a day of judgment! O sinners, arise from the grave of your iniquities, appear before the judgment seat of God and suffer the treatment the sinner will have to undergo! The godless of this world like to deny the power of God, because they see the sinner pass unpunished through the days of his life; yes, they will even make the bold assertion that there is no God, that there is no hell; or, they say: “God does not take any notice of what we do here upon earth.” Oh, but wait for the day of judgment; on this great day God will reveal His power and show all nations that He has seen everything and taken an account thereof.
St. Luke says that men will wither away for fear and expectation of what shall come upon the whole world. Oh, my friends, one could wither away for fear and die from fright at the thought of a misfortune which is a thousand times less than what is impending for the sinner and which is sure to be his fate if he persists in leading a life of sin.
My friends, if at this moment, when I am about to speak to you of the judgment to come, before which we must all appear to render an account of the good and evil we have done during this life and to receive thereat our final judgment, which will be either Heaven or hell, I say, if at this moment an angel was to appear and announce to you the message from God that in twenty-four hours by a rain of fire and sulphur the whole world would go up in flames; if you could already hear the distant rolling of the thunder; if the fury of the storm was beginning to tear down your houses, and if the lightning was growing so vivid that the earth was like unto a fiery ball; if hell was beginning to hurl forth the damned to fill the world with their screams and howls, and if the only way to avoid this misery would be to detest sin and repent, could you then, my friends, listen to all this without shedding streams of tears and imploring mercy? Would you not throw yourself down at the foot of the altar and cry for mercy? Oh, inconceivable folly of sinful man! It will then be too late to repent.
Yes, my brethren, we shall be judged; nothing is more certain. Yes, and we shall be judged without mercy.
We read in Holy Scripture that God, whenever He intended to send a scourge over the world, always preceded it by a sign, so as to strike terror into the hearts of the people and cause them to implore His mercy. The historian Josephus records that long before the destruction of Jerusalem there was visible in the sky a comet, in the form of a sword, which caused general consternation. Everyone asked what is the meaning of this sign? Is it perhaps a great misfortune which God is going to send us? The moon appeared eight nights in the sky without showing any light; the people began to tremble for their lives, when all at once an unknown man appeared, who for three years without interruption passed through the streets of Jerusalem day and night, shouting: “Woe to Jerusalem! Woe to Jerusalem!” He was arrested and scourged to make him stop his lamentations, but nothing would deter him. At the end of the three years he called out: “Woe to Jerusalem! Ah! woe to me!” At that moment a stone, which had been thrown at him from a slingshot, struck him and killed him instantly. Soon all the misfortunes which this unknown man had prophesied broke out all over Jerusalem. The famine became so terrible that mothers killed and devoured their own children. The city was captured by the enemy and levelled to the ground; the streets were covered with the dead, and blood flowed in streams; the few who escaped with their lives were sold into slavery. As the day of judgment will be the most terrible and frightful day of all, the preceding signs will be so horrible as to strike terror into the innermost parts of the earth. Our Lord has said that on that fateful day the sun shall give no more light; that the moon will seem like a bloody mass, and the stars will fall from the heavens. Lightning and thunder will be so terrible that men will wither away with fear. The wind will become so violent that nothing will be able to withstand it; trees and houses will be torn away and carried far out to sea; the sea itself, lashed into fury by the storms, will rise higher than the highest mountains, and the terrors of hell will be open to the eyes of mankind; all creatures will try to hide themselves away from the presence of the Creator when they behold the crimes with which men have defiled and disfigured the face of the earth.
When then the earth is cleansed from the many crimes with which it was covered God will send down His angels, who will blow their trumpets at the four corners of the earth, and call to the dead: “Arise, ye dead, arise from your graves and appear anon before the judgment seat!” And forthwith all the dead, just and unjust, good and bad, the virtuous and the sinners, will be rejoined to their bodies; the seas will give up their dead, and the earth will bring forth all who have been lying in her bosom for all these centuries. After this upheaval the souls of the Saints, clad in their glory, will descend from Heaven, each of them to take possession of their earthly body. “Come,” they will say to it; “come, thou companion of my sufferings, thou hast always striven to please God; thou hast sought thy happiness in suffering and in fighting. Come, ye blessed eyes which have closed so often at the sight of unclean objects for fear of losing the grace of God, come into Heaven, where you will see nothing but the beautiful things which are vainly sought for on earth. Welcome, my ears, which had such a horror of unchaste and slanderous words and conversations; be welcome in Heaven, where you will listen only to heavenly music, which will be your constant delight. Welcome, my feet and my hands, which were so often the means of bringing solace to the unfortunate; let us wander about in this beautiful Heaven, where we shall gaze upon our adored Redeemer who loves us so much. There we shall see Him who has lived in our hearts: there we shall see His hands, still reddened with blood, by which He has merited our great joy.”
When the Saints have taken possession of their glorified bodies, they will look forward with rapture to the moment when God will reveal to the sight of the whole world all the tears, all the works of penance, all the good they have done. “Yea,” Jesus Christ will say to them, “I want the whole world to behold the reward which I have prepared for you!”
But what a terrible and awful change is before us. I hear the trumpet call to the condemned to come back out of hell. “Come, ye sinners, ye malefactors, ye tyrants, your God calls you who was so eager to save you; appear before the judgment seat of the Son of man. Come and stand forth, for all the wrong you have ever committed will be revealed in sight of the whole world.” Then the angel will call: “Depths of hell, open your portals, belch forth the damned: their judge is calling them.” Oh, horrible moment! They will come forth from the depths, these miserable damned souls, and seek for their bodies in despair. Oh, horrible sight, at the moment when the soul enters its body the latter will feel all the terrors of hell. Oh, this cursed body and this cursed soul, they will revile each other thousands and thousands of times. “Oh, thou cursed body, the soul will say, thou has drawn me and dragged me into the filth of impurity; thousands of years have I suffered and burned in hell. Come, ye cursed eyes that have so often taken pleasure in throwing impure glances at their own or the bodies of others; come down to hell, where you will see nothing but the most horrible monsters. Come, ye cursed ears that have so often delighted in listening to indecent words and conversations; come down to hell, where you will hear the howling and roaring of the devils for all eternity. Come, thou cursed tongue, thou cursed mouth; come down to hell, where you will get no other nourishment but gall. Come, thou cursed body, to whose cupidity I have given in so often, thou shalt forever be stretched out in a pool of sulphur and fire, which is kindled by the power and wrath of God.”
Yes, my brethren, there the just and the condemned, after they have reoccupied again the body which was theirs during life, the body as we see it now before us, all will stand up before their Judge. See, there He comes, seated on His throne, blazing with glory, surrounded by all the angels, before Him His standard, the Cross! When the damned see their judge, then they will cry out: “Ye mountains, throw yourselves upon us and hide us from the sight of our judge; ye rocks, fall upon us and throw us back into the depths of hell!” No! No! Come forth, oh, sinner, and give an account of thy whole life. Come forward, oh unhappy one, thou who hast offended the good God so greatly. “Oh, my judge, my Father, my Creator, where is my father, my mother, who have been the cause of my being damned? Oh, my father, my mother, it is through your fault that I am damned, it is you who have caused my destruction.” Ah! who can estimate the misery of a condemned soul, who sees before Him his own father and mother resplendent in glory, destined for Heaven, and himself condemned to hell. These rejected ones will cry out, “Mountains, bury us, we beg of you fall upon us; oh, ye portals of the abyss, open and hide us!” Then the Lord will open up, as we are told by the Prophet Ezechiel, that great and wonderful book, in which the crimes of all men are recorded. Oh, what an enormous number of sins which have never been revealed to the eyes of the world will then become apparent! Oh, tremble, all ye, who have heaped sin upon sin for years! But, you will say, what about all the good works we have done, were they all in vain? All those fastings, penances, almsgivings, the communions and confessions, do they not deserve any recompense? “No;” Jesus Christ will say to you, “your prayers were only idle babblings, your fasting hypocrisy, your almsgiving vain seeking for notoriety; I was never considered in any of your doings. Besides, I have blessed you with earthly possessions; I have blessed your work, I have given fruitfulness to your fields, I have enriched your children for the little good you have done. I have given you full recompense, as much as you could expect.” “But,” He will say to us, “your sins still live, and they will live forever before me. Depart, ye accursed, into eternal fire, which is for all those who have thought little of Me in life.”
You see, my brethren, as the most distressing thing on that terrible day it will be made clear to us that God has spared no effort to save us; that He allowed us to participate in the boundless merits of His death on the Cross; that He gave us the privilege of being born in the bosom of the Church; that He gave us guardians of the soul to show us and advise us what to do to gain eternal happiness. He has given us the sacraments that we may regain His friendship as often as we have lost it; He has fixed upon no number of sins, which He is willing to pardon; if our return to Him is sincere we are sure of His forgiveness. He will wait for us for years, though we may live only to offend Him. He does not want to destroy, He would rather save us at any price if we will only let Him! We, ourselves, force him through our sins to pronounce the judgment of eternal damnation over us.
On earth the sinner will always have some excuse for the sins committed by him; he even brings his pride into the tribunal of penance, where he ought to appear only to accuse and humble himself. Some plead ignorance, others strong temptations; others again special opportunities and bad examples; every day you can hear the reasons which the sinners proffer to hide the hideousness of their crimes. Come now, ye proud sinners, and let us see how your excuses will be received on the judgment day; explain yourselves before Him who holds the torch in His hand and has seen, counted and weighed in the balance everything concerning you.
You did not know, you say, that this was a sin! Oh, unfortunate one, Jesus Christ will tell thee that if thou hadst been born amongst the heathen nations, who have never even heard of the true God, thou mightest offer thy ignorance as an excuse, but thou, a Christian, who had the happiness of being born in the bosom of the Church, who had grown up in the centre of enlightenment and who hast been preached to about thy own salvation, what about thee? Oh, unfortunate one, if thou didst live in ignorance it was thy fault, because thou wouldst not learn and make use of the instructions. Away, oh, unfortunate one, thy excuses only make thee more deserving of damnation. Away with thee to hell, there to burn in thy ignorance!
But another one will say, My passions were so strong, and very great was my weakness. “Well,” the Lord will say, “after God showed you the great mercy to let you recognize your own weakness and your priest told you that you must be constantly watchful over yourself, mortify yourself, so as to become master of it, why did you behave just the contrary; why did you take so much trouble to satisfy the desires of your body and the promptings of your passions? God let you recognize your weakness and yet you fell at every step. Why did you not take refuge in the Lord and pray for grace to God? Why did you not obey the guardians of your soul who never failed to ask you to pray and ask for grace and strength, which you needed to overcome the devil? Why were you so indifferent to the Sacraments and approached them so seldom; those Sacraments which would have given you such strength to do good and avoid evil? Why did you despise so frequently the word of God, which would have led you to His habitation?” Oh, you ungrateful, you blind sinners, why did you not use the opportunities which He gave you to make you strong, as so many others have done and are doing? What have you done to keep clear of sin? Away with you unfortunate ones, away, away with you to hell.
But, you will say, we have always had such bad examples before our eyes. Bad examples! What an empty excuse! If there are bad examples, there are also good ones. Why did you not rather follow the latter than the former? If you saw a young woman go to Church and receive the Sacraments, why did you not follow her rather than the one who went to dance halls? If a young man goes to church to pray to the Lord in the Holy Tabernacle, why did you not follow him rather than the one who went to the saloon? Say, rather, you sinners, that you preferred to wander on the broad path which leads to destruction than the narrow path which has been pointed out to you by the Lord. The real cause of your sins and your damnation is certainly not to be looked for in bad examples, or in opportunities, or your weakness, or in the want of grace; the real cause lies solely in the wickedness of your heart, which you have done nothing to suppress. Your fate is your own fault.
But, you will say, we have always been told that God is merciful. Certainly He is merciful, but He is also just. His love and mercy is at an end. What conclusion shall we draw from all this, my friends? This: That we should never lose sight of the fact that some day we shall be judged without mercy, that all our sins will be revealed in the sight of the whole world, and that after the judgment day, if it should still find us tainted with sins, we should have to go to hell, there to suffer for them, without ever being able to extirpate or forget them. Oh, how blind we are, my brethren, if we do not use the short space of time which we still have to live through to assure ourselves of the heavenly Kingdom. So long as we are in this life we may hope for pardon, but if we wait too long it may be too late, and there may be no help for us. Oh, Lord, give me the grace that I may never lose the thought of this dreadful judgment day out of my mind, and do not let me fall into temptation, so that I may on that day hear the sweet words from the mouth of the Redeemer: “Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess ye the Kingdom which has been prepared for you from the beginning.” Amen.