Death, Detachment, and Advent
All life should be a meditation on death. Socrates taught this to his disciples, and he was not alone. St. Gregory insisted that Christians think about one thing, our departure from this world. “For this departure we prepare ourselves and gather our baggage as prudent travelers.” St. John of Sinai tells us, “Let the memory of death sleep and awake with you.” The Holy Scriptures echo: “In all you do, remember the end of your life, and then you will never sin" (Wisdom of Sirach 7:36). These four weeks of Advent are a time for detaching from the world a little more. By fixing our heart on the end, we become open to gratitude and eternity.
"Jesus said unto his disciples: There shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars, and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea, and the waves roaring: men's hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads: for your redemption draweth nigh" (Luke 21:25-27).
Some husbands enjoy going shopping with their wives. I cannot stand it. I do not know what it is, the bustle or the decision making, but I will find any excuse I can to avoid going to the store. Socrates, on the other hand, found great joy in frequenting the market places. A friend was shocked by this and asked him why. “I love to go there,” he said, “to discover how many things I am perfectly happy without.” Our Gospel today is about detachment.
“Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.”
Everything will die. Everything will pass. At the moment of Jesus Christ’s second coming, the sun will go dark and the stars will fall. Our careers, accomplishments, possessions, and money, all of it, with vanish. What will be left? Only our souls remain, standing before the face of God.
Will this be a moment of joy or sadness? It depends on how we live our life here. What do we love?
“Upon the earth distress of nations…men’s hearts failing them for fear.”
In the end, we will all get what we want. Whatever we love on earth, we will have that for eternity. If we love things that break and turn to dust, then we will have dust for eternity. If we love something which has no place in heaven, when we get to heaven and do not find it, we will leave heaven and search elsewhere. C. S. Lewis points out that the gates of hell are locked from the inside. Everyone, with no exemption, is welcomed into heaven. But only those who love heavenly things will want to stay in heaven.
“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).
Lot’s wife was horrified when she saw the city Gomorrah burning. Her heart was in that city. When it turned to dust, she too turned to dust. Lot never looked back. Through his whole life, he remained detached from the things in the city. He simply looked ahead to the mountains. His heart was set on eternity — so he was given eternity.
“Look up, and lift up your heads: for your redemption draweth nigh.”
Bring it closer to home. The end of the world sounds pretty abstract. The end of our life is much more palpable. We do not know how much longer we have to live? We could lose everything today. Should it matter? Though everything falls apart, we have God.
Have you ever wondered why God allows so many tragedies? Why will God let society collapse at the end of the world? Why does he allow old age? In American society, we seem determined to do everything we can to ward off the aging process. We want to beat sickness and conquer death. But maybe, just maybe, God allows all our losses. It is a little taste of what is to come. God lets us suffer now, so we can learn let go and lean on Him.
Thanksgiving evening, my son grabbed my arm and pointed out the window. “Look Papa! The Christmas lights!” Someone in the room replied, “They’re shining to remind us that Christmas is coming. Christ will bring us the light.” It struck me how wonderful Christmas lights are. You cannot see them during the day. It has to be dark outside and then the colors dance. In the same way, when everything passes in life, we can see all the more clearly how beautiful are the important things.
Remembrance of death is not a denial of life. It is the ultimate affirmation of life. What Socrates and the Church Fathers all discovered, only those who reconcile themselves to death are ever able to really appreciate life.
This Advent, I want to really make a practice of remembering death. If I can remember my death, a few minutes playing with my children becomes so much more meaningful. If I can remember my death, an evening sitting together with my wife becomes eternal. If I can remember my death, and the life on the other side, all the little losses and suffering now, become so much less significant.
“Know that now it is high time for us to awake out of sleep. For now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk honestly as in the day: not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying: but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:11-14).
Advent is a time for detaching. Advent arrives, churches are covered in somber color, and our gospel readings highlight the apocalypse. Nature itself seems to remind us of death, with longer hours of night, trees shedding leaves, and animals hibernating. We eat a little less food, we fast from noise and distractions, we practice the art of letting go. Everything points to the end. In fixing our heart on the end, the important things become so much more important: our relationships with one another, our relationship with God. The darker it is, the better we see the lights.
“Open my eyes, O Lord, to see that all that I have and all that I am is a gift received from you. Free me from the power of my possessions. Strengthen me to let go of my attachments. Let nothing in my life become a substitute for love of you and my neighbor. Amen.”