A Martyr Preaches: “Banish the Fear of Death”

1st Sunday of Advent

This Sunday’s celebration comes in a moment of two overlapping times. This is a Sunday in November, the month in which we particularly remember, celebrate, and pray for the dead. This Sunday is also the beginning of Advent, a season in which we prepare for the coming of Christ. Through Advent we prepare not only for Christmas, the first coming of Christ, but also for Jesus’ Second Coming one day. Here and now at this Sunday Mass, our past and our future, the living and the dead, this world and the next, meet together.

When we hear Jesus’ words in today’s gospel about the Last Days we may feel apprehensive. Jesus tells us “people will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world.” And even if you or I do not belong to that final generation, we may fear to contemplate the coming sure reality of our own earthly deaths. But across time and space, an ancient saint and martyr urges us: “Let us shut out the fear of death and meditate upon immortality.

This is what St. Cyprian preached in the mid-third century A.D. as the bishop of Carthage, a North African city on the Mediterranean coast. God wills us to be good stewards of his gift of life, not recklessly pursuing self-harm or death, and yet not dreading the approach of death with mortal terror either. Listen to these words of St. Cyprian of Carthage as if he stood here before you preaching to you today:

“Our obligation is to do God’s will, and not our own. We must remember this if the prayer that our Lord commanded us to say daily (that is, the “Our Father”) is to have any meaning on our lips. How unreasonable it is to pray that God’s will be done, and then not promptly obey it when he calls us from this world! Instead we struggle and resist like self-willed (servants) and are brought into the Lord’s presence with sorrow and lamentation, not freely consenting to our departure, but constrained by necessity. And yet we expect to be rewarded with heavenly honors by him to whom we come against our will! Why then do we pray for the Kingdom of Heaven to come if this earthly bondage pleases us? What is the point of praying so often for its early arrival if we would rather serve the devil here than reign with Christ?

The world hates Christians, so why give your love to it instead of following Christ, who loves you and has redeemed you? John is most urgent in his (first New Testament letter) when he tells us not to love the world by yielding to sensual desires. Never give your love to the world, he warns, or to anything in it. A man cannot love the Father and love the world at the same time. All that the world offers is the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and earthly ambition. The world and its allurements will pass away, but the man who has done the will of God shall live forever. Our part, my dear brethren, is to be single-minded, firm in faith, and steadfast in courage, ready for God’s will, whatever it may be. Banish the fear of death and think of the eternal life that follows it. That will show people that we really live our faith.

We ought never to forget, beloved, that we have renounced the world. We are living here now as aliens and only for a time. When the day of our homecoming puts an end to our exile, frees us from the bonds of the world, and restores us to paradise and to a kingdom, we should welcome it. What man, stationed in a foreign land, would not want to return to his own country as soon as possible? Well, we look upon paradise as our country, and a great crowd of our loved ones awaits us there, a countless throng of parents, (brothers and sisters), and children longs for us to join them. Assured though they are of their own salvation, they are still concerned about ours. What joy both for them and for us to see one another and embrace! O the delight of that heavenly kingdom where there is no fear of death! O the supreme and endless bliss of everlasting life!

There is the glorious band of apostles, there the exultant assembly of prophets, there the innumerable host of martyrs, crowned for their glorious victory in combat and in death. There in triumph are the virgins who subdued their passions by the strength of (chastity). There the merciful are rewarded, those who fulfilled the demands of justice by providing for the poor. In obedience to the Lord’s command, they turned their earthly inheritance into heavenly treasure.”

And so brothers and sisters, these are St. Cyprian’s lessons for us today. Love and obey Christ over and against this sinful world. Do not fear Jesus’ Second Coming. The Bible concludes with the prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus,” because his return is Good News for his friends. And do not dread your last days, but look forward to going to paradise. Jesus Christ and his holy saints, who love us, cheer us, and intercede for us, await the day we’ll join them in the fullness of joy.

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