Right after D-Day, our Sister Elizabeth — not yet Sister, but Lieutenant Hillmann — was stationed at a hospital in Bristol. Among her patients was a horribly burned soldier, barely out of childhood when he went off to war. He was burned every place on his body except for his face and the palms of his hands (suggesting that he had covered his face with his hands when the tank burst into flames). Not only that, but his burns were infested with maggots.
He kept getting worse, and he knew he was going to die. One day he asked Lieutenant Hillmann if she would write to his mother when he died.
“Tell her not to worry. It’s all right. I know I’ll be in heaven, because I’ve been a good boy.”
Very much at peace, he died soon after.
As Advent begins, we look not just toward the birth of Christ, but toward the Second Coming of Christ in glory. Jesus tells us that we know neither the day nor the hour, but urges us to be always ready. Perhaps he will return tonight or during lunch tomorrow. On the other hand, perhaps we will meet Christ in glory at the moment of our physical death, when time will be no more and all our words and concepts of God will be revealed in their inadequacy.
The young soldier was ready for glory. But what about those of us whose hearts are less simple — those of us who cannot claim with confidence that we have been “good boys” or “good girls”? Should we fear that day? Should we fear the Second Coming Christ in glory — or, if he seems to tarry, the day of our death?
The gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent has words of encouragement for that time when the cosmic events related to the Second Coming occur:
Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. (Luke 21:28)
What are we to do besides standing up and raising our heads? After all, we do not have the purest of hearts. Our thoughts and actions are far from blameless.
First, we can throw ourselves on the mercy of God.
Jesus manifested this mercy in his earthly life; he showed us the same abundant mercy in his resurrection appearances; and we can be sure that in spite of whatever unsettling events may come to pass, his Second Coming will be charged with the power and tenderness of God’s mercy.
Second, we can offer for ourselves and for others the prayer of the second reading from the first Sunday of Advent:
May the Lord make you increase
and abound in love
for one another and for all,…
so as to strengthen your hearts,
to be blameless in holiness
before our God and Father
at the coming of our Lord Jesus
with all his holy ones. Amen.
(1 Thessalonians 3:12-13 NAB)
And we can view the moment of his coming with joyful anticipation, for — wonder beyond all wonders — the highest ambition of the Christian life will be fulfilled: we shall be like Jesus; and this means that we shall be like God.
We recall that the snake in Genesis promised Eve that she and Adam would be like God if they ate the forbidden fruit. The serpent, however, had no authority to make that promise. He couldn’t deliver.
But God does have the authority to make the promise. This time, the desire to become like God is no longer a power grab, but a holy longing. It is the desire to be who we are created to be.
Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.
(1 John 3:2)
The dying soldier was blessed with a childlike and trusting spirit. But we too, whether trusting or doubting, steadfast or faltering, are God’s children, even now. And so we pray with assurance, Come, Lord Jesus!