Mark 13:24-32
Last Things First by Rev. Paul Scalia
Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Mark wrote to explain Christ
to the new Gentile converts.

Jesus said to his disciples: "In those days after that tribulation the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.  And then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in the clouds' with great power and glory, and then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.  "Learn a lesson from the fig tree.  When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near.  In the same way, when you see these things happening, know that he is near, at the gates.  Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.  "But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."

We have all probably heard the expression "first things first."  It is a characteristically American phrase, summarizing our "can-do," practical mentality.  When we turn to the most important matters, however, to matters of faith, salvation and eternity, we should use a different expression: "Last things first."  That is, we should keep the last things - death, judgment, heaven, hell - in the forefront of our minds.  It is precisely this approach that our Lord encourages when He speaks about the end times - about "those days" when "they will see 'the Son of Man coming in the clouds' with great power and glory" (Mk 13:24,25).  He wants us to conduct ourselves with the awareness that "heaven and earth will pass away, but (His) words will not pass away" (Mk 13:31).

To put "last things first" simply means applying to our spiritual life the same pragmatism we use in other areas.  When we begin a project, we first consider the goal:  What's the purpose?  Likewise, the longest journey does not begin with a single step.  It begins with a destination.  Without a destination a journey makes no sense and will soon be abandoned.  The same is true of the spiritual life.  It begins with a destination: heaven.  Lose sight of heaven and its inexpressible joys, and you will give up the journey as soon as it gets tough.  And just as we plan our route according to the final destination, so also the Catholic life is not an aimless wandering but a pilgrimage whose twists, turns, detours and pit-stops we chart toward heaven.

As both spiritual writers and common sense indicate, a sober awareness and pious consideration of one's own death has tremendous motivational power.  No, we should not adopt a morbid outlook or make our faith a mere matter of fearing death.  Nevertheless, it helps to recall that each of us will stand before the Man Who suffered and died for us.  Still bearing the five wounds He received for our sins, He will demand an account of what we have done, good or evil.  Such considerations have an uncanny ability to correct our disordered priorities in a hurry.

One possibility of this judgment is hell.  Pope Benedict recently reminded us of this reality: "Whoever dies in mortal sin, unrepentant and closed off from God's love by his prideful rejection, excludes himself from the kingdom of life."  If eternal damnation were not a possibility, our Lord and His Apostles would hardly have wasted so much energy trying to keep people from it.  Of course, we should not spend our time trying to calculate just who and how many are in hell.  For our spiritual and moral growth, it is enough to know that hell stands ready to receive us and one mortal sin suffices to bring us there.

This all may sound macabre to modern ears.  But the saints show us otherwise.  St. Francis of Assisi (hardly a gloomy guy) had a keen awareness of death and sang to her as "Sister Death."  When in difficult situations, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, that example of youthful purity and zeal, would ask himself a simple question: "Quid ad aeternum?"  That is, "What is this in eternity?  What significance does this have in comparison with eternal rewards and punishments?"  So also the skull that St. John Fisher kept on his desk as a reminder of death helped prepare him mentally and spiritually for the martyrdom he would face.  It was precisely their appreciation of the last tings that inspired them to cultivate such beauty of life.  With that same perspective, a close advisor of Blessed Mother Teresa gave a simple summary of their beautiful work: "We prepare people for death."  What a wonderful example of the charity and wisdom that comes from putting last things first.

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