The passing of George H.W. Bush, our forty-first president, has moved me. I’ve always admired him. While working at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, I got to meet him a number of times, since, as vice president, he lived across the street, and then, as president, my boss, the papal nuncio, would often be in contact with him. My respect for him was deepened last summer when I read Jon Meacham’s excellent biography.
What the nation and globe are now commenting about him—his duty, decency, patriotism, and humility—I saw close-up.
One of his final remarks, as reported by his close friend, James A. Baker, especially caused a lump in my throat. Apparently, Mr. Baker reports, early the day of his death, he visited, as he often did, the former President. Mr. Bush, obviously weak, looked at him and asked, “Bake, where are we going?”
To which Mr. Baker replied, “Jefe, [his nickname for the president, the Spanish word for “boss”] we’re going to heaven!”
President Bush smiled, and whispered, “Yes, we are. I want to go there.”
You could not choose two people more “worldly” than the former president and previous secretary of state. Yet, at the most emotional exchange they ever had, on the president’s deathbed, their thoughts turned to eternity, to the Beyond, to everlasting salvation in our true and lasting home of heaven.
Not just priests and religious ministers, but poets, philosophers, and scholars of the human person will tell us that this sense of eternity, an innate impulse that our very person is immortal, that this life, as deeply as we cherish it, is not all there is, can be found ingrained in the heart of the human person.
“We are made for you, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they return to you for all eternity,” remarks St. Augustine, one of western civilization’s most towering intellects.
Advent is a fitting time to ponder this, since, during these weeks of interior preparation for Christmas, we recall the comings of Christ.
He did come in history that first Christmas, in a stable in Bethlehem, then to dwell among us bodily on earth for three decades. In His preaching He revealed Himself as “the way, the truth, and the life,” assuring us whoever believed in Him would never die. Not only did He teach about immortality, He leads us there and empowers us to “life to the fullest,” by His own saving death and resurrection. On that cross His last words were to promise eternal life in paradise to a contrite thief crucified on His right.
His coming, though, is not limited to that first arrival and stay two millennia ago, because He will come again in majesty at the end of time. That’s His second coming, and this inspires our Advent prayer as well. Just recall our readings from the Bible at Mass last Sunday, the first of the four Sundays of Advent.
When this second coming will take place we don’t know. We do realize that Jesus will come to us personally, at the moment of our death, as He did for President Bush last Friday. We don’t know when that will occur either, do we?
But He’ll come at the end of the world for all creation and creatures, as our existence as we know it will conclude.
Since we hardly know when that day will arrive, it’s good during Advent to become a Marine, a Boy Scout, and be prepared. St. Augustine again, “We can always count on God’s mercy; we cannot count on tomorrow.”
Thus do we relish each hour and day, living it to the fullest. We might not be as daring as President Bush, parachuting out of a plane on his 90th birthday, but we sure savor each day the Lord gives us.
And all that we cherish in this life—the good, true and beautiful—we realize is but a hint, the antipasto of an eternity in heaven united with the God who did come, does come daily, and will come at the end of our personal, earthly life, and the end of the world.
I remember as a parish priest having the funeral of a wonderful woman who had traveled the earth in loving service to others in teaching, missionary work, and feeding the world’s famine stricken. She died on Christmas day.
At her wake, her grieving nephew recalled, “Aunt Sheila was all over the world, but she always wanted to be home for Christmas. Now we know she is.”
George Bush would agree. We want to go to heaven! So would St. Augustine; so would Jesus.
A blessed Advent!