Living near the U.S.-Canadian border and having friends in a northern border town in Washington State, I often cross the border. This usually involves waiting in long line-ups, which gives even people like me who have nothing to hide plenty of time to get nervous at the prospect of stern interrogation. I don’t know why I am nervous. Perhaps it is my reaction to armed people in uniform asking odd questions (“Do you have any tattoos?”); perhaps it is their authority to disassemble my vehicle on a whim. Anyway, I always take care to remove my sunglasses, look them straight in the eye, and have my story prepared as to why I want to enter their country. The long wait gives me lots of opportunity to read the rules they have prominently posted: I am not allowed to bring fire-arms into their country, or $10,000 without declaring it. (No problem; I do not own a fire-arm, nor do I have $10,000 in spare change.) On my last trip, I took the opportunity to think of the final border crossing, the one that all of us must make, whether or not we ever leave our home-town.
I refer of course to the passage from this life to the next, passing through the border between life and death, and ushering us into what Shakespeare called “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns”. Concerning that final and compulsory border crossing, I would like to offer two brief thoughts.
Firstly, like crossing the border into the U.S., there are certain things we are not allowed to take with us. Money is the most famous one, as proverbial wisdom has always told us that “you can’t take it with you”, and that there are no pockets in a shroud. (One Christian wag added that you can, however, send it on ahead through almsgiving, and store up treasures in heaven that way.) But there are things besides money that we cannot take with us as we cross over. Unforgiveness, for example. The Lord was quite clear that unless we forgave our neighbour we would not be forgiven ourselves, and we are not allowed to drag our hatreds into the Kingdom with us and nurse them through all eternity. Better to forgive now in this life and drop such wretched baggage before we reach the final border.
Another item that will find no place in the age to come is the self-absorption that often dominates our life. We often live as if we were the center of universe, and so will be unprepared to enjoy the age to come where we will find that God is actually the center of the universe. If we do not retain and cultivate a hunger for Him, heaven will not be that heavenly for us. Our eternal joy consists of transcending ourselves, and putting away once and for all our little obsessions with our rights, and looking to Him. A self-absorption which refuses to re-direct our gaze from ourselves to Him has no place in that blessed undiscovered country. None of this should come as any surprise to Christians. Like the U.S. border at which I cross, the rules of the Kingdom are also prominently posted, and are read to us at every Sunday Liturgy in the form of the Epistle and Gospel.
Secondly, we need not be nervous at the prospect of that final border crossing. It is true that the quality of our life will then be revealed, so that we will hear our voices as they really sounded to others and find out a little more about what kind of people we really were (that is, I think, the point behind talk of heavenly toll-houses). But if we have truly given our lives to God and have striven to repent of our sins as best we could, living as disciples of Jesus in His holy Church, we may face that final crossing in peace. There will still be judgment, of course, so that we may learn the whole truth about ourselves and our actions, and “receive good or evil, according to what we have done” (2 Cor. 5:10). But our repentant faith and God’s grace assure our entry. That is why Christ’s message is called “good news”, for He has opened the Kingdom to all who truly love Him. We have His word on it: “He who hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life; he does not come into condemnation, but has passed from death to life” (Jn. 5:24). When our time comes to wait in the line-up to cross over that final border (perhaps lying in a hospital bed), that will be a good word on which to dwell. Our hope remains in the Cross of Christ, and the shining love of God. It is the prospect of entering more fully into that shining love that makes even the final border crossing a good thing.