The Intercessions of the Theotokos

“The Mother of God, who is also the Mother of all humankind, pleads at the tribunal for universal mercy, not for the forgiveness of sins (which is impossible, for sins must be completely expiated and suffered through) but for mercifulness to sinners. The existence of hell is surrounded not by the cold of an egotistical indifference but by the radiant cloud of the caring love of saved humankind, that is, of the Church which abides for ages of ages in its sobornost as one, holy, and universal. In the Church, the one humankind is not divided into two and is not reconciled with the severing of its parts – hell – but sorrows over this part.”  (Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, pp. 193-194)

According to Fr. Sergius, the Theotokos intercedes for us all – pleads that God will be merciful to all of us.  She does not ask God to forgive sins, but rather that the God of justice will show as much mercy, leniency and compassion as is possible to everyone who lived on earth.  She does not ask God completely to lay aside judgment, but rather to behave according to His nature – God is love.  If it is necessary that God corrects us or punishes us, may God do it in His love and His mercy, not to destroy us but to bring us to holiness.

Fr. Sergius’ imagery is most interesting, for he doesn’t envision the saints in heaven being self-satisfied as they leer down on sinners in hell.  The saints aren’t rejoicing in the punishment of sinners but rather the saints of God surround hell with their prayers and love.  Saints do not rejoice that any of humanity is punished in hell.  Saints do not rejoice that humanity can be divided between those in heaven and those in hell, but rather those in heaven continue to extend love to their fellow humans by joining the Theotokos in beseeching God: “Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy!

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Renouncing Satan – Embracing Christ

Kenyan Catechumens renounce Satan.

The following exhortation is found in some Orthodox books preparing catechumens for reception into the Church on Holy Saturday.   These words are said to the catechumens on the evening before their baptisms/chrismations.  They are final instructions to remind the catechumen what they have agreed to live and do as a result of their choosing to follow the Lord Jesus Christ.  As we celebrate All Saints Day in the Orthodox Church, we are reminded that all of us are called and baptized to be saints, God’s holy people.  This requires much from us. 

“This marks the conclusion of your catechesis. The time of your redemption has come. Today, you are about to sign a contract with your faith in Christ. The paper, the ink, and the pen are your conscience, your tongue, and your new habit of life. Therefore, take heed as to how you inscribe your confession. Do not go astray from it, lest you be deceived. They that are about to die put their affairs in order and they designate heirs to their possessions, this one this, and that one that. Well, tomorrow night you are to die to sin. So now put your affairs in order and perform your renunciation as a testament. Assign the devil as heir to sin. Leave to him your sins as his ancestral inheritance. If any of you possesses anything of the devil in his soul, let him cast it at him.

He who dies no longer has authority over his possessions, so let not anyone of you have anything of the devil in his soul. And in so doing, stand and hold out your hands as though being examined by angels.

Let nothing of the devil’s affairs be hidden by you.

Let no one hold on to enmity;

let no one harbor anger;

let no one stand with dissimulation;

let no one listen with hypocrisy.

Cast at the devil all filth and superfluity of evil. You stand here as captives, for such as you does Christ buy back. As each of you sees and hates the devil, so shall each of you blow on him. Enter within your conscience; examine your heart; take heed to what each one has done. If there is anything contrary in you, spit it out with that act of blowing on the devil. Let there not be here any Judas of hypocrisy! Let no one have any doubts about the Mystery. The Word of God examines our hearts, as it is sharper than any two-edged sword. Now the devil has taken his stand in the west, as he grinds his teeth, pulls his hair, wrings his hands, and bites his lips in rage; he laments his loss and loses his faith over your freedom. Now Christ stands before you, over opposite the devil, so that as you renounce him and blow on him, you may take up war against him.

In the west the devil has taken his stand, where is the beginning of darkness. Begin to renounce him and blow on him! Then turn about to the east and align yourselves with Christ. Let no one despise him; stand ye with fear! The present matters are all fearful and awesome. All the powers of heaven stand present here. All the angels and archangels are invisibly writing down your utterances.” (Services of Initiation into the Holy Orthodox-Catholic and Apostolic Church, pp. 150-151)

Sunday of the Last Judgment (2017)

Sermon notes for the Sunday of the Last Judgment.

Epistle:  1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2

But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.

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But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols?  And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?  But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If I am not an apostle to others, yet doubtless I am to you. For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

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1]  In many ways the Epistle readings before Lent certainly frame fasting in a very particular way which seems to go against many of the popular ideas about fasting, especially among those who want to keep the food fast strictly.  Paul seems to argue eating or not eating is all indifferent for the Christian.  It doesn’t commend us to God one way or another.  But there is an issue of love, this is maybe the Paul Principle for how to deal with disagreements in the local community.  One needs to pay attention to the scruples of those around us.  Those who are really concerned about food and fasting:  these are the “weak” in Paul’s framework.  They worry about what others are doing, they suffer a loss of faith and fervor if they see others aren’t keep the fast strictly.  They worry over ever little detail about fasting rules and regulations.  They read the labels on every product.  St. Paul would consider them weak in faith.  Those who are not so fastidious have an obligation to love those who are overly scrupulous and respect their concerns by following their fasting rules when with them.  This is what love requires.  Some of us are Marthas and some are Marys, but both can be blessed and loved by Christ.  I may not be so bothered by all the minutiae of fasting regulations, but if I’m with someone who is I should in love follow their rules.  Love tells me don’t wound their conscience.  I end up laying aside my thoughts, beliefs and practices in love so that I don’t offend my fastidious neighbor.  Yes, I surrender my freedom in Christ, but I do it voluntarily in love.

8271152404_c41179af30_n2]  The Paul principle – let all you do be done in love, be concerned about your neighbor, put your neighbor’s needs and scruples ahead of your own.  This is to be in the heart of everyone in the parish.  So if people become concerned about what others are wearing, or how they make the sign of the cross, or how their children are behaving, then one has to think what is the need of this person, and put that ahead of my own concerns.  This doesn’t mean we can’t express differing and disagreeing opinions.  We can do that, but then we are supposed to think, “what is best for my neighbor?”  If my child is disturbing my neighbor, then I should think about what is helpful to my neighbor.  If the child  in front of me is misbehaving, what is helpful to the parents of that child?   If I think the person in the next pew is dressed inappropriately, what should I do that is best for my neighbor?  When I’m getting dressed to go to church, I should consider whether my clothes might offend or be too alluring to my neighbor.  I should always be thinking about the other.

3]  This is very hard to live in real life.  It is an ideal that is very had to live up to.  So often we fail, then what?  Back to figuring out how to love the neighbor and do what is best for them, not for me.

Gospel:  Matthew 25:31-46
“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.  Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.

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 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?  And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’  

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Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’  Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’  And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

1]  Note the righteous in the Gospel lesson were also not aware of having done what they did for Christ.  They are surprised that He judges them this way.  “When did we do that?” they ask.  They are being kind and charitable to the poor and needy.  They didn’t know in treating others with mercy that Christ was being blessed.  Every truly merciful act of kindness and charity that we do for others is being done for Christ.     Even when we care for an aging parent or grandparent, or care for someone that no one else cares for, we are doing it for Christ, even if we aren’t aware of that or feel we have no other choice then to do the kind thing.  When we care for that bothersome or negligent neighbor, we are ministering to Christ whether we know it or not.   It isn’t the case that the righteous have to consciously be aware of doing good for Christ.  If they are merciful to others, they are doing it to Christ, even when Christ isn’t in their mind or on their radar or part of their belief system.

2]  The Gospel of the Last Judgment is a Gospel of hope, it is good news.  Whether or not you have sinned, even if you are burdened with sin, even if you fail to overcome your habitual or pernicious sins, you are still capable of loving others – and so you can still receive a favorable judgment from Christ.  Even if you don’t have proper faith, you can still unwittingly show mercy to Christ by showing mercy to others, and thus receive a favorable judgment on the last day.  This Gospel lesson if full of hope!  I may be addicted to sin and not able to overcome my weaknesses, but I can still love some of the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.

5399225597_15118792c0_n3]  The fathers talk about 3 levels of justice –  First, there are those who aren’t interested in justice and don’t even attempt to be just.  Second, there are those interested in human justice, this is about being fair (but humanly speaking we are often interested in fairness only when it is to our advantage).  This can also be an eye for an eye thinking, or retributive justice, or revenge.  Human justice is imperfect as we see sometimes in the court system when some criminals are set free unjustly and some innocent are punished unjustly.   We often use our ideas of human justice to understand the Last Judgment.  The third level is divine justice.  Because God is love, divine justice is the same thing as Divine love or divine mercy.  God can find ways to have a judgment in which even sinners are forgiven and blessed.  As in the Gospel of the last judgment, the terms of the judgment are changed – it is not about sins/breaking the commandments.  The question is ” have we loved those whom we could have loved?  In these terms, even sinners and unbelievers might find God’s mercy!

Rejoicing and Weeping and the Last Judgment

One week before Great Lent begins, the Sunday Gospel lesson in the Orthodox church is Matthew 25:31-46, the Last Judgment.  In this surprising parable of Jesus, the final judgment of all humans by God is not based upon sins we have committed or avoided, nor upon whether or not we fasted during Lent, nor on how often we attended church or kept a spiritual discipline, nor on whether we kept the Ten Commandments, but rather God’s final judgment of us is based solely on whether or not we have loved the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.  The only question to be asked at the Last Judgment is whether or not we showed mercy and charity to those to whom we could have done so.

“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.  Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.  Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?  And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’  Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’  Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’  And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

St. Gregory Palamas (d. 1359AD) comments:

“Listen and be glad, all of you who are poor and needy, for in this you are God’s brethren.  Even if you are poor and lowly against your will, with patience and thanksgiving voluntarily turn it to your own good.  Listen, all you who are rich, and long for blessed poverty, that you may become more truly heirs and brethren of Christ than whose who are involuntarily poor, for of His own free will He made Himself poor for our sake.  Listen and groan, all you who overlook your suffering brethren, or rather, Christ’s brethren, and do not give the poor a share of your abundant food, shelter, clothing and care as appropriate, nor offer your surplus to meet their need.  Let us listen and groan ourselves, for I who am telling you these things stand accused by my conscience of not being completely free of this passion.  While many shiver and go without, I am well fed and clothed.  But more grievously to be mourned over are those who have treasures in excess of their daily needs, who hold on to them and even strive to increase them.  They have been commanded to love their neighbors as themselves and have not even loved them as dust, for what are gold and silver, which they loved more than their brethren, other than dust?

But let us change direction, repent and agree together to supply the needs of the poor brethren among us by whatever means we have.  If we prefer not to empty out all we possess for the love of God, let us at least not callously hold on to everything for ourselves.  Let us do something, then humble ourselves before God and obtain forgiveness from Him for what we have failed to do.  For His love for mankind makes up for our omissions, that we may never hear the horrifying voice: ‘Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed’ (Matt. 25:41).  How great a horror!  Be ye removed from life, cast out of paradise, deprived of light.’” (Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies, pp 30-31)

Creating Chasms and Building Bridges

The Lord told this parable: “There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. ’And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, ’for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.”   (Luke 16:19-31)

Jesus starts the parable by describing a chasm that exists between the worlds of the two main characters of the story.  The nameless rich man lives in the world of luxury, gourmet cooking, wealth, excess, and being waited on for his every wish.  Lazarus, the poor man, lives in an entirely different world, one of poverty, wasting illness, filth, malnutrition, homeless neglect.  There is a chasm between these two worlds, but that chasm is human made, and could be bridged if someone chose to do it.   Nothing except human choice separates these two worlds.  But the rich man chooses to keep that chasm between himself and his fellow human.  The rich man has the resources to cross the chasm and aid Lazarus, who is not asking for the man’s riches, but just for crumbs from the rich man’s table!

Then both the main characters of the parable die, and after death their roles are reversed.  Now Lazarus lives with the angels in Abraham’s bosom and is comforted.  The rich man finds himself in torment in hell.

The parable does not tell us why or how the rich man got to his most favored status in life on earth, nor why or how Lazarus was in such miserable poverty.  The luck of the draw apparently.  Jesus does not praise either of the characters for being virtuous, nor does He portray either as vile, vice-filled men.    Today, because we’ve heard the parable so often that we make assumptions about what happens and why.  We read into the parable virtues and vices but the parable never explains why the rich man ends up in hell after death or why Lazarus is in heaven.  Perhaps some sort of Karmic justice?

But none of that is really the point of the parable.

Only in hell, when he is now the victim of suffering, does the rich man care about crossing the chasm between himself and Lazarus.  Only in hell does he suddenly become concerned about those who suffer.  Only in hell does he recognize that one human can alleviate the suffering of another.   But now only in hell does he learn that the chasm in the next life between people – the haves and the have nots – can’t be bridged.  It’s too late to benefit from a fellow human being.  The unrighteous rich man learns that he cannot in this afterlife benefit from the good fortune of another,  nor does all the wealth he accumulated in the world benefit him in the afterlife. [Nor for that matter does all his accumulated worldly wealth benefit Lazarus or anyone else in the afterlife!]

There was a time when the chasm could have been bridged and crossed over – when the blessings one has could be used to meet the needs of another.  There was a time on earth when it was in the rich man’s power to cross over the chasm and use his blessings to meet the need of another.  He could have reached out to Lazarus who wallowed in poverty.  He wouldn’t have had to bankrupt himself to do this.  He obviously had such an overabundance that he could have given away a great deal without suffering even the slightest inconvenience.   Had the rich man done so, the chasm between them would have been eliminated and they would have been together as fellow human beings, brothers.  Lazarus is not the protagonist of the parable.  Only the rich man had the resources to be the hero of the story.  Lazarus really has nothing to offer anyone, except that had the rich man cared for the impoverished Lazarus, the rich man would have found his path to heaven.

There is a lesson here about the chasms we create in our lives between ourselves and others who we recognize might need or benefit from something we have.  We protect ourselves and make self-preservation into a virtue.  Sometimes we invest a great deal in making sure these self-created chasms are maintained and are impassible and impregnable.  It is possible that we will make those chasms permanent and impenetrable and unbridgeable … all the way into the life of the world to come.  Then, belatedly, we will know that we made for ourselves an eternal hell.

The antithesis of the rich man in the parable is not the poor Lazarus.  As even some church fathers noted, Lazarus is nowhere commended for any virtues.

The rich man of the parable is being contrasted with the righteous believer, which is made obvious in the Epistle reading which is linked by the Orthodox Church to the Gospel lesson of Lazarus and the rich man.   In that epistle, 2 Corinthians 9:6-11, St. Paul writes:

This I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, have abundance for every good work. As it is written: “He has dispersed abroad, He has given to the poor; His righteousness remains forever.” Now may He who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteousness, while you are enriched in everything for all liberality, which causes thanksgiving through us to God

The foil to the rich man is the righteous person who generously gives to the poor.  That person is described in the Psalm 111 from the Septuagint from which the 2 Corinthians 9 quotes (in both the Scripture above and below the emphasis is not in the original text, but is mine).

Blessed is the man who fears the Lord; He will delight exceedingly in His commandments; 2 His seed shall be mighty on earth; The generation of the upright shall be blessed; Glory and riches shall be in his house, And his righteousness continues unto ages of ages.  For the upright, light springs up in darkness, For he is merciful, compassionate, and righteous.  A good man is compassionate and lends; He will manage his words with judgment, For he shall be unshaken forever; A righteous man shall be in everlasting remembrance.  He shall not be afraid because of an evil report; His heart is prepared to hope in the Lord.  His heart is established; he is not afraid As he surveys his enemies. He dispersed; he gave to the poor; His righteousness continues unto ages of ages; His horn shall be exalted with glory. The sinner shall see this, and be angry; He shall gnash his teeth, and be consumed; The desire of sinners shall perish.

The rich man of the parable perishes not because he is rich but because he fails to be righteous.   Specifically he fails to be merciful, compassionate, generous and righteous.  All of these are activities within our power on earth, and all build a bridge that spans the entire chasm not only between earth and heaven, but even that chasm which separates hell from heaven.

The Blessed, the Cursed and the Stranger

In the parable of the last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46), we read these words:

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?  And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ 

In the Gospel text, the king speaks to both those on his right hand (the sheep, the blessed, the righteous) and to those on  his left (the goats, the cursed, the unrighteous) in the 2nd person, familiar.  Both those judged blessed and those judged cursed also speak to the king in the 2nd person, familiar [using the more informal, “thee” instead of the more formal “you” – this distinction exists in the Greek but is no longer used in modern English].   This does suggest  that not only are the king and his subjects on familiar/ friendly terms, but almost equal terms.  They speak to each other not in respectful formal language, but in the language of equals and people who recognize each other as familiar acquaintances.

This of course adds to the parable, because both the blessed and the cursed cannot recall ever having ministered or failed to minister to the king.  They both seem to be saying that if we had seen you or recognized you we would have ministered to you, but we don’t remember ever seeing you at all.  The one denies having seen and ministered to the king, the other denies having seen and failed to minister to the king.

And what the parable appears to be getting at is that the judgment is based upon not how everyone served the king or the king’s representatives, but how they treated people whom they did not recognize.  It is how they treated people who did not remind them of their king for whom they are called into judgment.  It is how they treat the stranger, the foreigner and the alien which is essential to the king in his forming judgment of his subjects.

If the subjects speak to the king on such familiar terms (and he to them as well), how is it possible they didn’t recognize the king in their neighbors or in strangers?

The blessed, even though they don’t see their king in the poor and needy, treat these downtrodden with love and respect.  They don’t withhold what is in their power to give because they don’t recognize the people in need.  They act toward them honorable, morally and generously, rather than reacting to them as unknowns to be feared or hated.   They treat the unknown strangers as they would treat their king if they found him in need. (see also yesterday’s blog, Love as an Action Verb, Not a Feeling Noun)

The cursed on the other hand because they don’t recognize the poor and needy withhold from them charity and what they are capable of giving to them or doing for them.  Simply because those downtrodden are strangers or unrecognizable, the cursed react to them with indifference or perhaps even hostility.  The cursed never move beyond their initial reaction – they never chose to act toward the needy to meet their desperate needs because they had reacted negatively to them.

Neither the blessed or the cursed are judged for failing to have recognized their king.   The judgment falls on them both for the way they treated those they didn’t recognize – those not familiar to them.

[See also my blog of 2 days ago, The Good Defense Before the Dread Judgment Seat: Hospitality, in which St. Gregory the Great connects the parable of the Last Judgment to the 2 disciples walking to Emmaus after the resurrection.  Though disciples of Jesus, they fail to recognize him as He walks with them and talks to them.  It is in their showing charity to Him by inviting Him to eat with them that they suddenly recognize Him.]

 

The Good Defense Before the Dread Judgment Seat: Hospitality

On the 3rd of the Pre-Lenten Sundays, we read the Gospel lesson of Matthew 25:31-46, the Last Judgment.   It is a surprising description of the Last Judgment – no mention of sins.  The Judgment is based on our having been charitable to others, or having failed to do so.  No mention of keeping Torah or Tradition; nothing said about keeping Lent strictly or any spiritual discipline.  We are judged on whether we loved Christ’s least brothers and sisters, and through them loved Christ.  The Judgment according to Christ is not based on our adherence to religious practices, but rather on our willingness to love others in whom we don’t see Christ.

Jesus taught this parable:   “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.  Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.  Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’

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Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?  And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’  Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’  Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’  And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

St. Gregory the Great comments:

 

“The gospel tells us that the Lord appeared to two disciples while they were walking on the road. Even though they did not believe in him, they were talking about him. He did not appear to them in a form they could recognize: as he was to the eyes of their hearts, a stranger, so was he to their bodily eyes, Inwardly they were full of love and of doubt. The Lord was outwardly present to them, but he did not reveal to them who he was. He showed himself to them as they were talking about him, but because of their doubts he hid the appearance that would allow them to recognize him. As they walked along, he did indeed talk with them, reproving the hardness of their understanding, and opening to them the mysteries of the Scriptures concerning himself. Yet, because as an object of faith he was still a stranger to their hearts, he made a pretence of going on farther. Truth was not acting deceitfully here. He was only showing himself to them in accordance with their thoughts about him. They had to be tested as to whether those who did not as yet love him as God were at least able to love him as a stranger. Because those with whom Truth was walking couldn’t be completely alien to love, they invited him, a stranger, to be their guest. They set the table, brought food, and in the breaking of bread they recognized the God they did not know when he was explaining the Scriptures to them.

They were not enlightened by hearing God’s commandments, but by their own actions, for it is written: It is not hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but doers of the law will be made righteous. Let those who want to understand what they have heard be quick to fulfill in action what they have already been able to understand. The disciples did not recognize their Lord when he was speaking; the Lord allowed himself to be recognized as he was being fed.

My friends, love hospitality, love the works of mercy. Paul said: Let the love of the brotherhood remain, and do not forget hospitality; it was by this that some have been made acceptable, having entertained angels hospitably; and Peter told us to be hospitable to one another, without complaints; and Truth himself said: I needed hospitality, and you welcomed me. And yet often we feel no inclination to offer the gift of hospitality. But consider, my friends, how great this virtue of hospitality is! Receive Christ at your tables, so that he will receive you at the eternal banquet. Offer hospitality now to Christ the stranger, so that at the judgement you will not be a stranger but he will accept you into his kingdom as one he knows.” (Gregory the Great, Be Friends of God, pp 62-64)

Entertaining angels, unaware.

Whatever we may be eating or fasting from, it is always the season for hospitality and charity.  Whether we are eating or fasting, it is always the time to be generously charitable and hospitable to others.  Without hospitality and charity, our fasting from food is vapid and void.  Filling our hearts with God’s love is the goal of Lent, not just emptying our plates of food.

God’s Eternal Mercy, Love and Compassion

“Just as an abundantly flowing fountain is not blocked by a handful of dust, so the Maker’s mercy is not overcome by the wickedness of those whom He has created.[…]

In love did God bring the world into existence;

in love does He guide it during its temporal existence;

in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and

in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all these things.

In love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally compromised.

Just because the terms ‘wrath’, ‘anger’, ‘hatred’ and the rest are used of the Creator in the Bible, we should not imagine that He actually does anything in anger, hatred or zeal. Many figurative terms are used of God in the Scriptures, terms which are far removed from His true nature. Among all God’s actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and end of His dealings with us.” (St. Isaac in The Wisdom of St. Isaac of Nineveh  by Sebastian Brock, pp 18 & 38)

Punishment: Nor for Sins But for Failing to Repent

Great Lent is a season devoted to repentance.  We have now come to the last week of that season.  Many have already taken advantage of the time given to them to receive God’s forgiveness through the Mystery of Confession.  St. Theognostos (d. 1353AD) reminds us of a truth about repentance and about God’s judgment:

“We will not be punished or condemned in the age to be because we have sinned, since we were given a mutable and unstable nature. But we will be punished if, after sinning, we did not repent and turn from our evil ways to the Lord; for we have been given the power to repent, as well as the time in which to do so. Only through repentance shall we receive God’s mercy, and not its opposite, His passionate anger. Not that God is angry with us; He is angry with evil. Indeed, the divine is beyond passion and vengefulness, though we speak of it as reflecting, like a mirror, our actions and dispositions, giving to each of us whatever we deserve.” (Through the Year with the Church Fathers edited by Emily Harakas, p 101)

The Last Judgment: Wearing Christ as a Garment

 And He will come again in glory

to judge the living and the dead,

whose kingdom shall have no end.

(Nicene Creed)

At each Divine Liturgy we do profess a belief that Jesus Christ is Lord who will one day return to earth to judge all humanity when He comes in His Kingdom transforming everything into that Kingdom in which God’s will is done.  In the Orthodox calendar year, we also have one day devoted to commemorating this Final Judgment – a day which comes one week before we enter into the Great Lenten period.   We are reminded why we need to repent of sins before that Fearful Day of Judgment.   The Gospel lesson for this Sunday of the Last Judgement is Matthew 25:31-46, in which Christ clearly speaks about the judgment.  Interestingly, he speaks directly about the judgment not in dogmatic terms but as a parable, and does not mention a judgment against sin, but a judgment about whether we each loved the weak, the needy, the vulnerable, or not.

“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

mercytoChrist

St. Gregory Nazianzus writes:

“Has a poor person come to you? Remember how poor you were and how much you have been enriched. Has someone in need of bread and drink, perhaps another Lazarus, thrown himself before your gates? Respect the mystical table that you have approached, the bread of which you have partaken, the cup in which you have participated, having been initiated through the sufferings of Christ.

A stranger has fallen before you, homeless, a foreigner. Receive into your house through him the one who became a stranger for your sake, even among his own, and dwelt in you through grace, and drew you toward the dwelling place on high. Become Zaccheus, who was a tax collector yesterday and today is magnanimous. Bear every fruit for the entry of Christ that you may show yourself as great, even if you are small in bodily height, nobly looking upon Christ. Does someone sick and wounded lie before you? Respect your health and the wounds from which Christ freed you.

‘If you see someone naked, cover him,’ honoring your robe of incorruption. This robe is Christ, ‘for as many as have been baptized into Christ have been clothed in Christ.’ If you receive a debtor who falls before you, tear up every contract, whether unjust of just. Remember the ten thousand talents that Christ forgave you. Do not become a cruel collector of a smaller debt. And this from whom? From your fellow slaves, you who have been forgiven so much by the Master. Otherwise you may have to give a recompense to his loving kindness, which you have not imitated, though you were given an example.”  (Festal Orations, pp 126-127)