The Last Judgment: Don’t Be Surprised

When You, O God, shall come to earth with glory,  all things shall tremble and the river of fire shall flow before Your judgment seat; the books shall be opened and the hidden things disclosed!  Then deliver me from the unquenchable fire, and make me worthy to stand at Your right hand, righteous Judge!  (Hymn of the Last Judgement)

Sounds pretty frightening – and it is meant to be.  The Church in its hymns uses these words to describe the Last Judgment:

Dreaded

Awesome

Fearful

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What most bothers us as 21st Century Christians about the Judgment Day is not the thought that sinners will be condemned to the fires of hell and damned for all eternity – in fact on that point we tend to like retributive justice for sinners because they finally get what they deserve – what actually bothers us is that WE – each of us – You and me – are going to be held accountable for every thing we said and did in this life.  We are OK with others – the sinners – being held accountable, but why should we be judged?  That God might even think about judging you or me based on our behavior, that is hard to swallow – Let Him judge sinners, murderers, perverts, terrorists, criminals, liars and the lazy, and leave the rest of us alone.

Actually many of the Jews in Jesus’ day had a similar thought.  They were anxiously awaiting the Day of the Lord, because they believed on that day God would finally and completely condemn and annihilate all of Israel’s enemies and oppressors.  On that day God would judge and condemn to hell the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Philistines, Canannites.  The Jewish people would finally be avenged!

What these folk’s ignored was that the prophets had been warning that the Day of the Lord was also going to be a day of Judgment for God’s own people, and that God would start the judgment with Israel.   All of us who think God is going to judge “someone else” – we Orthodox or we Americans – also need to take the prophets’ message to heart – judgment begins with us.

And we might begin to feel a little hot under the collar about this.  All the porn we looked, all the times we were drunk, all the times we lied, all the times we were greedy, selfish, angry, enraged, sexually immoral, jealous, envious, bickering and contentious – for all of this we are going to be judged by God.  As St. Paul says all those who do such things shall not inherit the Kingdom of God.  It’s not just that we are going to have to give account for this behavior, we are going to be condemned for it at the Last Judgment.

Dreaded

Awesome

Fearful

Judgment

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But then the Lord Jesus shocked His followers when He spoke about the Last Judgment.  Jesus did not say that at the Judgment Seat all Jews or that all Christians will be declared righteous and everyone else will be condemned as sinners.

Saint and sinner will be assembled before God, and God will judge us based upon:

Our mercifulness

Our kindness

Our love for others

Our concern for the well being of others.

Jesus says we will be judged in the same way and by the same criteria we judged and criticized others.  If  we thought the poor and needy were not worthy of our time, our attention, our possessions, we will find ourselves so judged by God who will not share His time, attention and possessions – namely His Kingdom – with us.  The Kingdom belongs to Him, not to us.  Just like we think our possessions belong to us and not to some beggar.

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God’s judgment is a judgment of our hearts.  The proper defense before the dread Judgment Seat is loving others, being merciful to others, showing mercy to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.

A story from the lives of the saints:

St. Martin of Tours was a Roman Army Officer who was entering a city one cold, wet, wintry day.

1012martinoftoursA beggar asked him for money, but Martin had none with him.  But seeing the man shiver with cold, Martin came down off his horse, took his sword, and cut his soldier’s cloak in half.  His cloak was like a large warm poncho.  He wrapped the beggar in this half portion of his cloak.

That night, Martin had a dream in which he saw Christ standing in the wintery cold wearing an old tattered cloak. An angel approached Christ dismayed at how the Lord was dressed.  “Lord,” the angel said, “where did you get that old, torn cloak?”  Jesus responded, “My servant Martin gave it to me.”

Martin thought he gave his cloak to a beggar, but as today’s Gospel teaches us what we give to the least of the brothers and sisters of Christ, we give to the Lord Jesus Himself.

Note:  Martin didn’t give his whole cloak, he shared half of it with the beggar.  He didn’t impoverish himself, but provided for another from his means.

We each have that same chance to share what we can with those in need.  We don’t have to deprive ourselves of everything, but certainly can share some things by ministering to the Lord Himself.

There will be surprises for us on the Judgment Day as we see in the Gospel:

Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?

And the wicked will say:  And Lord, when did we see you a stranger and not welcome you, or naked and not clothe you? (Matthew 25:37-41)

Both the blessed and cursed are going to be in for a surprise on Judgment day.  Don’t you be surprised!

 

Christ Alone? No, Christ in the Crowd

“Think of it: Jesus Christ, the Life of all, the Creator of the universe, the only One ever to have been born without sin, was all alone, left in a common grave, outside of Jerusalem. He was alone even among his closest friends, since they never really understood Him, and thus He asked them: Do you not perceive or understand? (Mk. 8.17) Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know Me? (Jn. 14.9). At the time of His passion, His isolation became acute. In the garden of agony, when His sweat became like great drops of blood, His disciples drifted off into sleep (Lk. 22.44). One by one His friends deserted Him. He stood alone before the judgement seat of Pilate, alone on the cross, alone in the grave: everywhere alone. He went alone into Hell. Alone, always alone. Why? So that you might learn that you have to be alone with God in order to become His dwelling place.

Then the Lord will say, at the Last Judgement, to those on His left, whom He will send away into Gehenna, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels: “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me” (cf. Mt 25:33-41). Do you see? He’s a stranger, somebody who’s alone, who’s ignored: I was hungry and you gave me no food; I was alone in prison and you did not visit me (cf. Mt 25.42-43).

…For many of us, this can be a rude awakening: after beholding Christ in our dreams, we find it annoying to open our eyes on a world filled with other people. Immediately we say: “I wasn’t looking for you I want Christ,” forgetting that the stranger, the poor man, the prisoner, the sinner, and especially my enemy – especially the person who seeks to harm me – is Christ for me.”

(Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra, The Way of the Spirit, pp. 244-245, 254)

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)

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.

Approaching God in the True Lenten Spirit

During the Matins for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, we sing the following hymn which reminds us what keeping Lent and having a true lenten attitude means.

As the Thief I cry to You: Remember me!

As the Publican, with downcast eyes, I beat my breast and say: Be merciful!

As the Prodigal, deliver me from every evil, O King who pities all,

that I may sing the praises of Your boundless compassion.

Great Lent is given to us as a school to teach us the humility we need to serve God and our fellow Christians.  We need to embody in our spiritual lives the humility, repentance and honesty of the Wise Thief, the repentant Publican and the Prodigal Son.    The very purpose of any fasting, abstinence and self-denial in Lent is to bring us to the attitude of these three penitents.  If we don’t see ourselves in them, and learn to be them in our repentance, our fasting is of little value.  If we fast and then feel righteous, or fast and then criticize and condemn others, or fast but fail to be humbled or to repent, then we have fasted wrongly no matter how rigorously we kept every jot and tittle of the fasting rules.  Lent is about changing our hearts not our stomachs.

Here is another hymn from the Matins of the Prodigal Son:

SAVIOR, I SET OFF ON A FOOLISH JOURNEY;
I WASTED ALL YOUR PRECIOUS GIFTS OF GRACE.
I LIVED IN LUXURY, AND THE DEVILS WERE MY FRIENDS;
I RETURN TO YOU EMPTY HANDED, LOVING FATHER.
RECEIVE ME IN REPENTANCE, AS YOU ACCEPTED THE PRODIGAL;
RESTORE TO ME MY BAPTISMAL ROBE OF PURITY, AND SAVE ME!

We do not want to go through Lent, even with zeal and rigor, but then approach God with “empty hands” as the Prodigal did. He had nothing to show for his affluent life.  He could only approach his father with empty hands, revealing the wastefulness of his life choices.

For us, it is not the rigor of the fast which matters, but the spiritual fruit which it produces in our lives.  If we focus only on the foods, we lose sight of the fruits of our labor.  We fast in order to approach God bearing an offering of our spiritual labors.

“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.'”  (Matthew 25:34-36)

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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)

Great Lent: The Season of Mercy and Charity

Some thoughts from Church Fathers and a Mother of the Desert on how we can keep Great Lent.

  • “Lift up and stretch out your hands, not to heaven but to the poor; for if you stretch out your hands to the poor, you have reached the summit of heaven. But if you lift up your hands in prayer without sharing with the poor, it is worth nothing. …  Every family should have a room where Christ is welcomed in the person of the hungry and thirsty stranger. The poor are a greater temple than the sanctuary; this altar the poor, you can raise up anywhere, on the street, and offer the liturgy at any hour. – St. John Chrysostom
  • Feeding the hungry is a greater work than raising the dead. – St. John Chrysostom
  • Do not ask for love from your neighbor, for if you ask and he does not respond, you will be troubled. Instead show your love for your neighbor and you will be at rest, and so will bring your neighbor to love. – St. Dorotheos of Gaza
  • What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits toward me? (Psalm 116:12) The answer that came from our Lord is: ‘Very I say unto you, inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it unto me (Matthew 25:40).
  • It is good to give alms for people’s sake. Even if it is done only to please others, through it one can begin to seek to please God. – Amma Sarah  (The Pearl of Great Price, pps. 58-59)

Kindness to a Stranger: Caring for Aging Parents

My child, help your father in his old age,
and do not grieve him as long as he lives;
even if his mind fails, be patient with him;
because you have all your faculties do not despise him.
For kindness to a father will not be forgotten,
and will be credited to you against your sins;
in the day of your distress it will be remembered in your favor;
like frost in fair weather, your sins will melt away.
Whoever forsakes a father is like a blasphemer,
and whoever angers a mother is cursed by the Lord.    (Sirach 3:12-16)

According to  Fr. Edward Mazich (“Introducing the Book of Sirach: ‘Our Elders in the Faith'”, THE BIBLE TODAY,  Jan/Feb 2014, pp 9-10) the book of Sirach offers thoughts on respecting elders and the aged which speak to the modern Christian who finds him or herself having to care for aging parents and relatives.  I want to quote extensively from the conclusion of his article because I thought it so well written.

“Expanding upon what Sirach begins to intimate, we may say plainly that Christians do not live in a world ruled by strict or mechanical standards of reward and punishment, but in a world they are called to transform through self-giving love; this world is the reality revealed by Jesus in the Gospel as the kingdom of God.  Therefore when a believer in Christ who is dealing with the needs of an elderly loved one realizes that there will be no earthly reward for this kindness, and that the situation – maddening as it may be – is not going to get any better, he or she can find strength and even a foretaste of redemption in knowing that the unrepaid kindness is itself a reflection of the perfect self-giving love shown by Jesus through the course of his ministry and, in a surpassing way, through his death on the cross.

We do not therefore expect any recompense for caring for our elders, nor do we live in a naive fear of divine retribution if our care and concern weaken in their resolve.  One can either keep track of the costs of such care with a worldly eye, allowing anger and resentment to build up over being saddled with an unexpected burden of care, or one can embrace the task of parental care for the sake of love alone, much as those same elders cared for us several decades or generations ago out of love alone.

To respond in this way to the often-intense needs of one’s elders during their declining years fosters our own attempts to live as people attentive to God’s word.  In the pages of the gospels, each with its own focus and emphasis, the nature and the very identity of the reign of God can be frustratingly evasive.  Dealing with the care of a parent or an elderly loved one, and facing the reality of making significant changes in one’s life and schedule, or placing additional stress on one’s own spouse or family, a disciple of Jesus can take heart by reflecting on the moving wisdom of Sirach and seeing his teaching brought to fruition through Jesus’ invitation to live as members of God’s kingdom.

mercytoChristFor kingdom-people there need be no further motivation to  be present to one’s aged parents and loved ones than the words of Jesus in Matthew’s great Last Judgment scene: ‘I was sick and you cared for me . . . in prison and you visited me’ (Matt:25:36).  The illness that weigh upon those in lonely apartments and nursing homes today were not as commonly seen in Jesus’ day, and the imprisonment he spoke of was almost certainly meant literally; nonetheless, his command to extend oneself in love to others without hope of recompense is without doubt apropos when dealing with one’s elders who are afflicted by diminished capacities or suffering the imprisonment of mental confusion and anguish.

Taking our cue from the book of sirach, we can carry the wisdom of the Old Testament to its Gospel fulfillment by faithfully living as sons and daughters of the kingdom.  When it comes to our elders this means not allowing the stress, frustration, and anger of the moment, brought about by the task of caring for an aged or ill parent or relative, to embitter our relationships with them, which can never be healed once they are gone.  Sirach’s reverence for the past and its heroes gives the present generation a profound inspiration to recognize and honor the image of God within our elders, so that we may show them authentic kindness and compassion, and so that they may ‘look upon us with joy, in life and in death’ (cf Sir 30:5)”