As we draw closer to the beginning of Great Lent – which begins on Monday, February 19—we are able to set our Lenten efforts against the background of the Last Judgment, thus giving us the “big picture” within which we live our lives and determine our personal destinies. The Gospel read at the Eucharistic Liturgy this past Sunday—the Sunday of the Last Judgment—was that of the Parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:31-46. In highly symbolic form and with awesome imagery, the Lord speaks of His own Parousia as the glorified Son of man at the end of time and reveals to us that this will be a time of judgment. And this judgment will lead to separation. The “sheep” (the saved) will be placed on the right hand, and the “goats” (the lost) on the left hand of the eternal Throne of God. This, in turn, will reveal the “quality” of our lives, though not in the way in which we today use the term “quality of life.” We will be confronted with the question as to how well we served the Lord by how well we served the “least” of His brethren: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these brethren, you did it to me” [Matthew 25:40]. These “least” are the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner. How many of us have to admit that these are precisely the people that we neglect? The fact that society removes such people from our sight does not offer a very reassuring excuse for our neglect. It simply makes it more convenient and less troubling for our consciences. Sadly, this may point to one of the most glaring of “disconnects” between the Gospel and our Christian lives, expressed in the following hymn:
Why do you not think of the fearful hour of death? Why do you not tremble at the dread judgment seat of the Savior?
What defense then will you make, or what will you answer? Your works will be there to accuse you.
Your actions will reproach you and condemn you. O my soul, the time is near at hand!
Make haste before it is too late, and cry aloud in faith: I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned against You.
But I know Your love for humanity and Your compassion.
O good Shepherd deprive me not of a place at Your right hand in Your great glory [Vespers, Sunday of the Last Judgment].
I, for one, am not ready to dismiss this hymn as excessively rhetorical, overly pessimistic, or unfairly harsh in its outlook. It is rather a sober and honest plea calling us to repentance and the re-direction of our lives. It further reminds us that it is never too late, and that the Good Shepherd will place us upon His shoulders to the accompaniment of rejoicing angels in heaven over our repentance.
“God is love” [1 John 4:8]. And yet God is demanding. If God “so loved the world that He gave His only Son” to die on the Cross for our redemption, then God expects us to approach and treat others with the same love. This is a love expressed in action and in giving, and is not to be confused with emotions or feelings. We are all outcasts and alienated from God based upon the primordial sin of Adam, and yet God did not forget us or abandon us. “You were bought with a price” [1 Corinthians 6:20]. If we are indeed to “imitate the divine nature,” as Saint Gregory of Nyssa taught, then we could convincingly say that God expects us to “perform” according to the full capacity of our human nature made in the “image and likeness of God”—all the more plausible and possible because our fallen human nature has been renewed in and through the Death and Resurrection of Christ. Our rescue from a condition of “ontological poverty” is meant to arouse in us a desire to rescue “the least of these” from the impoverishing conditions of a fallen world.
Simultaneously with the external history of our lives there is occurring the internal history of our hearts. The outer life is more readily open to being accurately recorded, from the date of our birth to the date of our death and the significant events in between that make up our personal histories. What is happening within our hearts is far more difficult to record, because the human heart is deep and mysterious. Yet the prophecy of the Last Judgment, testing the direction of our hearts, raises some very real questions: On what we call the “spiritual level,” is our heart expanding or contracting? Is it growing larger or smaller? Is it becoming more generous or more grasping? Is it letting the neighbor in, or keeping the neighbor out? Is it, as the years move inexorably forward, embracing God and neighbor, or is it shrinking in self-protection? These are questions to explore as we move into the Lenten season.
If our lives are worth living, then they are worthy of being judged. Our deeds, words and thoughts are significant because we must answer for them before a God who is love. Since God loves us and save us, God will also judge us, though our judgments is actually self-inflicted and not imposed on us as a punishment. In a wonderful article titled “On Preaching Judgment,” Father John Breck put it this way: “Judgment is indeed self-inflicted. God offers us life, and we choose death. He opens us the way into the Kingdom of Heaven, and we continue down our own pathway, which leads to destruction. Yet like the father of the prodigal son, God pursues us along that pathway, desiring only that we repent and return home. It is our decision to do so or not” [God With Us, p. 230].
In a bleak and cold universe absent of the presence of God and governed by immutable “laws of nature,” there is no judgment. But what does that say about the significance of our lives?
Enter not into judgment with me, bringing before me the things I should have done,
examining my words and correcting my impulses. But in your mercy, overlook my sins
and save me, O Lord Almighty [Sunday of the Last Judgment, Matins Canon, Canticle One].