Sunday of the Last Judgment

The Gospel for today – the Sunday of the Last Judgment – is the parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25.31-46). The Church confesses in its historical creeds and liturgies that Christ came into the world the first time and will come a second time, not only to save the world, but in glory to judge the world. These two go together.1 They are two aspects of the same reality – truth. The Father’s truth, in Christ Jesus, is “the light” that shows things to be “as they truly are.”

Our eternal destiny – is fashioned on this earth in the choices they/we make regarding the truth as it makes contact with our life. Final judgment – salvation or condemnation – will depend upon deeds, not merely on good intentions or even on the mercies of God apart from personal cooperation and obedience. 2

When death comes after a lifetime of choices and opportunities for a positive response to the merciful truth of God in Christ, there is no opportunity for repentance in order to better one’s relationship with God. Our minds, limited as they are, cannot comprehend God’s love as involving both salvation and condemnation.1 We tend to separate them. After all, didn’t Jesus say he came save the world, not to condemn it? Yet, here, at the center of the Christian faith, is the belief that condemnation is part of the saving work of Christ. But where is the resolution of the seeming contradiction? It rests in the choice of men and women like you and me. It rests on the pragmatic presence of a particular kind of “love”. It is not Christ who condemns it is men and women who refuse to allow the truth to shine on them; purify them; and save them. That is what condemns.

“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.” (John 3.19-20)

Michelangelo's "Last Judgment"

The Gospel for today is certainly about judgment and the possibility of eternal condemnation. But, it is also, and more importantly, about “personal love”. Without “personal love” the Judgment is meaningless and seemingly arbitrary, issuing forth from a wrathful God who seeks to condemn, not to save. But, that is the conclusion we must come to about anything and everything without “personal love”. The parable, we come to realize is being used by Jesus to teach us that it is in the circumstances where “personal love” is so often denied people that He desires us to cooperate with Him to exhibit it – poverty (hunger and thirst), prison, nakedness, sickness, loneliness and alienation (always being the stranger), etc. 3

God is the One True Judge of those who engaged in wrong-doing without repentance while in this earthly life. The question is not one of judgment but of repentance. Approaching Lent and Easter, the Christian is admonished to correct his faults by repentantly fasting, praying and sharing their life sacrificially with the “least”. The Last Judgment will be made on the basis of the works of each person. These works show the character of his or her faith in and worship of God. These works are shown to be righteous or evil in relationship to a particular group of people, the “least”. It is those in need, as Christ Himself says, who have the incredible power to test the character of our righteousness. It is not our relationship with those who are rich, attractive, easy to love, willing to be served that God will use to manifest our faith in Him. No, it is the inconvenient; the unlovable; the destitute; the hardheaded; the resolutely uncooperative. In short, it will be those who drove us crazy and who we wanted to, or did, cast out, who will be used by God to manifest the true character of our faith in Him. On this basis we will either be allowed to or prevented from entering Paradise.1

“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25.40)

“Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.” (Matthew 25.40)

What do we learn? All of our holiness is, first and last, channeled by God towards the goal of serving the world in love and mercy.1 This service is not generic. It is specific. It has a name and an address. This characteristic of true holiness is now interwoven with the themes of the previous pre-Lenten Sundays to form a greater pattern. This pattern displays the truth that it is not enough to behold Jesus; or come to see ourselves as we truly are and return to God as prodigal sons and daughters. The Church teaches that, in addition, one must also be God’s sons and daughters by uniting ourselves to Christ in service. We must, along with Christ, plunge ourselves into the lives of the “least” as well as the “greatest”; the “difficult ones” as well as the “easy ones”. We must follow Him there; see Him in everyone, and serve Him in everyone.2

We could very well come away from this Gospel reading with the same response as that of the disciples when Jesus spoke of the necessity of eating His flesh and drinking His blood.

“Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’ But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples murmured at it, said to them, ‘Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life’ … After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.'” (John 6.60-63, 66-69)

So, Jesus consistently took His disciples places they didn’t want to go. But, these were the places they had to go in order to be saved.

And so, we too are taken, driven by the Holy Spirit (think of the baptism of Jesus), to the edge of our own power to save ourselves. Indeed, we are driven “over the edge” as it were, into the place where we don’t have the power or ability to save ourselves. To the place where we need a savior. It is the place where we believe we are at the brink of “losing it” and being “lost” that we “gain it” and  are “found”. We must be willing to venture to the place where we must cry out from the depths, the core of our being, “Lord have mercy upon me a sinner!” And that, my brothers and sisters, is the attitude we must have and the territory we must explore as we enter Lent.

Fr. Thomas

Sources:

I am indebted to the following articles for the raw material and thought patterns for this homily. I have tried to faithfully note, in the body of the homily, the sections based on their material.

  1. “The Great Lent – A Week by Week Meaning,” by The Rev. George Mastrantonis
  2. “The Sunday of the Last Judgment” – The Orthodox Wiki website
  3.  “The Sunday of the Last Judgment” (February 20, 2009), from the blog “Traveling … Somewhere, Somehow”

The Wonders of the Law

Pre-Lent is a time to prepare for the Lenten Pilgrimage. Repentance is one of the big themes.We also begin to ask some hard questions. Repentance brings up the question of the Law.  Here are a couple of the questions that repentance and the Law prompt: “How do we view the ‘Law’ of the Old Covenant if I live in the New Covenant?” Or, to put it another way, “What is the relationship between the Law and the  believer?” I don’t propose to answer that question in this post. I propose to provide in what follows some resources to bring to the struggle of faith to do so.

The wonders of the Law are revealed, fulfilled, and consummated in and through Christ Jesus. This work of revealing, fulfilling, and consummating does not end with Christ Jesus even though He is the end of it – where it points and in which it lives. The Lord intends to manifest all of it in Himself in the Church and through the Church – the community of the faithful. The Law – Christ Jesus – must live in our midst and we in the midst of it/Him. We are meant to bear much fruit – bear Him… That, of course, involves discerning God’s will in my/our life. God has shown us what is good and perfect. If we walk in what He has shown we will be purified and prepared to receive what He desires to show us, that we may walk in it as well.

The goal of discipleship is not of moral improvement (the Law in Jesus clothing) but of union with God. Fr. Stephen, via one of his blog posts puts it this way:

“This conformity is not a moral conformity – we are not struggling to be like sons of the Most High – we are not struggling to be like sons of our Father in heaven. Within the commandment – Christ is also offering true union with God – a share in His life. He is also offering a clear sign of such a union, as noted in the saying of St. Silouan.”

“It is possible for someone to be ‘moral’ or to live ‘ethically’ without wonder, without joy. But it is not possible to live a life united to Christ without wonder and joy. St. Gregory of Nyssa, writing in the 4th century, said that ‘Man is mud, whom God has commanded to become god.’ The moral life, lived apart from union with Christ, will never rise to the level of God’s true commandment. Only the transforming grace of God can do such a work in us. God is looking for something more than a few good men.”1

Here are a couple of passages of Scripture to go along with a quote from one of the early Church Fathers that shed light on this aspect of the Mystery of the union between Christ and His Church.

Psalms 19

[7] The law of the LORD is perfect,

El Greco's "St. Jerome"

reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;
[8] the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
[9] the fear of the LORD is clean,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true,
and righteous altogether.
[10] More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
[11] Moreover by them is thy servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.

Psalms 119

[14] In the way of thy testimonies I delight
as much as in all riches.
[15] I will meditate on thy precepts,
and fix my eyes on thy ways.
[16] I will delight in thy statutes;
I will not forget thy word.
[17] Deal bountifully with thy servant,
that I may live and observe thy word.
[18] Open my eyes, that I may behold
wondrous things out of thy law.
[19] I am a sojourner on earth;
hide not thy commandments from me!
[20] My soul is consumed with longing
for thy ordinances at all times.

“Open my eyes that I may consider the wonders of your Law” (Ps. 119[118].18)
Jesus put spittle on his eyes, placed his hands on him and asked him whether he could see anything. Knowledge always comes by degrees… It is only after a great deal of time and a long apprenticeship that we are able to attain perfect knowledge. First the impurities are removed, blindness goes, and thus light enters. The Lord’s spittle is perfect teaching: to teach perfectly it comes from the Lord’s mouth. The Lord’s spittle, which comes forth, so to speak, from his substance, is understanding, just as the word coming forth from his mouth is a cure…

“I see people looking like trees and walking”: I still see the shadow but not yet the truth. The meaning of these words is: I can see something in the Law but as yet I don’t perceive the blazing light of the Gospel… “Then he laid hands on his eyes a second time and he saw clearly.” He could see, I say, everything that we can see: he saw the mystery of the Trinity and he saw all the holy mysteries contained in the Gospel… And we, too, see them since we believe in Christ, the true light.

Saint Jerome (347-420), priest, translator of the Bible, Doctor of the Church
Homilies on Saint Mark’s Gospel, n°8, 235 (trad. SC 494, p. 143)

Purification – illumination – deification… and on and on and on by stages in fruitfulness and glory…

God Bless,

Fr. Thomas

Notes   1. Quotes from Fr. Stephen can be found on his blog “Glory to God for All Things”. The titles of the two posts quoted are: “Why Would Anyone Want to Forgive an Enemy?” and “Right, Wrong and the Image of God”

The Power of Tears

The pre-lenten season begins tomorrow with the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee. Here are some things I have gleaned that might serve to bless you as you begin to adjust the course of your life toward the Lenten Pilgrimage. These focus on the effectual character of repentant tears.

“Almighty Lord, I know how great is the power of tears. For they led up Hezekiah from the gates of death; they delivered the sinful woman from the transgressions of many years; they justified the Publican above the Pharisee. And with them I also pray: Have mercy upon me.” (from Saturday Vespers before The Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee)

2 Kings 20.1-6

[1] In those days Hezeki’ah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him, and said to him, “Thus says the LORD, `Set your house in order; for you shall die, you shall not recover.'”
[2] Then Hezeki’ah turned his face to the wall, and prayed to the LORD, saying,
[3] “Remember now, O LORD, I beseech thee, how I have walked before thee in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in thy sight.” And Hezeki’ah wept bitterly.
[4] And before Isaiah had gone out of the middle court, the word of the LORD came to him:
[5] “Turn back, and say to Hezeki’ah the prince of my people, Thus says the LORD, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; behold, I will heal you; on the third day you shall go up to the house of the LORD.
[6] And I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and I will defend this city for my own sake and for my servant David’s sake.”

Luke 7.36-50

[36] One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house, and took his place at table.
[37] And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment,
[38] and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.
[39] Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.”
[40] And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “What is it, Teacher?”
[41] “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.
[42] When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?”
[43] Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.”
[44] Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.
[45] You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet.
[46] You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.
[47] Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
[48] And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
[49] Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?”
[50] And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

“Baptism washes off those evils that were previously within us, whereas the sins committed after baptism are washed away by tears.  The baptism received by us as children we have all defiled, but we cleanse it anew with our tears.  If God in His love for the human race had not given us tears, those being saved would be few indeed and hard to find.” St. John Climacus

“Where is the confidence of prayer?  The confidence that was in it?  Where are the sweet ears instead of these bitter ones? …  Where is my faith in the shepherd?  Where is the result of His prayer for us?  It is all lost and gone ….” St. John Climacus

“When the soul grows tearful, weeps, and is filled with tenderness, and all this without having striven for it, then let us run, for the Lord has arrived uninvited and is holding out to us the sponge of loving sorrow, the cool waters of blessed sadness with which to wipe away the record of our sins.  Guard those tears like the apple of your eye until they go away, for they have a power greater than anything that comes from our own efforts and our own meditation.” St. John Climacus

“Without tears our dried heart could never be softened, nor our soul acquire spiritual humility and we would not have the force to become humble.” St. Symeon the New Theologian

“Where poverty of spirit is perceived, there is also the sorrow that is full of joy.  There are the ever-flowing tears that purify the soul that loved there things and cause it to be completely filled with light.” St. Symeon the New Theologian

God Bless,

Fr. Thomas

Orans and Victory – Amalekites Happen

In the 9th grade Ancient Civilizations class that I teach, we are studying the ancient Hebrew culture/civilization. The reading assignment for yesterday included the account of the Israelites’ battle with the Amalekites. Here is the text:

Exodus 17.8-16

[8] Then came Am’alek and fought with Israel at Reph’idim.
[9] And Moses said to Joshua, “Choose for us men, and go out, fight with Am’alek; tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in my hand.”
[10] So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Am’alek; and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill.
[11] Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Am’alek prevailed.
[12] But Moses’ hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat upon it, and Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; so his hands were steady until the going down of the sun.
[13] And Joshua mowed down Am’alek and his people with the edge of the sword.
[14] And the LORD said to Moses, “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Am’alek from under heaven.”
[15] And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The LORD is my banner,
[16] saying, “A hand upon the banner of the LORD! The LORD will have war with Am’alek from generation to generation.”

One of the things I am encouraging the students to do is make a list of themes that we identify as we move through the Old Testament with a view to see them fulfilled in Christ Jesus and the ministry of the Church.

One of the students, in answering the question about the battle basically said, “As long as Moses was worshipping, the Israelites were victorious. When he stopped praying, they began to lose.”

“Exactly,” I said with a lot of enthusiasm, “write down this theme – the union between worship and battle. The posture of Moses is called the “orans” and continues to be used in the context of the Divine Liturgy. It is a visual reminder and effective continuation of obedience in Christ Jesus to God’s command given to Moses!”

Reflect on these things:

  1. How prayer is effective in the midst of the battle – prayer is the underlying weapon.
  2. The synergistic relationship between God’s purpose and human cooperation in prayer and engagement of the enemy.
  3. How effective prayer is continuous – unceasing.
  4. The paradox of Moses choosing to find the high place of peace – the mountain of God – in the midst of the battle.
  5. How the appearance and attack of Amalek followed immediately after the murmuring of the Hebrews against God and Moses.
  6. How the community was able to see Moses with his hands upraised and be encouraged to fight on. Without them the battle would not be won. Without him the battle would not be won.
  7. Moses was the representative figure. The outward and visible representation of what was true in the hearts of the Israelites as they fought.
  8. How effective prayer is never the work of one person but of the whole covenant community.
  9. How the actual physical posture of Moses was literally necessary to the physical victory of the Israelites.
  10. How the upraised hands of Moses are the “banner” of God’s sponsorship, covering, and strength.
  11. The Eucharistic images in this story.

The Israelites did not wage war against the Amalekites once, but over and over again. Remnants of the tribe would escape only to attack at a “more opportune time.” We need to understand what the “Amalekites” are in our life. Remember, it says in the passage, “The LORD will have war with Am’alek from generation to generation.”

In everyday life, “Amalekites happen” over and over.  They need to be utterly destroyed. Otherwise, they will keep seeking us out, appearing, and attacking with the agenda to “corrupt and destroy” us.

God Bless you with unceasing prayer from the place of continual peace precisely in the midst of today’s battle with Amalek,

Fr. Thomas

The Goal of Reading

 

“The goal of reading is the application, in our lives, of what we read. Not to learn it by heart, but to take it to heart. Not to practice using our tongues, but to be able to receive the tongues of fire and to live the mysteries of God. If one studies a great deal in order to acquire knowledge and to teach others, without living the things he teaches, he does no more than fill his head with hot air. At most he will manage to ascend to the moon using machines. The goal of the Christian is to rise to God without machines.” — Elder Paisios the Athonite