The time for repentance and forgiveness is now, in the present life. At the Second Coming, Christ will appear as the righteous Judge, Who will render to every man according to his deeds" (Rom. 2:6). Then the time for entreating God's mercy and forgiveness will have passed.
As Father Alexander Schmemann reminds us in his book GREAT LENT (Ch. 1:4), sin is the absence of love, it is separation and isolation. When Christ comes to judge the world, His criterion for judgment will be love. Christian love entails seeing Christ in other people, our family, our friends, and everyone else we may encounter in our lives. We shall be judged on whether we have loved, or not loved, our neighbor. We show Christian love when we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit those who are sick or in prison. If we did such things for the least of Christ's brethren, then we also did them for Christ (Mt.25:40). If we did not do such things for the least of the brethren, neither did we do them for Christ (Mt.25:45).
Today is the last day for eating meat and meat products until Pascha, though eggs and dairy products are permitted every day during the coming week. This limited fasting prepares us gradually for the more intense fasting of Great Lent.
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,
O Righteous Judge!
Sermon on the Sunday of the Last Judgment
Archpriest Symeon Lev
The Holy Church of Christ insists that we perform good deeds during the time of Great Lent, inasmuch as our acts of mercy not only relieve other people’s plights, making their lives easier and brighter, but they turn the struggler’s attention from himself to others, thereby quietly freeing him from his egotistical self. The wave of love that arises in us when we share in the misfortunes of others fills us with Divine life, animating and inspiring us while driving the passions far away, thereby cleansing us from their harmful and troublesome effects.
Why is the subject of good deeds so tightly interwoven in the Gospel with that of the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ? After all, it would seem that the call to mercy is not especially inspiring when we are simultaneously being reminded that the earth and all deeds therein shall be consumed.
The fact is that even good deeds, as with all other Christian actions, have their dangers. From the example of the Pharisee and the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Son we have already seen how religious effort can take on an ungodly character that alienates man from God’s love. The same thing can happen with good deeds. If a Christian immerses himself in them to the point of completely forgetting the primary goal of human existence, then it is unlikely he will do himself any good. Good deeds themselves, if one forgets the memory of death, can acquire the character of an activity that is excited, chaotic, and scattered.
When the Jewish woman poured precious myrrh onto the head of Jesus, certain of the disciples said among themselves: Why was this waste of ointment made? For it might have been sold… and have been given to the poor (Mark 14:4-5). The indignant disciples probably expected the Savior to endorse their feelings. Christ, however, comes to the defense of this “squanderer”: Why trouble ye her? she hath wrought a good work on Me. For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but Me ye have not always (Mark 14:6-7).
With these words the Savior warns His followers that the work of keeping oneself in the truth of the Gospel is of utmost importance and, moreover, that this does not yield in importance to Christian good deeds; in some cases it even surpasses them. Indeed, Christ tells us that our eternal fate depends entirely and wholly on deeds of mercy. By including this call to mercy in the general discourse on the Second Coming, however, the Gospel establishes the proportionality and consistency of every part of the Christian activity that makes up our salvation. As such, if we will always have in mind the Second Coming and the Dread Judgment, but all the while become so absorbed in the expectation of the end that we lose sight of concrete deeds of mercy, we will most likely not acquire that love without which no one can see God. Yet if we give ourselves over enthusiastically to deeds of love while forgetting about the fleeting and vain nature of all that takes place on earth and the memory of death, then our good deeds will take on an emotional rather than spiritual character and not bring us any closer to God.
In Ecclesiastes we read: To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven… a time to keep silence… A time to love (3:1-8). A time of silence – a time of solitude and standing noetically before God’s Judgment – is no less essential to Christianity than the active and continuous performance of good deeds. This silence not only returns us from the superficial life around us back to our own depths, but also reminds us of the finite nature of everything that takes place on earth, thereby purifying our love from emotional exaltation.
Therefore, from the publican’s repentance to deeds of love and mercy; from good deeds to the memory of death; and from the memory of death back to repentance and prayer, we must make our journey toward the joyful and bright days of Christ’s Resurrection. The Gospel readings during these preparatory weeks show us the direction we are to follow in our Lenten journey: they are like road signs showing us the way to the Heavenly Jerusalem, to the Lord’s eternal and unceasing Pascha.
The most Divine Fathers placed this parable after the first two [those of the Publican and Pharisee and of the Prodigal Son], lest anyone, learning about God’s love for mankind in those parables, should live carelessly, saying: "God loves mankind, and when I cease from sinning, I shall be ready to accomplish everything." They set this fearful day here, in order to instill fear, through death and the expectation of future torments, in those who are heedless, and to bring them back to virtue, not trusting in God’s loving-kindness alone, but taking into account that He is a just Judge, Who will render unto each man according to his deeds. Moreover, since the souls of those who have died stood in our midst yesterday, it was fitting that the Judge should come today.
In a certain way, the present Feast is, as it were, the consummation of all the Feasts, just as it will be the final day for all of us. We should reflect that the Fathers will assign the beginning of the world and Adam’s fall from Paradise to the following Sunday, and that the present Feast is the end of all our lives and of this world. The Fathers assigned it to the Sunday of Meatfare, so as to curb greed and gluttony through the fear aroused by this Feast, and to summon us to show compassion to our neighbors. Furthermore, since, after reaping delight, we were exiled from Eden, and came under judgment and the curse, the present Feast is placed here, and also because, on the next Sunday, on which we commemorate the fall of Adam, we are going to be figuratively cast out of Eden, until Christ comes and brings us back to Paradise.
Christ’s coming is called the Second Coming, because whereas He first came to us in bodily form, quietly and without glory, He will now come from Heaven with wonders that transcend nature, with conspicuous radiance, and corporeally, so that He may be recognized by all as being He Who first came and delivered the human race, and Who is going to judge it, to see whether it has preserved what was given to it.
After this, the Lord will suddenly come from Heaven like lightning, preceded by His precious Cross, and a river of boiling fire will go before Him, cleansing the entire earth of pollution. The Antichrist will immediately be seized, and he and his minions will be handed over to the eternal fire. As the Angels sound their trumpets, the entire human race will be gathered together from the ends of the earth, and from all the elements, in Jerusalem, because this is the center of the world, and there are set thrones for judgment, but with their souls and bodies all transformed into incorruption and having a single form, the elements themselves having been transformed into a superior state, and by a single word the Lord will separate the righteous from the sinners; those who have done good will depart, gaining eternal life, whereas the sinners will go to eternal punishment, and never will there be an end to their torments.
It should be known that Christ will not be looking at that time for fasting, bodily hardships, or miracles, good though these things are, but for things that are far superior, namely, almsgiving and compassion. To the righteous and the sinners He will speak of six virtues: “For I was an hungered, and ye gave Me food; I was thirsty, and ye gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took Me in; naked, and ye clothed Me; I was sick, and ye visited Me; I was in prison, and ye came unto Me; for inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me.” Everyone can do these things according to his own ability. Then every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. The torments which the Holy Gospel recounts are these: “there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched; and cast him into the outer darkness.” Clearly accepting all these things, the Church of God believes that the abiding of the Saints with God and the perpetual effulgence of His light and their ascent to Him are the delight of Paradise and the Kingdom of Heaven, and that alienation from God and the consumption of souls by the awareness that, through carelessness and temporal pleasure, they have been deprived of Divine illumination are the torment, the darkness, and the like.
In Thine ineffable love for mankind, O Christ God, count us worthy to hear Thy desired voice, number us with those on Thy right hand, and have mercy on us. Amen.