21 - Last Judgment, Feb 15, 2015

I Corinthians 8:8 – 9:2

Matthew 25:31-46

This morning, we step into the narthex of the Great Fast and find ourselves before the Evangelical “icon” of the Last Judgment. Let’s contemplate this icon from within the prayers of the Church’s liturgical cycle.

Our daily Scripture readings last week were of the LORD’s trial and crucifixion in St Mark. We left St Mark on Friday with the myrrh-bearing women looking on from afar as the LORD breathed His last on the Cross.

Our daily Scripture readings this next week are in St Luke, also of the LORD’s trial and crucifixion. We will leave St Luke on Thursday with the myrrh-bearing women returning to prepare spices and ointments, and then resting (hesychazo) on the Sabbath after they observe the tomb and how the dead body of the Savior is buried in it. (Lk 23:55-56)

In the daily readings, the LORD is judged and condemned to death on the Cross, and He is buried in the tomb. In our Gospel this morning, the LORD judges the nations on the Last Day from the Throne of His Glory and He separates the sheep from the goats.

It’s not just the convergence of the Cross and the LORD’s Throne into one image in these two sets of scripture readings that catches our attention and sets us to thinking; it’s also that we know from the feasts of the Cross that the Crossis the footstool of the LORD’sThrone. (Ps 99:5) Now, we feel fairly sure that we are indeed seeing the LORD judging the nations on the Last Day from the footstool of His Cross.

I feel that on this Sunday the Church is showing us what is beneath the flow of our daily life in the world. The Last Day is here; it has begun. It began on Great and Holy Friday – not as a 24 hour day of worldly time, but as the Transcendent Day of the LORD, the “Today” of the Church’s liturgical time that is spread throughout the whole of time from beginning to end, filling the cup of time, past, present and future to overflowing and spilling out into eternity in the unfathomable abyss of God’s mercy and compassion – “The earth is full of His steadfast love” (Ps 119:64); “the heavens declare His righteousness.” (Ps 50:6) I feel that on this Sunday, the Church has gathered us as prodigal children into the liturgical space of her Temple (which is the Body of Christ!) where our worldly life opens onto the Last Day; she has brought us to that point in our “inner man” where we exist at the intersection of time and eternity to show us where we are standing in our “inner man” even now beneath the flow of our daily life in this world. She is directing us to look on with the myrrh-bearing women from afar to see that we are standing at the foot of the LORD’s Cross as at the footstool of the Throne of His Glory where He judges each one of us with all the nations.

The prayers of the Church tell us that the “books will be opened and our secrets disclosed.” I believe this draws from Revelation: “I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened…and the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done.” (Rev 20:12) The books were opened; this takes me to the LORD’s Baptism when the heavens were opened as He came up out of the water. And, that takes me to that moment when the LORD breathes His last on the Cross and the veil of the Temple was rent in two from top to bottom so that the Holy of Holies was opened; (Mk 15:38) “And the tombs were opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” (Mt 27:52) And, that takes me to Heb 4:12: “The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing all the way to the division of soul and spirit, joints and marrow, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

By His death on the Cross and burial, the LORD Jesus Christ opens the human heart and enters inside it. He shatters the doors of bronze, He breaks the bars of iron (Ps 107:16), He pierces death, He penetrates hell, and He enters inside the heart. That’s where His Judgment takes place, inside the heart where we are dead in our sins and trespasses.

We are dead: that means we are not righteous! “We are not righteous, for we have done nothing good on the earth,” the Church will direct us to pray at the Divine Liturgy of St Basil on the Sundays of the Great Fast. What hope do we have? “I hear the lamentation  of the richman in the flames of torment and in my misery I weep and I wail, for I deserve the same condemnation!” (Lenten Triodion 157)

Beloved faithful, hear the Church calling us, feel her pulling at us and pushing us down into the dust of the ground and away from the Pharisee, away from the elder Son, away from the rich young ruler. How so? By shouting at us, by getting in our face and yelling at us to acknowledge that we are the Pharisee, we are the elder Son, we are the rich young ruler, we are the goats!

We are goats because we esteem ourselves as sheep: “When did we not minister to Thee?” That’s what makes us goats. “LORD, all your commandments we have kept! LORD, all these years we have been moral and good; you owe us!” The Church this whole weekend has been getting in our face and yelling at us: Take off the robe of self-righteousness, crawl out from behind the mask, see that you are naked, that you have no righteousness; understand that you are a goat. That’s how you become a sheep and begin to talk like sheep: “LORD, when did we ever minister to Thee?”  “LORD, we are sinners, have mercy on us!” “LORD, we are not worthy to be called your children. Receive us as hired servants.”

Pay attention to what the Church is showing us this week! Having brought us to the LORD’s Cross as to the footstool of the Throne of His Glory where He judges each one of us, the Church this week will show us where we are to go from here, what we are to do that we may enter the tomb of our heart with Christ. In the daily readings for this week, she will hand us over to the myrrh-bearing women. With them, we are to return and prepare spices and ointments and rest (hesychazo) on the Sabbath, which is the tombof our heart (St Isaac of Syria, Homily 74). Our work, that is to say, is to attain to the “true activity” (St Gregory Palamas) of inner stillness (hesychia) of heart. The Fast is only the means to this inner end. The Fast, then, can be tweaked as necessary according to our strength and circumstances, so that it serves its purpose of helping us unite ourselves to Christ in a death like His, i.e., putting to death all that is earthly in us so that we can enter with Him into the tomb of our heart and wait there, as in a bridal chamber, for the LORD to act.

For, here, I think, is the great mystery hidden in this morning’s parable – except it’s not so hidden because it is everywhere in the holy prophets. The LORD judges the nations by taking upon Himself the iniquity of us all. He identifies Himself with the goats! He makes Himself our sin offering (Isa 53) so that if we would but unite ourselves to Him in the likeness of His death and return with Him to the dust of the ground, allowing Him to destroy all our towers of babel, our self-esteem, our arrogance, conceit, vanity, our self-righteousness, His Judgment on us would be His delivering us from the devil who holds us captive in the fear of death, it would be His washing and cleansing us by His wounds, healing us by His stripes, saving us by His death on the Cross; it would be His raising us from the dead and creating in us a clean heart – creating it anew from within, transfiguring it from a tomb to a bridal chamber – and putting within us a new and right spirit from within so that it is Christ in His Holy Spirit who lives in us and abides in us as in His Holy Temple.

And then, as sheep who follow Christ to His Cross and to His Tomb, we unite ourselves to Him; but, that means that we identify ourselves with the goats as does our LORD! As did the Church at the Matins for the dead yesterday on Soul Saturday, we stand before the LORD’s Throne of Glory and intercede on behalf of all and for all; we intercede on behalf of the goats in the prayer that all might be saved. And, we pray in this way because we are the sheep of His pasture. Amen!