24 - Last Judgment, Feb 23, 2014

I Corinthians 8:8 – 9:2

Matthew 25:31-46

This last week, our assigned reading took us to the LORD’s trial and crucifixion; i.e., we read of the world’s judgment of Christ. This morning, our assigned reading takes us to the Last Day, when Christ judges the world. The juxtaposition of these two readings shows us that, while the world judges Christ on the plane of history, Christ is judging the world on the plane of eternity. Yet, from the juxtaposition of these two biblical readings, a composite image of Christ judging the world comes into view: we see Christ judging the world from the Cross.

Today in the Church, but one week away now before Great Lent begins, we draw near the gates of Great Lent rising tall and regal before us. Here, in her liturgical worship, the Church opens us onto that dread and fearsome moment of the Last Judgment. Here, in the Church, we stand at the threshold between time and eternity. This is where we will stand in the bitter hour of our death. The world falls away behind us, except for the world that we have brought with us, the world that clings to us, the world that we cling to like Adam and Eve clinging to their garments of fig leaves. Here, in the Church, it is given to us to enter this fearsome, holy moment even now, before our death.

Even though we hide behind our worldly garments of fig leaves hoping to protect ourselves from the all-seeing eye of the Judge, we stand naked before the LORD, the Judge of all, as did Adam and Eve in the Garden; for, the living and powerful Word of God, sharper than any two-edged sword, pierces our worldly garments all the way to the division of soul and spirit and discloses the hidden things, the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Heb 4:12)

Here in the Church, in a mystical, real way, we can step outside of the world to stand in our hearts on this threshold between time and eternity even before we have died and left the world. We can do this in the Church because the Church spans time and eternity; she holds this gap within her bosom, for she is the Mother who gave birth to Christ in whom heaven and earth, time and eternity are united. Every year at this time, so long as we are in the world, she brings us to this moment of the Last Day at the threshold of time and eternity, because this is the moment when the hidden things of our heart are disclosed, when our eternal destiny hangs in the balance, and the Church earnestly desires to save us.

Let the world in its futility and blindness judge the LORD. Let us open the ears of our soul and answer the call of the Church to leave the world and to stand in our hearts before the LORD here at the gates of Great Lent, and let us submit ourselves to His judgment as we prepare to enter the gates of Great Lent. But, look well at the image set before us this morning from the Church’s Gospel lectionary: we are standing before the Cross of the LORD, very much like we will do on Great and Holy Thursday evening; and, the LORD, without saying a word, is judging us from the Cross.

I am not able to read this morning’s Gospel without squirming. My mind races; I look around wildly for a way to justify myself. But, in the searing light of this parable, I see that even the good things I might claim are polluted by an all-pervasive vanity and pride. My worldly accomplishments and achievements are worthless; they are but so many towers of Babel, emblems of my conceit. The eternity they promised is but a mirage – castles in the sky produced from clouds of dust.

“When did we see you and not minister to you?” cry the goats. Doesn’t this sound like the prayer of the self-righteous Pharisee and the elder son, their delusion of grandeur fallen back into the dust, leaving them bewildered and confused?

“When did we see you and minister to you?” This to me is what the publican, the Canaanite woman, the prodigal son would say. I think it is what one who has ‘seen’ God, even if it is only a glimpse, would say. To me, it sounds like the cry of Abraham when he fell before the LORD at the Oaks of Mamre: “I am but dust and ashes!” Or, the prayer of St Peter at the great catch of fish, when he realized who Jesus was: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man!” Or, of Isaiah the prophet when he saw the LORD enthroned in His heavenly temple: “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips, dwelling among a people of unclean lips.”

Those who have seen God bear witness that one can scarcely contain even a drop of God’s love for even an instant without feeling that one’s heart will break; and yet, we were made to contain God as living temples. Is not the judgment that we begin to feel, standing before the judgment seat of Christ’s Holy Cross the smallness of our heart as we gaze on the expanse of God’s compassion “shown forth” in His Cross? Christ crucified on the Cross is the final “epiphany”, the revelation of the fullness of the mystery of God, who is love. It is also the revelation of who we really are beneath the fig leaves of our worldliness. We are created in the image and likeness of God, made to become partakers of the divine nature.

Standing in that moment of judgment, how the soul wishes she had been more diligent to redeem the time of her life in the body to enlarge her heart, not to build bigger barns so that she would be strong enough to receive the fullness of God and become who she really is, the bride of Christ.

The Lenten Gates are set to open next Sunday. We stand in a mystical and real way this morning in the hour of our death, on the threshold between time and eternity. But, we have not died. We are still in the world. It is not yet too late. There is still time for us to repent. In this morning’s Gospel image of the LORD judging us from His Cross, revealing to us our true nature and destiny, do we wish to enter the Lenten arena of the spiritual struggle and to take up the spiritual fight of uniting ourselves to Christ in His Holy Pascha?

We do as the Church tells us to do. First, let us stand before the LORD in our heart this morning and pray: “Have mercy on us, O LORD, have mercy on us; for, laying aside every excuse, (taking off all our fig leaves of self-justification, and standing naked before you, as we did at our baptism) we sinners offer to Thee as to our Master, have mercy on us!” “LORD Jesus Christ, Son of God, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner!”

Next, we begin the fast this week, as the Church prescribes, according to our strength and our circumstances. We begin to fast this week from all meat. Dairy is still permitted. We are getting ready to take up the full fast, which begins next Sunday evening, according to our strength and our circumstances.

Reduce the noise in our homes. Turn off the TV, the video games. Come away from the internet, the i-pad, and whatever other gadget that injects noise into our life. In the stillness that ensues, descend beneath the boredom that may threaten you and begin the work of fighting to get into your soul to stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ, His Holy Cross. Read and meditate on the daily assigned Scripture readings. Pray the Psalms, memorize some Psalms. Put together a Lenten menu. Look for ways to practice charity, starting perhaps with the members of your own family! As much as possible, tweak your daily calendar so that you can participate in as many services as possible during Great Lent.

In all of this, we are getting ready to take up our cross as our weapon of victory, the Lenten disciplines of prayer and fasting, confession of sins and acts of mercy. We are taking up this spiritual fight to take back our souls and offer ourselves to Christ; but, we do not undertake this effort by ourselves. We are surrounded by the saints, the holy angels, the Theotokos, Christ Himself. We do this together, encouraging one another, helping one another by our prayers, by coming together in the services and offices of the Church. We do this together as members of the body of Christ. It is Christ who is working in us as we each one take up our cross, our weapon of victory, and make ready as the New Israel to break camp and enter those royal doors of Great Lent, and begin our Exodus to Christ’s Holy Pascha. Amen!