27 - Last Judgment, March 10, 2013

I Corinthians 8:8-9:2

Matthew 25:31-46

If you have been following the daily assigned Scripture readings of the last week, you will note that we have been reading in St Mark’s Gospel of the trial and crucifixion of Christ. Is it not so that this judgment of the world against Christ that we have been reading about in St Mark’s Gospel is the reality of the world we live in? Animosity for Christ, derision for His Gospel is increasingly, it seems, the hidden spirit that invisibly shapes and influences the culture of the schools, the office, the workplace, the public news media, the halls of the nation’s capitals, the entertainment industry. It is, of course, the spirit of antichrist; and, it seems that that spirit is becoming less and less subtle, more bold in its expressions of contempt for the ethics of the bible that, at least ostensibly, were the source of the moral principles that shaped our society – up until now. For, that spirit has become perceptibly more overt, more blatant in its effort to re-create our society in an image that is quite opposite to and even openly contemptuous of the image of Christ.

We who want to be found as faithful followers of Christ must be more and more vigilant in the inner work of discerning the spirit of our age, to see if it is from God. I fear we are far too casual, far too accommodating to the world, its ways and its values. I believe we need to be ever more intentional and disciplined in the practice of the Christian Faith we profess. That means watching less TV (if any); fewer movies (if any), being much more discerning in the words and music we listen to, reading more Scripture, more from the lives of the saints, more from the holy fathers of the Church. It means praying more often, observing the fasts less casually – and that presupposes attentiveness to the hidden movements agitating one’s soul that leads one, frequently, to the sacrament of confession. It means attending the services of the Church more often, not just on Sunday morning, so that we immerse ourselves more in the culture of the Church and in the Spirit of her Christ and less in the culture of the world and the spirit of its antichrist, so that our soul will be shaped not by the subtle forces of the spirit of antichrist that is now, it seems, more and more active in the world and in our own American society, but by the Spirit of Christ. For, what we eat and drink with our eyes and ears shapes our mind and heart. If we are eating and drinking the images fed to us by the world, we will be shaped, imperceptibly and very subtly, into the image and likeness of antichrist. If we wish to be shaped into the image and likeness of Christ, we must feed our eyes and ears with the images of the Church through prayer, fasting, and by orienting our conduct and our way of life on the reality of the Cross of Christ, not on the fantasies and empty promises offered us in the glitter of the world’s empty images.  

Christ is fire and light. This is the testimony of the Scriptures, and there are so many testimonies in the lives of the saints that verify that this is true, it is not a religious idea. If we want our heart to become warm and radiant in Christ, we must draw near to the fire of Christ, again and again, until we are strong enough, worthy enough (ikanein in the Greek, which can mean both worthy and strong enough), to remain in the fire and to become all fire and light, to become like Christ, not like the antichrist.

When we come to the services of the Church this weekend of Meatfare, our ears take in the prayers of the Matins sung on Saturday morning in memory of the dead. Here, we hear of a final judgment that is beyond dispute: it is the final judgment of our death that judges the vanity of our worldly life. “Come, brethren, before the end,” cries the Church, “and let us all look upon our clay, upon the infirmity and meanness of our nature. Let us behold our end, and the organs of the vessel of our flesh. Let us see that man is dust, food for worms, and corruption; that our bones grow dry, and have no breath of life within them. Let us gaze on the tombs. Where is man’s glory? Where his outward beauty? Where is the eloquent tongue? Where the noble brow, and where the eye? All is dust and shadow! Why does man deceive himself and boast? Why does he trouble himself in vain? He is earth, and soon to the earth he will return.”

And in the Gospel reading of this morning from St Luke, our ears take in the parable of the Last Judgment, when Christ judges the world. This is the other judgment the world does not see because it has rejected the God proclaimed by the prophets and the holy apostles. In the world, we live in a culture that has judged Christ, and we join the rabble that judges and crucifies Christ when, wittingly or unwittingly, we make the culture of the world our life. But, the faithful who work to make the culture of the Church their life live in the fear of the Last Judgment when Christ will judge the world, when Christ will judge us!

And yet, as fearsome as the Last Judgment is and should be, even so it is an essential element of the Gospel – it is Good News! For, itproclaims a hope against hope in the face of the final judgment of our death. For, it proclaims that we who are of the dust and who are destined to return to the dust are also “akin” to Christ – that is why we are judged! Created in Christ, the image of God, did we live our life in this world as “kin” to Christ or as “kin” to the antichrist?

Christ became flesh and dwelt among us. That God Himself became flesh means that there is something even in the dust that we are that is capable of receiving God and becoming, in God, eternal. God the Son became flesh and was obedient to the Father even to the point of death on the Cross; and by His death, He destroyed death and transformed the tomb into a bridal chamber, the Fountain of the Resurrection and eternal life. That means that Christ is in our death, so that if we are united to Christ in our life on this earth, we will be united to Him in our death, and our death will become the means of our resurrection in Christ. Our return to the dust of the ground becomes the dissolving of the old Adam in us, the “wall of enmity” against God that is in us, into the dust of the ground to be no more, while the New Man that was sown in the “womb” of our soul when we united ourselves to Christ is raised up in the Resurrection of Christ to grow into the fullness of the stature of Christ, to become like Christ for we will see Him as He is.

In this fear of the Last Judgment, the Christian lives his life in this world, in the shadow of antichrist, in the hope of the Resurrection. In the fear of that hope, in the hope of that fear, the faithful Christian now makes his final preparations for the work that lies ahead: the work of taking up our Cross through the Great Fast and to follow Christ.

As we have been taught by the Church over these last few weeks since we opened the Lenten Triodion with the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, that work begins by discerning and confessing the spiritual pride that hides in our soul, that makes us like the Pharisee and the elder brother, so that we can come down from the tree of our conceit as did Zaccheus and make our way to the place of the Publican and the Prodigal, and begin to call out with them, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” That preparation for the Great Fast continues today as we place ourselves at the Last Judgment and recognize and confess, again, that we are not standing with the sheep, as we would like to think we are. We are standing with the goats; for, in so many hidden and subtle ways, we are selfish, vain, conceited, proud, greedy and altogether too much pleased with ourselves and indifferent to our neighbor. We need to come down from the tree of our self-righteousness to stand with the goats and cry out with them: “Lord, teach me the way of repentance before the end! Lord, create in me a clean heart; put a new and right spirit within me!”

In this mind of ascetic contrition, we make our way to the Gates of Great Lent that will finally be before us next Sunday. Then, in the marvelous mystery of Christ’s forgiveness of our sins, will we not find ourselves like the thief who confessed Christ? I am the one who deserves judgment; and yet Christ has taken my judgment upon Himself that I might be forgiven and saved! O Lord, forgive me a sinner! O brother, O sister, forgive me! I am the publican; I am the prodigal; I am the goat; I am the thief! But as the merciful God forgives me, so also I forgive! Forgive me! Let us leave this world of shadow behind and let us die together in Christ that we may be raised up with Him in the joy of His most holy and glorious Resurrection. Amen.