JUDGEMENT IS IN YOUR HANDS
|After the consoling words of the preceding two preparatory Sundays before Great Lent, words about humility, self-honesty, and forgiveness in love, we come to the Sunday of the Last Judgment. The Western images often associated with the Last Judgment have been shaped, in great measure, by literary images and by media programs and cultural notions that have communicated particular ideas about who God is, what the judgment is about, and the nature of Heaven and hell. These constructs, bolstered by popular historic works of art from the Medieval period and the Renaissance — such as The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri and the breath-taking painting of the Final Judgment on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, painted by Michaelangelo Buonaroti — have created impressions that are exaggerated and can very easily obscure the authentic meaning of the Last Judgment In the old Roman (Western) funeral service, for example, we can hear the foreboding nature of that last event: “Day of wrath! O day of mourning! See fulfilled the prophets’ warning, Heaven and earth in ashes burning!” (Dies Irae) This echoes Dante’s own fateful words etched in the stone gateway over hell: “Abandon hope all ye who enter.” Judgement here is clearly judicial. Rules are broken. Payment must be made.
By way of contrast, the Gospel for this Sunday (Matthew 25:31-46) makes clear the Orthodox (Eastern) approach to the Last Judgment. The Last Judgment is less about any dramatic, cataclysmic details, which are, in fact, unknown to any of us, and more about something great and deeply personal. It is less about a judicial proceeding and more about the choices we have made and about God’s love. Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh writes: “We are going to be judged according to standards that are beyond ordinary human life. We are going to be judged on the scales of God and the scales of God are love; not love felt, not an emotional love, but love lived and accomplished.” Not by the length of our prayers, not by how involved we were at Church, not how much we fasted, how much we gave in stewardship, not by the number of curse words we used, the bad thoughts we had, or the number of arguments we got into – not by any list of sins – our judgment will be about how much love was in our hearts and how much we broke open that love with and for others, particularly those who are lost, broken, and hurting – those who reflected most poignantly the face of the Crucified Christ. St. John the Theologian put it this way: “If a man say, I love God, and loveth not his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (I John 4:20) Our fate in heaven or in hell is directly linked to our free will – the free choice we have to love or to ignore, to reach out or to distance others, to live as Jesus lived or to reduce His life to a mere historical footnote or pious model.
The Eastern Fathers of the Church had a comprehensive perspective regarding the Last Judgment. For example, St. John Chrysostom marveled at the process: “What a strange kind of judgment it is! In fact there is no judge. There is no defense lawyer. There is no prosecutor. There is even no jury. There is just Christ and us. That is all.” How are we judged then? In that intimate moment with Christ, we, in fact, pronounce judgment on ourselves according to the character of the life we lived — Where do I stand with Christ? Where have I placed myself at “the dread judgment seat” – with the sheep or the goats? As St. Isaac the Syrian reminds us: “God is Love and Fire. The Fire of God’s love does not cause pain to those who loved but is like a refreshing River of Life (Heaven). The unloving will be consumed by Pure Love and the haunting realization that they willfully separated themselves from intimacy with God. (hell) This is the eternal fire.”
Our fate at the Last Judgment is directly tied to those we loved or refused to love in life. In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus lists some of these people who were very much in His mind: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner. These are those living in pure want, stripped of hope, often ignored, pushed aside, neglected, with their human dignity robbed of them. To these we might add the relative we don’t get along with, a friend we have gossiped about, a co-worker we envy or dislike, an ungrateful child, an insensitive or even unloving spouse, people of a different ideology than ourselves, those of a different “social class”, skin color or background. Our eternal fate is inextricably linked to these children of the Suffering Servant. St. Symeon the New Theologian has Christ speaking to us directly: “…because I hungered for your repentance and conversion of life, and you gave me no food; I thirsted for your salvation, and you gave Me no drink; I was naked of your deeds of virtue, and you did not clothe Me with them; I existed in the narrow, filthy and dark prison of your heart, and you did not wish to come visit Me to lead Me out to the light; you knew that I was lying in the infirmity of your laziness and inactivity, yet you did not minister to Me by your good works and deeds. So, go away from me!” (On the Mystical Life: The Ethical Discourses) Who are these people in your life? Whose side are you on, with whom do you stand? Remember the words of the spiritual writer of the 15th century, Thomas a’ Kempis: “At the Day of Judgment, we shall not be asked what we have read but what we have done; not how well we have spoken, but how holy we have lived.” (Imitation of Christ)
By examining honestly those persons Jesus mentioned and the others mentioned above, we will face the truth of our own spiritual illness (sinfulness), hopefully experience remorse, and seek to redirect our lives through repentance — a deep change of heart rather than a quick, casual “Sorry, God!” The highest motivation for pursuing salvation is love for God, not fear of punishment, but because of our spiritual delusion and illness of soul, fear of eternal separation or estrangement from God can motivate us to repentance and conversion more than anything else in our lives. This repentance, this metanoia, this change of heart is the root of a genuine “return to the Father.” St. Isaac the Syrian reminds us: “As long as you have eyes, fill them with tears before that hour when dirt will cover your clothing and your eyes will be fixed in one direction in an unseeing gaze and you will not know it. Fill your eyes with tears, as long as your heart can discern, and before your soul is shaken by her departure from it and the heart is left like a house deserted by its owner.” What in your life cries out for this kind of repentance? What in your life, in the depth of your soul, is not right with God?
In last week’s reflection on the Prodigal Son, it was mentioned that mercy triumphs over judgment. St. James notes this: “For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13) One of the most moving quotations in this regard for me comes from the German theologian Johann Baptist Metz. He writes: “Jesus didn’t go to the Cross because he heals the sick, because he preaches charity or because he proclaims the Beatitudes. Rather, the Son of God goes to the Cross above all because he forgives sins, because he wants the total, definitive freedom of man’s heart. He does not accept that the human being consumes their entire existence with this irremovable ‘tattoo,’ (sin) with the thought of not being able to be welcomed by the merciful heart of God.” In a world that constantly runs from or avoids death, the Holy Fathers teach us that remembrance of death is a virtue and a constant reminder of our ultimate fate. Elder +Sophrony (1896-1993), spiritual child of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, put it clearly: “We see in the lives of the saints, these are people who are ready to die. And they’re not just ready to die, they prefer to die than to grieve God, than to lose grace, than to suffer even a diminution of grace. When you are struggling against the passions, you see that the passion will always have a hold on you, until you’re willing to die rather than to commit the sin that the passion suggests. That’s why the Christian life is a martyric life. We die daily.” As the Lord reminds us, Christian discipleship is inextricably linked to dying to self.
In the end, all you and I can do, apart from our feeble attempts to love as Jesus loved, and to care as He cared, is to face Him at that intimate moment of Judgment, look into His penetrating eyes, offer no excuses, and cast ourselves on His tender and forgiving heart. It has been said that it is more likely that all people will be saved than one person be damned, such is the love and mercy of God. For us, that mercy is a refuge, it is a shelter, it can fill our poor hearts right up to the moment when we take our last breath. May the words of the ancient Christian hymn be on our lips at that final hour: “Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies; Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.” May God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit abide with each of you this day and forevermore! Amen.You servant in Christ,