Today is the third Sunday of the Triodion. More popularly known as Meatfare Sunday (we like to think with our stomachs and today is the last day we eat meat until Pascha), today is actually the Sunday of the Last Judgment. We are confronted with images of the end times. In the Gospel reading, we are told by Christ that:
When the Son of man comes in his glory and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. — Matthew 25:31-33
During Orthros this morning the Church prays:
When You come down to the earth, O God, in Your glory, all things will cower tremulous, and a river of fire will draw before Your Judgment Seat; the books shall be opened up, and public knowledge will things hidden be. Rescue me, then, I pray, from unquenchable fire, and count me worthy to stand at Your right hand, O You, the most righteous Judge. — Kontakion of Judgement Sunday
These disturbing images come from the Book of Daniel:
As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. — Daniel 7:9-10
All of these passages belong to a genre within Scripture called Apocalyptic Literature. Ask the average American what “apocalypse” means and they will likely say something about the end of the world. The literal meaning in Greek, however, is “the unveiling.” In English, the more accurate translation of apocalypse comes from Latin — “revelation.” In other words, when we read these passages in Scripture, we must realize what is being unveiled and revealed. Most of the time, we find out about God and or relationship with Him.
For example, in Scripture, fire is used over and over again to show us the presence of God. There was fire at the burning bush when God revealed Himself to Moses (Exo 3:2). God led the people of Israel towards the Red Sea with a pillar of fire (Exo 13:21). God sent fire from heaven to consume Elijah’s sacrifice in his confrontation with the priests of Baal (1Ki 18:38). The Holy Spirit descends upon the Apostles like fire at Pentecost (Acts 2:3). Thus, when we read about the River of Fire at the Judgement Seat used in today’s hymns and in Daniel, it tells us that we will all come into the full presence of God. Everyone of us will come face to face with our sins — how far we have separated ourselves from God.
If we have spent a life denying God and actively trying to be apart from Him, this experience will be painful — the full weight of our sins will come upon us all at once. If, on the other hand, we have been striving to be with God, by coming face to face with our sins on a daily basis — crying out “Lord have mercy upon me a sinner!” — this meeting of God in glory will be familiar, welcome and triumphant.
In today’s Gospel, Christ reveals to us a mechanism by which to measure our own progress towards Him, by revealing His relationship with humanity. Since He took on and shares our human nature, we should see Christ in our fellow human beings. Let me be clear, this is not just our fellow Christians, but everyone. We are to see Christ in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick, and even those in prison that may have gone on a killing spree and murdered a dozen small children. Everyone is made in the image and likeness of God. Everyone is the icon of Christ because He took on our human nature. There is no one that has ever been born or ever will be born that does not share their human nature with the human nature that God took to Himself in the person of Christ.
If, then, we acknowledge this reality that everyone is the image and likeness of God and the icon of Christ, it should show in our actions — it should show in the way we treat our fellow human beings. We are called to love the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick and those in prison the way God does. He was willing to come to us, to suffer and to die for us. Therefore, we should be willing to go to and serve those who are hungry, thirsty, strange, sick and imprisoned.
This passage, on its surface, is about almsgiving — one of the three main activities we will be actively engaged in during Lent; however, it is possible to give alms and still be a goat. If we are merely giving alms with no understanding of the person we are giving to, we have failed to see Christ in them. This is beautifully stated by a 20th century martyr — St. Maria of Paris — speaking about her charitable organization Orthodox Action:
. . . we are committed to the personal principle in the sense that absolutely no
one can become for us a routine cipher, whose role is to swell statistical tables. I
would say that we should not give away a single hunk of bread unless the recipient
means something as a person for us. — Pearl of great price: the life of Mother Maria Skobtsova 1891-1945 by S. Hackel
It is not enough to merely give. We are called to love. Amen.