In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Today we come to the third Sunday of Preparation for Great Lent, and as we’ve said in years past, we like to refer to this Sunday as “Meat-fare” Sunday, but in truth that’s sort of a colloquialism. More properly speaking, in terms of the liturgical content of today, it’s the Sunday of the Last Judgment. I think I’ve said in the past, for some of you, giving up meat and last judgment may be close together, but the point is: The Church points us to the last judgment today in our preparation for Great Lent. The passage from Matthew begins as follows:
When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory, and all the nations will be gathered before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats.
In today’s world, there’s an important statement to be made, and that is: There will be a last judgment. In today’s world, where right and wrong is condemned as simply a prejudiced viewpoint, where every opinion is equally valid, where every man’s belief system is equally true, to say that there will come a day in which there is a judgment does not sit well with the world in which we live, but there is absolute certainty. These are not the words of a parable. These are the words of Christ himself. He was speaking these words.
It is affirmed in the Nicene Creed, the dogmatic creed of the Church, that he will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead. We pray every time we gather for a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ. We can water down the Gospel all we want, and we can rationalize away our behavior in this life any way we choose, but the words of Christ himself and the affirmation of the Church of God proclaim that there will be a day of judgment.
Christ says on that day mankind will be separated into sheep and goats. Around here you can sort of watch the behavior of sheep and goats when you drive around. St. Gregory Palamas in his exegesis of this passage speaks of that. He says on the one hand are the sheep. Look at a flock of sheep. What are they like? They’re meek. They’re gentle. They’re generally obedient and follow their shepherd. They tend to graze in the right places. These are the characteristics and virtues of the sheep that will be gathered by Christ: those that are obedient and faithful to him, those who exhibit humility, those who have grazed in proper places.
But then you can watch the goats right up here. They’re cantankerous, independent, disobedient. They like to crawl out on rocks and get themselves isolated in dangerous places. They like to butt heads with each other. Goats are generally not obedient at all. They tend to eat whatever’s put in front of them.
So on the one hand will be the sheep, those that have followed the shepherd, those that have dined upon the good food, those that have been part of the flock. On the other hand will be the goats, the wild, the impudent, the ones that butt heads with each other and choose to live in rocky places. But Christ will come and he will look at the sheep, and he will say to those on his right hand: “Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
He proclaims an inheritance. An inheritance is given to sons and daughters. For indeed the kingdom of heaven is to be a son or a daughter of God. At the heart of our Orthodox faith and of our preparation for Lent is the recognition that our lenten journey is a return to our inheritance. It is a rediscovery of our identity. It’s turning our backs on those thoughts, words, and deeds that would proclaim us sons and daughters of the kingdom of the world and [turning] our hearts and minds to the reality that we’re called to be sons and daughters of the kingdom of God. Our lenten journey is our return to that truth. It is the recognition and the effort to live as sons and daughters, to have our image renewed in the likeness of him who created us.
Christ says to those that will inherit the kingdom that they will inherit it. Why?
For I was hungry, and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you took me in. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me. I was in prison and you came to me.
Of course we know the passage. The righteous respond: When did we do that? And Christ responds: Inasmuch as you did it to the least of my brethren, you do it to me.
To be a son or daughter of God, to receive the inheritance that Christ came into the world to bestow upon us is to renew within us that attribute that most reflects his glory, and that is love. As we said in the Saturday of Souls Liturgy yesterday, it is the criterion of love upon which we will be judged. Why? Because God is love, the Apostle John tells us. Love is the greatest of virtues because it reflects God, we are told by St. Paul the Apostle. “Love one another that the world may know that I have come,” says Christ. Love is the manifestation of God in this world. Those who manifest the love of God, who are renewed in his image, are those that inherit the kingdom of heaven. Love is the surest criterion that we are indeed sons and daughters.
As we prepare for Lent today, as we prepare for our return, Christ asks us the question: Are we sons and daughters? There’s a very easy way to determine that: Do we love? Do we love God? Do we love our neighbor as ourselves? thus fulfilling the two great commandments. And Christ tells us today that inasmuch as we love the least of our brethren or inasmuch as we turn our back on them determines what will be displayed on that last day of judgment.
Christ gives us the stern warning that those who do not display love will be cursed, will be cast into an everlasting fire, he says. What in the world does that mean? How can the God who is love cast his creation into an unquenchable fire? The almost unanimous consensus of the Fathers of the Church is that what saves us, what redeems us, and what condemns us is exactly the same thing, and that is God’s love.
So great is that love, so intense is that love that it’s like a fire. You know fire softens wax, but fire hardens clay. The same fire that can make one soft and open and loving and repentant, that same fire can make one hard if it’s not received. In the unquenchable fire, the darkness of hell itself will be the horrible state of experiencing God’s love after we have rejected it, of love becoming intolerable and painful and scorching, that in rejecting God’s love it absolutely torments us. I can think of nothing more fearful than to spend eternity in anguish because love has become something painful to me.
Brothers and sisters, there is a judgment, and, brothers and sisters, for those who reject the love of God in this world, there is a hell, but God is love, and the extent that we love him and love each other will be the determining factor in whether that consuming fire of love enlightens us, illumines us, warms us, or whether it burns us.
So the challenge for you for the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee was to go through Lent without looking at the sins of your brother. That was challenge number one. The challenge of the Prodigal Son was what? It’s only been a week. Have you forgotten? To be a good big brother or big sister. Remember the story of the older brother in the Prodigal Son. Today’s challenge is to look upon the least of your brethren as Christ himself, that we would go through Great Lent seeing each person as Christ, knowing that inasmuch as we love them, we love him.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.