Meatfare Sunday is the last time we shall eat meat before Pascha but if we do not fast from every thought and action that is unloving, then our food fast is in vain. By controlling our natural appetites we do stand a better chance of exercising compassion, which always requires the kind of selflessness that only self-denial encourages.
There is nothing automatic about becoming a more loving person. Fasting is a means to this end of becoming a more loving person, not the end in itself. Fasting gives us a certain capacity for sacrificial love, but we still have to put our hands to the plough. We still have to choose to do good and by God’s grace accomplish the same. Not unsurprisingly, therefore, Meatfare Sunday is also the Sunday of the Last Judgement with its commanding Gospel of the Sheep and the Goats. This uncompromising teaching from our Lord makes it clear that we shall be judged according to our actions, not our intentions. Those actions that the Lord judges have to do with serving those in need. This is the fruit by which we shall be known as sheep of the Good Shepherd rather than the goats of the evil one, (poor goats, I often think; but that’s another matter!) Heaven is nothing less than the presence of God and union with Him; and practically speaking, this side of death, our task is actively to love all humans and the world itself. Our task, as individuals and as a local church, is to conform by grace to God’s own character and purpose—to be His clear image and likeness in the world that He created.
Now, surprisingly perhaps to some, in Orthodox Christianity, hell is to be in the presence of God as well but this time NOT to be in union with Him. Hell is what we experience when in the presence of God (who is Love, Infinite Love), we turn our backs on Him, which is the same actually as turning our backs on our neighbours. When we turn away from either God or our neighbours, we experience His love as an insufferable burning fire, the fires of hell. This is the punishment we inflict on ourselves by living contrary to our own true nature. This is the punishment we inflict on ourselves when we reject the original blessing of our created state. It is not that God prepares hell as a punishment. On the contrary, we punish ourselves with the hell of denying His love to others, or indeed by committing the ultimate unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit, to reject love for ourselves. But, even when we do this, when we put ourselves in hell, the God who is Love will still hunt us down with His Love. He will not be satisfied until He has done everything He can, short that is of taking away our freewill (which He will never do) to warm our hearts, to break them if necessary and remould them to become loving again. Repentance, turning again to God and acquiring His mind and heart, is always possible, even for the most hardened sinner who chooses henceforth to die to sin and live for and in Christ. This is only possible because God loves all people without distinction. Doubting this is to make of Him a monster, someone who would punish the sinner rather than try to love him back into life.
The overturning of the gospel by qualifying or denying God’s love lies behind much of the atheism we see around us. Heaven and hell have so often been preached here in the post-Orthodox west in terms of the rewards or punishments of a divine tyrant, while salvation has been corrupted to mean buying off this despot’s wrath with the sacrifice of His Son. Nothing could be further from the truth. Listen to this short extract from an important speech by Dr. Alexander Kalomiros in 1980 entitled: “The River of Fire.”
“Why do men hate God? They hate Him not only because their deeds are dark while God is light, but also because they consider Him as a menace, as an imminent and eternal danger, as an adversary in court, as an opponent at law, as a public prosecutor and an eternal persecutor. To them, God is no more the almighty physician who came to save them from illness and death, but rather a cruel judge and a vengeful inquisitor. You see, the devil managed to make men believe that God does not really love us, that He really only loves Himself, and that He accepts us only if we behave as He wants us to behave; that He hates us if we do not behave as He ordered us to behave, and is offended by our insubordination to such a degree that we must pay for it by eternal tortures, created by Him for that purpose. Who can love a torturer? Even those who try hard to save themselves from the wrath of God cannot really love Him. They love only themselves, trying to escape God’s vengeance and to achieve eternal bliss by managing to please this fearsome and extremely dangerous Creator. Do you perceive the devil’s slander of our all loving, all kind, and absolutely good God? That is why in Greek the devil was given the name,’ the slanderer ’”.
We must in no way believe this slander. God is not the inventor of hell; the devil is; but the only power the devil has, we give to him by turning our backs on the God of Love. God does not turn His back on us though when we do this. Oh no! His love even raises the dead as that remarkable seventh-century ascetic, St. Isaac the Syrian, makes clear. It is then with this saint’s vision of the love of God, righteous in judgement solely in and by love that I close. Here is the true Orthodox way in which we should understand the parable of the sheep and goats, which is no less than our own opportunity to do good and to see the dead raised.
“Come, men of discernment, and be filled with wonder! Whose mind is sufficiently wise and marvellous to wonder worthily at the bounty of our Creator? His recompense of sinners is, that instead of a just recompense, He rewards them with resurrection, and instead of those bodies with which they trampled upon His law, He enrobes them with perfect glory and incorruption. That grace whereby we are resurrected after we have sinned is greater than the grace which brought us into being when we were not [sinners]. Glory be to Thine immeasurable grace, O Lord! Behold, Lord, the waves of Thy grace close my mouth with silence, and there is not a thought left in me before the face of Thy thanksgiving. What mouths can confess Thy praise, O good King, Thou Who lovest our life? Glory be to Thee for the two worlds which Thou hast created for our growth and delight, leading us by all things which Thou didst fashion to the knowledge of Thy glory, from now and unto the ages. Amen.” St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 60.