Today is the Sunday of the Last Judgment, as well as the Sunday of Meatfare, when we stop eating meat in preparation for Great Lent which begins this year on Monday, March 11th. On the one hand, the Church is reminding us that the whole world will be judged by Christ Himself; and on the other hand, we are reminded not to eat meat during the next week. It’s an unusual combination—the whole world and our personal lives are both important.
The Gospel reading for today from the 25th chapter of the Gospel of St Matthew states clearly that it is “all the nations” that will be judged at the Last Judgment. The nations “will be assembled before [Christ], and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the kid goats.” The sheep are older, more mature, than the kid goats, so the Last Judgment is about whether the nations have grown up, whether each culture in each century has reached maturity—has fulfilled God’s will for that particular nation, that particular culture. What is the basis of this judgment of every nation on earth?
People are often unaware of when Christ is present in their lives. The King, that is Christ Himself, explains in verse 40, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” “The brethren”—the brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ in first century Palestine—were the Jewish people. Therefore. St Matthew is saying quite clearly that how the nations have treated the Jews will be the basis of how each nation will be treated by Christ. The Romans and many other cultures will be judged harshly by that yardstick. Later, in the Bible, in the First Letter of John, chapter 3, verse 14, “the brethren” refers to fellow Christians. Therefore, it is appropriate for us to consider “the brethren” as both Jews and Christians. But what’s the link between the final judgment of Christ on all the nations of the world and our personal lives this coming week?
St John Chrysostom urges us, and I quote, to “practice wisdom with simplicity, both as to doctrines and the right actions of our lives; let us judge ourselves here [and now], that we will not be condemned with the world hereafter…. And so let us not merely say to God, ‘do not remember our offenses,’ but let us … also say to [ourselves] ‘let us not remember the offenses of our fellow servants done against us,’” concludes St John. In other words, the Last Judgment has both a national and a personal dimension. Whatever judgment is given to each of the nations, we can each judge ourselves—evaluate our lives—here and now, so “that we will not be condemned” with the nation in which we now live. That possibility of separating ourselves from the sins of our present culture, our present nation, is certainly a challenge requiring great discernment (that is, great awareness of our lives and situations).
The Last Judgment is set out in considerable detail in the final book of the Bible, Revelation. Father Theodore Stylianopoulos has pointed out that the word “revelation” means a “communication of something hidden or previously unknown.” Father Theodore explains that “the fundamental claim of Scripture, rooted in direct experience of God by privileged witnesses [such as Saints Peter and Paul and the authors of the Gospels], is that the true God and Lord of the universe has chosen to make Himself known to human beings in various ways, especially through actions and words” [The New Testament: An Orthodox Perspective, Vol. One: Scripture, Tradition, Hermeneutics, Holy Cross Orthodox Press, p. 32]. That applies to each of us: “The true God and Lord of the universe has chosen to make Himself known” to each of us. The judgment is about how we have each responded to God’s revelation of Himself.
In the Book of Revelation, as on this Sunday of the Last Judgment and Sunday of Meatfare, the judgment is again of both groups and of individuals. In this instance, the seven churches in Asia and each person who has lived and died on earth are being judged. The results of this Last Judgment are recorded in the Book of Life, as set out in Revelation, chapter 20, verse 12. St Augustine explains that the Book of Life “must symbolize [that is, must stand for] some divine action [by] which each person will recall [their] deeds, good or bad, and review them mentally so that, without a moment’s delay, each one’s conscience will be either burdened or unburdened and thus, collectively and individually, all will be judged at the same moment. And because of this divine illumination, each person will, so to speak, read the record of [their] deeds. God’s action is called a ‘book,’” concludes St Augustine [City of God 20.14]. In a sense then, remarkably, we carry out the Last Judgment within ourselves in our consciences, in our awareness of how we have lived.
It is important to understand that this judgment that we carry out within ourselves does have a universal standard—the whole of the Bible. As St Augustine explains: “The first scrolls [or books that are opened] must represent the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. These will be opened,” writes St Augustine in City of God, “to show the commandments of God, and the other scroll [The Book of Life] will show how these commandments were kept or disobeyed by each and every person” [20.14].
“The issue we are ultimately pursuing,” writes Father Emmanuel Hatzidakis is to give the Orthodox answer to the question our Lord asked—and continues to ask—of His followers, ‘Who do you say that I am? (Matthew 1.1)…. [Jesus Christ] is the Conqueror as the God-man,” writes Father Emmanuel, “while we become conquerors with Him, with His grace [with His love for each of us]. Yet in Christ we do not have a man alone struggling and ultimately winning, nor a man receiving God’s grace, as we do, but God [Himself] accomplishing in His humanity what for the rest of us human beings is impossible [without Him]: victory over sin, over death and over the devil”.
My conclusion is a beginning: we can say to ourselves today that we wish for Jesus Christ to be the Lord of our lives. We can then do our best to live out that commitment in prayer and in action. Then the Last Judgment is not something to be feared, but rather, a joining of ourselves to Christ with hope and joy every day, and at the end of our lives on earth.
Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, One in essence and undivided. Amen.