Monday, February 23, 2009

A Unique Life with an Eternal Resonance

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

In preparing for our discussion this coming Wednesday evening on fasting, I came across this passage from Archbishop Kallistos Ware as to how fasting can never be seen and practiced in isolation. In fact, he makes a direct connection between fasting and the Sunday of the Last Judgment and the parable that should still be deeply implanted in our minds and hearts from yesterday's Liturgy:

Prayer and fasting should in their turn be accompanied by almsgiving - by love for others expressed in practical form, by works of compassion and forgiveness. Eight days before the opening of the Lenten fast, on the Sunday of the Last Judgment, the appointed Gospel is the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (MATT. 25:31-46), reminding us that the criterion in the coming judgment will not be the strictness of our fasting but the amount of help that we have given to those in need. In the words of the Triodion:

Knowing the commandments of the Lord,
let this be our way of life:
Let us feed the hungry,
let us give the thirsty drink,
Let us clothe the naked,
let us welcome strangers,
Let us visit those in prison and the sick.
Then the Judge of all the earth will say
even to us:
"Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom
prepared for you."
(Vespers for the Sunday of the Last Judgment)

Every believing Orthodox Christian knows "deep down" that he/she will come before the "dread judgment seat of Christ our God." And we pray for a "good defense" before that judgment seat. The works of love enumerated by Christ in the parable are just such a good defense (apologia in the Gk.) that express our human response to the received love of God that prompts such a response toward others. The Lord is not a celestial terrorist. We may and should experience the "fear of God," but not because God is vindictive and prepared to punish. The Lord who judges, is the God who first and foremost forgives us of our sins with a love that we cannot fully grasp. Judgment is not a rigorous assessment before a suspicious and implacable diety, but the revelation of our inner being and the depths of our hearts. The jugdment simply reveals with total clarity our "true selves." Judgment as condemnation is thus self-imposed. In the judgment we will "answer" such probing questions as: Just what did God mean in our lives? What was the effect on our lives of saying "I believe in God?" Did we serve the "other" or just the "self?" The charitable heart expands with acts of love. The non-charitable heart shrinks with acts of selfishness. As Fr. Sergius Bulgakov wrote:

A merciful and charitable heart - that is what God wants from us: Be merciful like your Father in heaven. If in a human being's heart there is no love, then all that he has is dead and of no value.

The judgment of the Lord is the light of God searching for love in the depths of our heart. Our glorified Lord will discover it in the enlarged heart, but not in the shriveled one. The presence of such love - for both God and neighbor - means that we spent our lives in actual-service, and not lip-service, to God and neighbor. Applying this specifically to our faith in Christ, Fr. Bulgakov added this:

Love for one's neighbor is also love for Christ and contains the latter in itself. The sole Neighbor to whom all our works of love and all our love refer and can refer is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
... In the Divine Incarnation, the Lord became the new Adam, true Man, living in the human race like a vine in its vineyard, and thus establishing true humanity in every man. Christ lives in every man; to the eyes of love, every man is the image of God, the image of Christ. To the eyes of love, every man is Christ Himself living in him.

The point is not to reduce the Christian life to charitable deeds alone. The "social Gospel" is not the full Gospel. Our almsgiving is placed within the over-all context of the multi-layered dimensions of our one Christian life. Once again, we can turn to Fr. Bulgakov for a balanced response to this theme:

Is Christian life reducible to charity alone? Does this mean that right faith, Christian hope, the fulfillment of Church decrees, adherence to doctrine, and prayer have no significance for salvation? Does this mean that heresies, schisms, and absence of faith do not matter if one's works are good? No, all these things are required of the Christian and will be taken into account by the Just Judge: but separated from love, these things are the empty virtue of the arrogant Pharisee or of the older son in the parable of the prodigal son.

The reality of judgment should not be conceived in negative terms. That is the caricature of misplaced faith or lack of faith. The prospect of judgment need not cast a frightening shadow or stir up a sense of anxiety over our every deed, word or thought. No one is keeping score. Actually, judgment before the Lord means that our lives have significance. That our deeds, words and thoughts are not empty gestures and meaningless sounds that are destined for oblivion; but rather the accumulated "spiritual data" of a unique life that was brought into existence and lived according to the will of our Creator. A "cup of cold water" given "to one of these little ones" will have an eternal resonance! The Fathers tell us that we have the gift of "self-determination" (autexousia), which means that we are forming the being that we will be for all of eternity in the sight of God - a sheep "at his right hand" or a goat "at the left."

Fr. Steven

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