Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
We have now come to the third of the four pre-lenten Gospel readings as we draw nearer to Great Lent, beginning on Monday, March 14, this year. This third reading will be that of the Discourse on the Last Judgment (MATT. 25:31-46). Here is a fine, albeit short, summary from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s introduction to the Lenten Triodion of the meaning and placement of the Sunday of the Last Judgment—celebrated on March 6, 2016.
The two past Sundays spoke to us of God’s patience and limitless compassion, of His readiness to accept every sinner who returns to Him. On this third Sunday, we are powerfully reminded of a complementary truth: no one is so patient and so merciful as God, but even He does not forgive those who do not repent. The God of love is also a God of righteousness, and when Christ comes again in glory, He will come as our Judge. ‘Behold the goodness and severity of God’ (Romans 11:22). Such is the message of Lent to each of us: turn back while there is still time, repent before the End comes. In the words of the Great Canon:
"The end draws near, my soul, the end draws near; Yet thou dost not care or make ready. The time grows short, rise up: the Judge is at the door. The days of our life pass swiftly, as a dream, as a flower."
This Sunday sets before us the 'eschatological' dimension of Lent: The Great Fast is a preparation for the Second Coming of the Saviour, for the eternal Passover in the Age to Come. (This is a theme that will be taken up in the first three days of Holy Week.) Nor is the judgment merely in the future. Here and now, each day and each hour, in hardening our hearts toward others and in failing to respond to the opportunities we are given of helping them, we are already passing judgment on ourselves.
What are some of the “opportunities we are given” to help others by expanding our hearts in order to embrace their needs?
These “opportunities” are proclaimed in the Gospel reading appointed for the Sunday of the Last Judgment—Matthew 25:31-46: to give food to the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick, and to come to those in prison. These are the acts of mercy and charity proclaimed by the glorified Son of Man that will be at the basis of our judgment when we – together with “all the nations”—will be “gathered” before Him.
The glorified Son of Man is our Lord Jesus Christ. According to the imagery of the parable, He will “come in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne” (v. 31). As the judgment unfolds, there is a separation between the “sheep at the right hand” and “the goats at the left” (v. 33). Our response to the “opportunities we are given” to serve Christ by serving those in need is expressed in a particularly profound manner by the Lord: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (v. 40).
Repeated failure to avail ourselves of these opportunities to serve others in need has harsh consequences according to Christ: the shrinking of our hearts in this world; and the final separation that leaves one a “goat” in the world to come. Yet, the consequence is self-inflicted; and not a rigid juridical pronouncement. Is our faith acting through love (Galatians 5:6), or does our faith never develop beyond the theoretical stage? These are choices that we make based upon the gift of self-determination bestowed on us by God. In the words of St. John of Kronstadt (+1908):
The books of our consciences either justify or condemn us, and all that is left to us is to listen to the just, eternal sentence of the Judge of all. Let us hasten, through sincere repentance and charity, to obliterate from our consciences all of our sins, voluntary and involuntary, and to write in our consciences every good deed.
In every parish, various possibilities arise that present these opportunities to serve others. To minister is to serve; and that is the basic meaning and goal of all parish ministries. As a parish attempts to embody the Gospel beyond its walls, those ministries directly connected to the teachings of Christ in Matthew 25:31-46 should include the following.
- Establishing a food and beverage pantry that feeds local residents in need.
- Offering financial assistance that feeds, clothes and educates needy children and orphans.
- Visiting those who are hospitalized or home-bound.
- Initiating a prison ministry that includes visits to inmates, preparing food items, etc.
- Providing Christmas gifts for poor and needy families, especially those with children.
- Collecting and distributing clothing to the needy, and especially the homeless.
- Befriending the lonely, those without families, and others who have no one upon whom they can rely in times of need.
Inevitably, questions arise concerning the extent to which each parish member will participate, support and embrace such ministries. Are these ministries a part of our Christian stewardship of time, talent and treasure? Are our hearts “in it”or “out of it?” How do we coordinate the proclamation and teaching of the Gospels – heard at every Liturgy – within our lives as lived out as members of a concrete community? Does our self-absorption minimize our care for the “other?” Do we truly believe that we will be judged as Christ declares in the parable?
These very questions can form the basis for a “preparation for Confession” during Great Lent. We usually find ourselves examining how well we fasted or failed to fast during that holy season. Yet, in addition to prayer and fasting, almsgiving and charity are essential for a holistic embodiment of an “evangelical” – i.e. Gospel-based – way of life. Perhaps such self-examination will prepare us for the ultimate examination before the Son of Man, when everything will be revealed in absolute clarity. Of this, we are reminded during Vespers for the Sunday of the Last Judgment as we sing, “But, O Savior Who alone lovest mankind, King of the ages, before the end comes, turn me back through repentance and have mercy on me.”