by Abbot Joseph
[You can read this at Word Incarnate or continue below
Lent is just a little over a week away, so the Church is getting serious about us getting serious about Lent. That’s one reason we have the Gospel of the Last Judgment today (Mt. 25:31-46). We have to be reminded and exhorted to realize that the choices we make in this life will bear fruit in the next life, for good or bad, for eternal happiness or eternal torment. We have to realize that we are accountable to God for our lives. There are many parables in the Gospels that bring out the fact both of our accountability and of the final separation of the good from the wicked at the end of time—though at the end of our time on earth, we will already know our eternal destiny.
There are different approaches to the mystery of the Last Judgment. The Byzantine Offices tend to take the terror approach, which is a legitimate one, but which perhaps is not, at least for everyone, the most effective one. Let’s take a look at that one first. Most of the texts in the Offices focus on the eternal punishments of unrepentant sinners: the unquenchable fire, the “worm that dieth not,” the groans and howls of the damned who have lost their last chance to be saved. Several texts speak of a “river of fire” that flows before the Judgment Seat of Christ, but I have wondered where they got that, since it isn’t mentioned in the Gospel account of the judgment. But then when I was praying Psalm 49(50), I found this: “Before Him goes a raging fire… from on high He summons heaven and earth to witness the judgment pronounced on his people.” So that comes from the Bible after all.
Of course, the image of fire for the description of Hell is common enough in the New Testament. At the end of today’s Gospel Jesus says to those who failed to see Him in others and thus to help them in their need: “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…” So the threat of hellfire is not just a scare tactic used by the Church to keep the unruly in line: it comes from the mouth of Jesus Himself, the Lover of Mankind. This Gospel reading comes just before Lent because Lent is the time of special focus on repentance, and without repentance no one will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. So if the threat of damnation for not obeying Christ will get you to repent, all well and good. It’s better to repent out of fear than not to repent at all. But that’s not the best or fullest way to approach the mystery of the Last Judgment. We should rather direct our thoughts and efforts toward doing what is pleasing to God and thus gaining entry into the everlasting joy of Paradise.
Let’s start at the beginning of the Gospel: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.” The very first word here is important: “when.” When the Son of Man comes, not if the Son of Man comes. Many people today, even among Christians, don’t really believe that Christ is coming back to judge the living and the dead, though we say we do every day in the Creed. Some tend to hyper-spiritualize his words so that they end up meaning not at all what He actually said. But we ought to get this straight: Since the Lord said “When the Son of Man comes,” that means precisely that the Son of Manis coming.
When He comes, all the nations of all ages will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them into two groups. He gives the example of the way a shepherd separates sheep from goats. Goats have gotten a bad rap ever since they had to symbolize the damned. I wonder if this Gospel is where the goat as a satanic symbol comes from. Maybe, though, it’s just the horns and the, uh, goatee.
Anyway, the Lord begins by blessing the righteous: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Next He gives the criteria for whether or not one goes to Heaven or Hell, and there are some people who don’t like these criteria at all, especially those who say we are saved by faith alone. All the criteria that Jesus says will be used on Judgment Day are works. All of them. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, etc. Where then does faith come in? Faith is presupposed in what Jesus says here, because it has to do with the reason we do the works. The Lord says to the happily bewildered “sheep” on his right: “As you did it for one of the least of my brethren, you did it for Me.”
If we didn’t believe in Jesus and accept all that He has done for us, we wouldn’t be able to see Him in others, for we wouldn’t believe in the mystery of the Body of Christ. So it is precisely because we have faith in Jesus that we must do these works in order to be saved. St James says that faith without works is dead, and that faith is expressed by means of works (2:17-18). And it is clear from the Gospel that Jesus places the highest importance on doing good for other people as a way of serving Him. This importance is so high that it is literally a matter of salvation or damnation. It is because Jesus loves us so much that He chooses to identify with us. By means of the Incarnation Christ became our Brother, for He took upon Himself our human nature. But the grace of the Holy Spirit after Jesus’ resurrection has done even more. He is not only related to us by sharing a common nature, He identifieswith each one of us by uniting Himself to us, by dwelling within us. That is why He could say: if you did it to them, you did it to Me. That is also why He said to Saul, who was persecuting Christians: “Why do you persecute Me?” Not why do you persecute “my people,” not even “my brothers and sisters,” but “Me.”
If all Christians could learn this lesson, really learn it and have it penetrate the way we think and feel and relate to others, the world would change in a short time. How often do we think, when we speak against another, or harbor ill will toward another, or judge another, or in any way take care of ourselves while neglecting another, that we are doing that to Christ?
The damned in the Gospel of the Judgment are horrified to find out that in choosing to neglect their brothers and sisters they have spurned Christ and merited eternal punishment. We have to see both sides of the matter to get the full impact: Recognize and serve Christ in others and be saved, or neglect Christ in others and be damned. Now I think that the Lord would have us focus on the positive aspect and simply apply ourselves to obeying his word so we can have a lively hope for salvation. But He must include a warning for the lazy and the selfish, so that they don’t end up being quite unpleasantly surprised when it is time to stand before God and render an account of their lives.
I said that doing God’s will gives us hope for salvation. It is interesting that in Pope Benedict’s encyclical, Spe Salvi (Saved by Hope), he actually has a section entitled: “Judgment as a setting for learning and practicing hope.” I’ll quote at some length from this, so that our efforts to put the Gospel into practice may increase our hope for everlasting happiness.
“…we find the phrase [in the Creed]: ‘he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.’ From the earliest times, the prospect of the Judgment has influenced Christians in their daily living as a criterion by which to order their present life, as a summons to their conscience, and at the same time as hope in God’s justice. Faith in Christ has never looked merely backwards or merely upwards, but always also forwards to the hour of justice that the Lord repeatedly proclaimed. This looking ahead has given Christianity its importance for the present moment. In the arrangement of Christian sacred buildings… it became customary to depict the Lord returning as a king—the symbol of hope—at the east end; while the west wall normally portrayed the Last Judgment as a symbol of our responsibility for our lives—a scene which followed and accompanied the faithful as they went out to resume their daily routine…”
Referring to St Paul’s image of the fire that burns up inferior works (1Cor.3:12-15), he continues: “the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Savior. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgment. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation ‘as through fire.’ But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love… The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy… The judgment of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice—the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together—judgment and grace—that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation ‘with fear and trembling’ (Phil. 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge…”
So let us understand this Gospel in terms of both justice and grace. The Lord loves us and wants to save us, but in order to do so He has to get us to learn the truth about who He is and who we are, and to live in such a way that reflects this truth. For if we have rejected the truth, or have simply accepted it in theory while neglecting to put it into practice, we will have no place in the Kingdom prepared for those blessed by the Father. Let us then, during the coming Lent, focus not only on the interior work of prayer and fasting, but also on Christ in others, and make a sincere effort to serve them. For whatever we do to others, we do to Jesus.