IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, AND OF THE SON, AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. AMEN.
Fear is a beneficial disposition which encourages one to abide by laws and rules in order not to incur punishment whether it be a disgraced character and blemish upon one’s name or family or the infringement upon one’s freedoms through fines or incarceration. With this awareness, the fear of the Lord, as the beginning of wisdom allows us to understand that fear helps us to keep to the narrow way of Christ because we fear the wrath of God and do not want to be ungrateful servants. However, fear, and the Last Judgment are more than this.
One can stand before a judge and though one may fear the judgment which is to be meted out to them, yet they can still rebel and scoff in the face of the whole system: “You don’t know me!” “I did not choose to be born a citizen of this country!” “I do not agree with these laws!” and one could continue to enumerate the many vexed and aggressive complaints from one who is quite insignificant in the face of such an impersonal system of law, from one who already feels orphaned in a world where he is a homeless wanderer.
However, such is not the judgment of God, in Whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17.28). Today is the Sunday of the Last Judgment, and is the third of four Sundays which are each dedicated to a particular theme that prepares us to enter into Lent where we will traverse the path which leads to the salvific Cross and Resurrection of Christ. Today’s focus is on that one day when we will have to stand before Christ God and give an account of the whole of our lives – deed, word, and thought.
During Vigil last night, we heard,
When Thou shalt come, O Righteous Judge, to execute just judgment, seated on Thy throne of glory, a river of fire will draw all men amazed before Thy judgment-seat; the powers of heaven will stand beside Thee, and in fear mankind will be judged according to the deeds that each has done. Then spare us, Christ, in Thy compassion, with faith we entreat Thee, and count us worthy of Thy blessings with those that are saved (Sunday of the Last Judgment, stichera at Lord, I have Cried, tone six).
O Lord supreme in love, as I think upon Thy fearful judgment-seat and the day of Judgment, I tremble and am full of fear, for I am accused by my own conscience. When Thou sittest on Thy throne and bringest all to trial, none will be able to deny his sins, for the truth will accuse him and terror will constrain him. The flames of Gehenna will roar and the sinners will gnash their teeth. Therefore have mercy upon me before the end, and spare me, Judge most righteous (Sunday of the Last Judgment, ikos at the sixth canticle).
How can this not be fearful, how can we not blush before all of mankind or recoil in horror at what we have done to others of the human race or how we have conducted our own life, or, and more especially, how we have lived before the face of our Creator. However, we must not forget that our Creator is not some impersonal system, He is not some stranger.
The judge in front of Whom we shall stand is the One who has always loved us. He loves you who serve at His Holy Altar. He loves you who pray in this Temple. He loves you who pray in this service remotely. As the Beloved Apostle of the Lord wrote, “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!” (1 John 3.1).
Our judgment is by the One whom we have dedicated our lives to, Who we have lived for, and sacrificed for. As St. John Chrysostom writes, “For He who now hath remitted our sins, will then sit in judgment; He who died for our sake will then appear again to judge all mankind.” He is not some stranger, someone we do not know or does not know us, but more importantly, we will stand before our Creator who loves us, stand before Him Whom we say we love - but do we, because our judgment consists in our not loving God, and in turn, not loving our neighbor?
If we say that we have loved God, then have we kept His commandments as He has instructed us to (cf. John 14.15)? In the Gospel today, we heard that those who will go forth into the heavenly kingdom, and not into the everlasting fire, are those who have fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, clothed the naked, sheltered the homeless, visited those in prison, all for the sake of Christ (Matt. 25.31-46), for truly the children of God live by faith and works.
I. Perhaps we continue to find excuses as to why we do not live in a Christian way - in the monastery, in our families, with our relationships, with everyone to whom we have a responsibility to. St. Symeon the New Theologian indicates that it is possible to live as a Christian in every situation regardless of societal rank or ecclesiastical rank, regardless of wealth or poverty, regardless of sickness or health. In short, he notes, that there is no situation in which we cannot live the Christian life and we will be judged by being compared to someone in history who was in the exact circumstances and fulfilled the Christian virtues. In a very lengthy passage, he writes,
To the patriarchs He [the Judge] will likewise oppose the sainted patriarchs: John of the golden mouth, John the Almsgiver, Ignatius, Tarasius, Methodius, and the rest, who not only by word but by deed were the reflection of the true God. Against the metropolitans He will set the saintly metropolitans: Basil, Gregory his brother and his namesake the Wonderworker, Ambrose, and Nicholas. In short, each patriarch, each metropolitan, each bishop, God will judge by the apostles and holy Fathers who were illustrious before them in each metropolitan see and diocese… Thus fathers will be judged by fathers, friends and relatives by friends and relatives, brothers by brothers, slaves and free men by slaves and free men respectively, the rich by those who were rich and the poor by those who were poor, the married by those who have excelled in the married state, the unmarried by those who have lived unmarried. In short, on the awesome day of judgment every sinful man will see one who is like him opposite to him in eternal life, in that unutterable light, and will be judged by him. What do I mean? As every sinner looks on him who is like him, the king upon the king, the ruler upon the ruler, the impenitent whoremonger on the whoremonger who repented, the poor man on the poor man, and the slave on the slave, he will remember that the other one was also a man, with the same soul, the same hands, the same eyes, in short with all other things in common, the same kind of life and the same kind of rank, the same occupation, the same resources. Yet, since he was unwilling to imitate him, his mouth will at once be stopped (Ps. 107.42) and he will remain without excuse (Rom. 1.20), without a word to speak!
II. Let us not think, though, that our works are simply acts that we can enumerate before God as though we are preparing a list and making an accounting. Instead, they come from a disposition of the soul that has been transformed by God. The four parables which speak of the Last Judgment refer to those who do and do not have this disposition, they are i) the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25.32-46); ii) the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13.24-30); iii) the wise and foolish virgins (Matt. 25.1-13); and iv) the invited guests who have put on their wedding garments and those who have not (Matt. 22.1-14). Jean-Claude Larchet notes that Christ will judge according to this disposition which is acquired by men in respect to God and neighbor. He writes,
In what do the dispositions of those who will be judged consist? In the purity of their mind and of their heart, in their virtues, that is, in the fact that they have conformed themselves in a lasting manner to the will of God, have practiced His commandments so far as to resemble Him in their interior states, their intentions, their behavior, thus manifesting by participation the qualities that are His by nature.
Our judgment is based on how much we resemble the One in front of whom we stand.
III. Perhaps we sense this loss of not knowing our Judge and Creator, our Savior. This, of course, is a problem: How do we come to know Christ? Let us consider five ways in which we can know Christ.
1. Attend the Divine Services – Interestingly, in the Optina Skete, there was always a monk assigned to check the cells during the services to see if anyone had not come to the services because excusing oneself from the services (without a blessing) was one of the first signs of neglecting one’s salvation.Only recently, in light of the tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine, His Eminence, Metropolitan Hilarion of Eastern America and New York, wrote an appeal to all the faithful ROCOR, regarding attendance at the Divine Services, saying,
The approaching Great Lent is the journey to Christ’s Pascha. This path leads us from a state of idleness, impatience, vanity, and constant anxiety to spiritual peace, integrity, humility, and love. These holy traits do not arise within us without effort, but through adhering to the other world in our churches – the world of light, joy, hope, and kindness. Without participating in the divine services of Great Lent, which create a special atmosphere in our homes and in our lives, attaining such a spiritual state is very difficult, it may even be impossible. Striving toward God, establishing peace within our hearts and participating in the sacramental life of the Church of Christ, wherein lies our personal relationship with God, we reduce the level of evil in this world, we inspire others toward labors and spiritual feats of the Gospel, we enhance peace and brotherly relationships, and do not succumb to the temptations of various discords and divisions.
As Christians, we need the Divine Services because they transform us and, in turn, transform the whole world through us. Go to the Divine Services.
2. Pray, and keep your prayer rule – it is not enough to pray and commune in the Divine Services. We must pray at home because in prayer we meet God personally, in prayer we come to know God, and in prayer we enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. As St. Isaac the Syrian writes,
It often happens that when a man bends his knees in prayer and stretches forth his hands to the heavens, fixing his eyes upon the Cross of Christ and concentrating all his thoughts on God during his prayer, beseeching God all the while with tears and compunction, suddenly and without warning a fountain springs up in his heart gushing forth sweetness… (The Ascetical Homilies, Homily 4, 153)
Indeed, one cannot taste honey by reading about it, and one cannot know the fruit of prayer from ink on a page.
3. Read the Bible – St. John Chrysostom writes that the Bible was given to us because we are forgetful of the things of God. Because of our own wretchedness and sinfulness, we have driven the grace of the Holy Spirit away from us, the grace which is a teacher and instructor of the things of God. Therefore, the Bible has come so that we may learn anew who Jesus Christ is and how to live pure lives, Christian lives. He writes,
“It were indeed meet for us not at all to require the aid of the written Word, but to exhibit a life so pure, that the grace of the Spirit should be instead of books to our souls, and that as these are inscribed with ink, even so should our hearts be with the Spirit. But, since we have utterly put away from us this grace, come, let us at any rate embrace the second best course.”
If we think we are too dense to understand the Scriptures, we should be encouraged by another holy Father who says,
Even if the mind [only] floats on the surface of the waters, that is, of the sea of the divine Scriptures, and its perceptions cannot fathom the great depth so as to be able to grasp all treasures in its deep, yet even this practice in itself, by the power of its fervent love, will suffice the mind firmly to pinion its thoughts by a single thought of wonder, and to prevent them from running to the body’s nature…” (Homily 1, 116)
4. Read the Lives of the Saints. Read the Church Fathers – The fathers of the Church, who continue to live in our present day, live the Christian life and write from within that life, properly interpreting the Scriptures. Through reading these lives and the works they produce you have what is called the sitz em leben, the setting in life, of the Orthodox Christian. The Lives of the Saints offers examples of Christians living in every situation and every era from which we can glean wisdom for our own lives, with the writings of the Fathers sharpening our minds and helping us to understand the teachings of the Church and ward off unchristian philosophies.
5. Live the Christian life – in this way you will know by doing. You will come to know the Gospel if you live the Gospel. If you live the Gospel, you will be able to stand before Christ unashamed and say, when you, my Christ were hungry, I gave you food. When you, my Christ, were thirsty, I gave you drink. When you, my Christ were naked, I clothed you. When you, my Christ were homeless, I gave you shelter. However, even if we have nothing to give, we can still pray – pray for those who have been ravaged by the effects and anxieties of COVID in the world; pray for those affected by the war in Ukraine, pray for those who struggle to be faithful to Christ.
If we know Christ, we can be ready for that day, welcoming it, whenever it should come for us. If we are not ready, brothers and sisters, there is still time to repent, to amend our ways, to make a new beginning, God helping us.
THROUGH THE PRAYERS OF OUR HOLY FATHERS, LORD JESUS CHRIST, HAVE MERCY ON US. AMEN.
 Homilies on St. John, XXXIX, 1.
 Ibid., 170.
 Life After Death According to the Orthodox Tradition , G. John Champoux, trans. (Jordanville: Holy Trinity Publications, 2021), 169.
 New York City: Archpastoral Epistle to the Clergy, Flock of T\the Eastern American & Australian-New Zealand Dioceses on Great Lent, Events in the Holy Ukrainian Land, @ https://eadiocese.org/news_220224_1, last accessed on 2/25/2022.
 Homilies on Matthew, I, 1.