We deprive ourselves in order to have more to give to others. And if I as an individual am able through my own self-deprivation to help the life of another human being, imagine what a whole community, a whole nation, even the whole world could do if it observed such a fast!
- Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou from Meditations for Great Lent
It’s not ideal, by any means, to participate in Great Lent half-heartedly. Far more harm than good comes from fasting without preparing, without quieting down and pondering on the “why” behind this communal ascetical effort. I know this because I’ve done this: refrained from food without filling up on prayer, scripture, Church services, almsgiving and silence only to rob myself of joy, peace and humility.
The Church leads us into Great Lent gradually via a series of four preparatory Sundays, each designed to correct our thoughts and gird our spirits with eternal Truths so easily forgotten in the pursuit of worldly ambitions. First there was the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, next came The Sunday of the Prodigal Son. This past weekend was the Sunday of the Last Judgment and it is this particular Gospel reading I’m reflecting on this morning:
The Lord said, “When the Son of man comes in his glory and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
It is very tempting, for me anyway, as with fasting itself, to reduce this parable to a checklist for earning God’s mercy:
Clothe the Naked
Visit those Imprisoned
Thereby diminishing my acts of service into mere impetuses for either pride or despair, or even worse a litmus test for how “good” or “bad” I am doing in comparison to those around me. I need the Church to help me rise above legalism, as a means for trying to make sense of that which is purposefully unfathomable, that I might meekly, and fully, embrace the Mystery of love and death-to-self as Heaven itself – as THE means to Life.
God is truth and light. God’s judgment is nothing else than our coming into contact with truth and light. In the day of the Great Judgment all men will appear naked before this penetrating light of truth. The ‘books’ will be opened. What are these ‘books’? They are our hearts. Our hearts will be opened by the penetrating light of God, and what is in these hearts will be revealed. If in those hearts there is love for God, those hearts will rejoice in seeing God’s light. If, on the contrary, there is hatred for God in those hearts, these men will suffer by receiving on their opened hearts this penetrating light of truth which they detested all their life.
So that which will differentiate between one man and another will not be a decision of God, a reward or a punishment from Him, but that which was in each one’s heart; what was there during all our life will be revealed in the Day of Judgment. If there is a reward and a punishment in this revelation – and there really is – it does not come from God but from the love or hate which reigns in our heart. Love has bliss in it, hatred has despair, bitterness, grief, affliction, wickedness, agitation, confusion, darkness, and all the other interior conditions which compose hell.
- Saint Symeon the New Theologian
What am I to do with this parable? How am I to approach this Fast? What is the answer to everything?
LOVE. Unconditional Love, minus the loopholes and self-serving side benefits. Love, because Christ loves us. Love, because through Love souls are enlightened, death is vanquished, fear demolished and hope ignited.
St Silouan Orthodox Church in Walla, Walla, Washington posted this to its website about the Sunday of the Last Judgement:
When Christ comes to judge us, what will be the criterion of His judgment? The parable of the Last Judgment answers: love. Not a mere humanitarian concern for abstract justice and the anonymous “poor,” but concrete and personal love for the human person — the specific persons that we encounter face-to-face each day in our lives.
Come now, let us journey on towards Christ’s Resurrection together, always supporting one another in serving the family members, neighbors, co-workers, enemies, strangers and friends right in front of us!