4) Sunday of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46): Love
In Western theology much ado is made against works as being unessential for our salvation. A false dichotomy of faith versus works has been formulated & is much debated. The Holy Scriptures admonish us that faith without works is a dead useless faith & that works complete our faith (James 2:14-26). One cannot have faith without works, but neither can they have works without faith. Does the Gospel passage for this day show that we shall be judged on our faith? No, but rather we shall be judged on our works which show our faith. These works upon which we shall be judged in this story of the separation of the sheep from the goats are works of love resulting from our faith. As the story relates when we give food & drink to the hungry & thirsty, take in the stranger, clothe those in rags, visit the sick & imprisoned then it is as if we do it to Christ Himself. When we withhold such charity it is again as if we withhold it from Christ Himself.
The “church” for many has become nothing more than another charitable social service agency & a tool garnered for social activism & philanthropy. A large part of Western theology has elevated such charitable & social works to be the “mission of the Church” in what has been termed the “Social Gospel”. But this is not the type of works of love that will be judged by Christ. Concerning this Scripture passage, Fr. Alexander Schmemann (Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, 2003, pp. 24-25) writes,
“When Christ comes to judge us, what will be the criterion of His judgment? The parable answers: love—not in mere humanitarian concern for abstract justice & the anonymous ‘poor’, but concrete & personal love for the human person, any human person, that God makes me encounter in my life…”
“Christian love is the ‘possible impossibility’ to see Christ in another man, whoever he is, & whom God, in His eternal & mysterious plan, has decided to introduce into my life, be it only for a few moments, not as an occasion for a ‘good deed’ or an exercise in philanthropy, but as the beginning of an eternal companionship in God Himself…”
“There is no ‘impersonal’ love because love is the wonderful discovery of the ‘person’ in ‘man’, of the personal & unique in the common & general. It is the discovery in each man of that which is ‘lovable’ in him, of that which is from God…”
“In this respect, Christian love is sometimes the opposite of ‘social activism’ with which one so often identifies Christianity today. To a ‘social activist’ the object of love is not ‘person’ but man, an abstract unit of a not less abstract ‘humanity’. But for Christianity, man is ‘lovable’ because he is person. There person is reduced to man; here man is seen only as person. The ‘social activist’ has no interest for the personal, & easily sacrifices it to the ‘common interest.’”
For our journey through Great Lent let us discover & see what is personal & lovable, the very image of God, in each other through the love of God. Let us love one another just as Christ loves us.
5) Sunday of Forgiveness (Matthew 6:14-21): Forgiveness
A complimentary theme presented on the Sunday of Forgiveness is the Expulsion of Adam & Eve from the Garden. Adam & Eve in essence broke the first fast instituted by God by eating what they had no right to eat because it was not theirs to eat. Thus, through the sin of one man—Adam—all of mankind became subject to sin & death. From this sin & death followed wars, violence, sickness, disease & suffering. Mankind became less than human as he ceased to being relationship-oriented & became self-oriented. Mankind therefore became separated from each other as well as God. However, through the Incarnation, Crucifixion & Resurrection of one man—Christ—all of mankind is now subject to love & life. Man now has the possibility as well as the opportunity of restoring his capacity for relationship, both with others as well as God.
The Church sings at Pascha:
Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by Death & upon those in the tombs bestowing Life!
One thing is required however for us to have this new life in Christ—forgiveness. The Orthodox Church has a unique & beautiful tradition. On the Sunday of Forgiveness at Forgiveness Vespers, we ask all others present for forgiveness of the sins we have committed. This is done even with those whom we have not directly sinned against or whom we may not even know. We also must forgive others their sins or else we will not be forgiven our sins by God. After this mutual receiving & bestowing of forgiveness we are now prepared to begin Great Lent, that great journey of preparation to Pascha—to Christ God—to Life!
Great Lent: Journey to Pascha
We are now equipped to begin our Lenten journey with the necessary virtues: desire, humility, return, love & forgiveness. Now begins an intense period of self-reflection, spiritual reading, fasting, repentance, confession & prayer. Our Lenten journey involves both body & soul. External physical acts have internal spiritual effects. Liturgical services are increased; many are only performed during Great Lent. The Lenten Tone is now sung for most hymns in accord to the sobriety & somberness of Lent. The Church bids us to fast & to pray as best we are able & with bows & prostrations as we are able. Daily lectionary readings from the Holy Scriptures, readings from the Church Fathers, &/or readings from the lives of the Saints are recommended for our benefit. The Church also bids us to perform deeds of charity & mercy for the poor, sick, suffering & imprisoned.
Kathism of Matins, Clean Monday:
Let us joyfully begin the all-hallowed season of abstinence; & let us worship with the bright radiance of the holy commandments of Christ our God, with the brightness of love & the splendor of prayer, with the purity of holiness & the strength of good courage. So, clothed in raiment of light, let us hasten to the Holy Resurrection on the third day, which shines upon the world with the glory of eternal life.
First Troparion of Vespers, Forgiveness Sunday:
Let us all make haste to humble the flesh by abstinence, as we set out upon the God-given course of the holy Fast; & with prayers & tears let us seek our Lord & Savior. Laying aside all memories of evil, let us cry aloud, “We have sinned against You, Christ our King; save us like the people of Nineveh in days of old, & in Your compassion make us sharers in Your heavenly kingdom.”
Second Troparion of Vespers, Forgiveness Sunday:
Let us set out with joy upon the season of the Fast, & prepare ourselves for spiritual combat. Let us purify our soul & cleanse our flesh; & as we fast from food, let us abstain also from every passion. Rejoicing in the virtues of the Spirit, may we persevere with love, & so be counted worthy to see the solemn Passion of Christ our God, & with great spiritual gladness to behold His holy Passover.