Note: Meatfare Sunday begins the Orthodox Lenten fast. After this Sunday, we eat no meat until Pascha. (Next Sunday, "Cheesefare" Sunday, we bid farewell to eggs, dairy, and fish until Pascha.) It's traditional to hear the Gospel on the Last Judgment from Matthew 25 on this Sunday; here is my homily from yesterday:
The philosopher Seneca once told his friend Lucilius, “We are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years lie behind us are in death's hands.” Something similar could be said of the Judgment. We are mistaken when we look forward to it as something a long time from now. For the basis of the Judgment is happening right here and now, day by day.
Christ in glory says, to those on his right, “I was hungry and you fed me; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was naked and you clothed me, sick and in prison and you visited me.” Those things don’t happen after death, or on Judgment Day. They happen today: here, and now.
Sometimes when I’m getting off a freeway, I’ll encounter a beggar on the ramp. You know what the signs say: “Homeless.” “Please help.” “Unemployed.” There’ve been some creative ones, too, like “Have a Nice Day” or “Smile.” If the person is in my lane and there’s a red light, I may give him a dollar. But I rarely think of him as he actually is: the one who will judge me on the last day, for now wearing a disguise. If I did, I wouldn’t be so self-congratulatory. I might rather tremble in fear.
A while back, I got to visit Constantinople. I saw St. Savior in Chora with its famous funeral chapel. Part of the iconography showed the wise thief, carrying his cross, and ushering people into heaven. Part of it showed the rich man in hell, all by himself. I found myself thinking a distressing thought: the rich man looked a lot like me.
Jean-Paul Sartre once said that “hell is other people.” But the truth is exactly the opposite. Heaven is other people; hell is being by myself. Now, as an older man, I think back to the disciplines my parents used when I was a child. I got my share of spankings. I got grounded. But the worst punishment ever was the time they they told me to stand, facing the wall, and look at it, for thirty minutes. I could hear life going on behind me. But I was cut off, alone. I begged them after a few minutes: “Please just spank me and let me go.” Hell is like that. “Stare at the wall for eternity.” Heaven is the other people around us.
The people I deal with every day have a hidden majesty—especially the poor and weak and foolish. Enfleshed God hides himself beneath them. “Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” And this isn’t just Matthew’s idea. When Christ encountered Paul on the road to Damascus, he said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?
The people on Christ’s left hand, who went into eternal torment, just didn’t get it. “When did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” And the King will say, “Inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did not do it to me.”
Christ can hide himself under these outcasts, because when he saw us in despair he didn’t leave us to ourself. Freely and willingly he took flesh of a pure Virgin, and was made man. Sometimes people will say, “Don’t put God in a box.” By that they mean, “Don’t limit God.” But God has put himself into something much more limiting than a box. He put himself into our humanity. He did that, sheerly out of love for us. He lived our life, and died our death—talk about limiting yourself—what limits more than a grave? But the grave could not hold him. He rose again to save us.
We need to stop thinking of the incarnation as the great Exception, and begin to see it as God’s way of working. Doesn’t the Old Testament teach us this? God walks in the garden in the cool of the day. He argues with Abraham, and wrestles with Jacob; he appears to Joshua, and Isaiah…and all these before he takes on flesh.
So if you want to see the Judgment, don’t look forward. Look around at the people you meet—especially the insignificant ones. Find him there, and love him there, and serve him there, and you will find life in his kingdom, to which may we all attain, through his grace and love for mankind, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.