Facing Death and Judgment
This past week I spoke with a 62 year old woman who is dying. Several months ago her doctors told her that she has six months to live due to a rare form of cancer. Of course, this woman is extremely sad at her prospects. Yet she is preparing herself for what may happen much sooner than she ever dreamed about. She is making her funeral arrangements. She called me up to talk about the funeral service. She’s confronting the likelihood that she will die soon. Obviously, life takes on a radically new perspective when confronted with such reality. Some people might think of some bucket list of superficial things they want to do before they die, yet she seems to be cherishing every moment she can spend with her children when they visit her, and with her family and close friends. She seems to be quite sober in her preparations for death.
For many people this scenario may seem too morbid to think about. And yet, Christ places this reality in front of us in today’s Gospel, and in other passages of Holy Scripture. Be prepared. Be ready. Stay vigilant in our preparation for our final encounter with God. This is why the Fathers of the Church had a saying to “keep death in front of you every day.”
Next week at our first Pre-Sanctified Liturgy, as we enter into the holy season of Great Lent, we will have Dr. Irene Kacandes, a professor from Dartmouth and a faithful Orthodox Christian, (who also happens to be my first cousin) come and offer a reflection on her new book “Let’s Talk About Death: Asking Questions That Profoundly Change the Way We Live and Die.” It’s an interesting and challenging book where my cousin Irene and a journalist-turned-therapist for those who are dying, hold a years-long conversation back and forth on their understanding of death. They both experienced tragic and natural death in their own families and circle of friends, and they realized that addressing this reality in a healthy way can change the way we live here and now.
Well, today’s Gospel of the Sheep and Goats deals with the topic of preparing for our own end, and the judgment that comes with that. Jesus lets His listeners know that if we don’t prepare for death, the judgment of God will come upon us in a sudden and unexpected way. And yet, Christ is on our side because he tells us ahead of time what His judgment will be. It’s like God telling us we will have a final exam, but first he tells us exactly what the questions will be.
“I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and in prison, and you came to visit me. For whatever you did to the least of my brothers or sisters, you did to me.”
When we encounter God in our final judgment, He will look over our lives and see how we have treated other people, how we have responded to those in need. Have we reached out to others with simple acts of love, with random kindness, with disciplined charity, with joyful generosity – because when we reach out especially the marginalized of society, we are reaching out to Christ Himself.
As followers of Jesus, He obviously calls us to love others with concrete acts of love, and not to love only those who love us, or to love those we think “deserve” our kindness. The beauty of today’s parable is that the righteous who helped those in need didn’t really think they were doing anything special, just as the condemned who didn’t reach out to those in need were shocked to hear Jesus say that they didn’t take care of His needs. Who we offer our acts of love and kindness to shouldn’t depend on what we think of the people in need. Christ calls us to be filled with His love, and then to automatically share His love to whoever is hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or in need.
Let me repeat this. No where do we see God telling us to offer love to only those who deserve it. It doesn’t depend on us to analyze and determine whether we should help the other – our acts of love need to be spontaneous acts springing from a heart full of the love for God! We don’t need to judge why one is in prison, why one is hungry, why one is naked. Maybe they made some mistakes in their lives, and one day they will have to give an account before Christ for themselves.
“For the Christian believer, every human person is to be respected inasmuch as he or she bears the divine image within,” says Archbishop Anastasios of Albania. “The obligation of every conscientious Christian is to demonstrate respect for the divinely derived dignity of every other person with sincere love, irrespective of what that person believes or if that person believes at all. The cultivation of such a conscience within the spaciousness and freedom of God’s children remains the exceptional contribution of the Church.”
Here is the heart of the Gospel, and of all the teachings of Christ. We know that the greatest commandments are to love God and love one another, but today we realize that such love can never be simple theory, instead the two loves are intertwined in concrete actions. In fact, through these actions we come to understand that love for God and love for the other are one and the same, precisely because God lives within each person.
“I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me to drink. I was naked and you clothed me. I was alone in prison and in the hospital, and you visited me. For whatever you did for one of these least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me.”
Christ doesn’t say, “You didn’t solve the problems of world hunger,” but “I was hungry and you fed me.” Jesus didn’t comment, “You couldn’t heal my illnesses,” but “I was sick and you visited me.” And he didn’t complain, “I was in prison and you didn’t free me.” No, instead, he judges us because we didn’t do what was within our ability – a simple visit.
As we Orthodox Christians prepare for our great journey of Lent on March 14th, a journey that partially begins today on Meatfare Sunday (for from today onwards we no longer eat meat), let us remember one of the most crucial elements of our Lenten Journey. Of course, fasting, prayer, and self-discipline are essential tools needed to help us on our spiritual journey, but today’s Gospel lesson clearly reminds us not of the means, but the essence of what we are called to do and be. Let us use the Lenten tools of fasting, prayer, discipline to open our hearts more to the inspiration of God, which will lead us to concrete love through simple ACTS to all people, especially the marginalized of society!
May we all remember that life is too brief and fragile, as the 62 year old woman I shared about in the beginning realizes better than all of us. None of us know the day or time we will come face to face with Christ following our death, but we do know very clearly what He will ask us at our final judgment. “I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me to drink. I was naked and you clothed me. I was alone in prison and in the hospital, and you visited me. For whatever you did for one of these least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me.”
Let us go out and strive each and every day to see Jesus Christ in the least of our brothers and sisters, and to reach out to them in love and compassion and mercy.