Preparing for the Last Judgment
This past week, I attended the funeral of 29 year old Matthew Beland, the son of our parishioner Eric Beland, and then 57 year old David Davis, one of our beloved members who joined our church family five years ago. David died in his sleep, and Matthew died after a brief battle with lymphoma. As I attended these funerals two days in a row, I soberly reflected on how brief our life is, and how unexpected and quick our death can come. Many of us get uncomfortable thinking about death, or the brevity of life, yet our Lord Jesus reminds us to prepare and stay vigilant for none of us know when our final day or hour will come.
Well, what does it mean to stay vigilant and prepare ourselves? How can we prepare?
Today’s Gospel story of the Last Judgment gives us a very clear lesson on how to prepare ourselves to meet our Lord. “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.”
Whenever we reach out to someone in need - with simple acts of love, with random kindness, with disciplined charity, with joyful generosity – whenever we reach out to especially the marginalized of society, Jesus says we come face to face with Christ Himself.
Therefore, we have to take care to first of all reach out to others with concrete acts of love, and then to make sure that we don’t offer our acts of love to only those we love, or to 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 love and help 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. But we also will be judged for what we know God expects from us, and for our unwillingness to fulfill His commandments.
“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.
We have all heard many different stories which portray this great truth. When St. Martin of Tours was entering a city on a cold winter day, he saw a beggar shivering from the elements, asking for alms. Although Martin had nothing to give him, he offered the little he had, his ragged old army coat. During the night, as Martin dreamt, he saw a vision of Christ walking in the glory of his kingdom with a ragged, old army coat. When an angel asked Christ, “Lord, why are you wearing such a ragged, dirty coat?” Jesus responded, “My beloved child Martin gave it to me today.”
“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.”
What is so intriguing here is that nothing is said about our number of prayers, our Church attendance, our ability to fast, or some other religious regulation. Instead, we realize our judgment will depend on our willingness and action to love in a concrete, simple manner.
And no one can say this command is too hard to fulfill. 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.
God waits, and seeks for us to do simple acts, but with great love!
As we Orthodox Christians around the world prepare for our great journey of Lent on March 18th, 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 portrays not the means, but the essence of what we are called to do and be. Let us use these tools of the Lenten season – 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!
Mother Maria, an Orthodox nun who helped many destitute and needy people in Paris during WWII, including saving many Jews, was herself arrested and imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps because of her acts of love. Before she died, she stated, “At the last judgment I shall not be asked if I was successful in my ascetic exercises or how many prostrations I made in the course of my prayers. I shall be asked one thing – did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners: that is all I shall be asked.”
May we all remember that life is too brief and fragile, as the two funerals I attended this past week reminded me. None of us know the day or time we will come face to face with Christ at the last judgment, but we do know what He will ask us, and thus, we do know what we should be doing each and every day! “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.”
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