1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2; Matthew 25:31-46
On this Sunday of the Last Judgment, the Church calls us to see the ultimate meaning and purpose of our lives before God. As we begin the last week before Great Lent, the Savior reminds us in today’s gospel reading that the path to eternal life runs through our neighbors, especially those we are inclined to overlook, disregard, and even despise. How we treat the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and the prisoner reveals the true state of our souls. How we serve our suffering and inconvenient neighbors, whoever they are, is how we serve our Lord.
That is the case because whether we truly share in His life is shown by whether His love and mercy are evident in us. If we truly participate in Him, the Lord’s virtues will become our virtues, for He has worked the fulfillment of the human person in the image and likeness of God. And what is more characteristic of Christ than His self-emptying love for all who suffer the degrading consequences of sin? By offering Himself fully on the Cross, the God-Man has set us free from bondage to corruption and has united us to Himself as members of His Body, the Church. The crucified and risen Lord enables us to participate by grace in the eternal communion of love shared by the Holy Trinity. The ultimate test of our souls is whether we have united ourselves to Christ such that His love permeates every dimension of who we are from the depths of our souls to how we treat our neighbors.
The question is not whether we can impress God by being extremely religious or earn a reward by doing enough good deeds. It is not whether we work out in our heads that by serving others we are serving Him. It is, instead, whether we embrace His healing to the point that we radiate His selfless love to other people. The more our character conforms to His, the more we will spontaneously offer ourselves to build relationships of love with our neighbors. To do so means that we will be able to say truthfully, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20)
St. Paul wrote that the key issue in the question of whether to eat meat that had been sacrificed to pagan idols in first-century Corinth was how doing so impacted others. He writes that “food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. Only take care, lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” To cause another to fall back into paganism would be to “sin against Christ.” We read this passage on the last day for eating meat before Pascha according to the fasting discipline of the Church. His words show that what is truly at stake in fasting is not a mere change in diet or an act of religious observance, but learning to relate to food in a way that helps us acquire the spiritual strength to love and serve our neighbors. When we abstain from the richest and most satisfying foods, we have an opportunity to redirect our desires for self-gratification to blessing others. Eating a humble diet also frees up resources to give to the needy. Meals should be simple and the leftovers will keep for future meals, freeing up time and energy that we may direct toward the good of others and devote to prayer and spiritual reading. Fasting teaches that we can live without getting exactly what we want or satisfying every desire. Contrary to what our consumeristic culture teaches, it will not kill us to say “no” to our own preferences about what we eat as we put serving God and neighbor before serving ourselves.
The spiritual discipline of fasting is not an end in itself focused primarily on our diets. It is simply a tool for shifting the focus away from ourselves and toward the Lord and our brothers and sisters in whom we encounter Him each day. If we distort fasting into a private religious accomplishment to show ourselves, others, and even God how holy we are, we would do better not to fast at all. This spiritual discipline helps us to share more fully in the self-emptying love of Christ as we turn from addiction to satisfying ourselves to freely serving others. That kind of love is essential for growing in union with our neighbors and with the Lord. It is a crucial dimension of participating in the deified humanity of the Savior Who offered up Himself in order to draw all people into the Holy Trinity’s eternal communion of love.
Of course, there are false substitutes for uniting ourselves to Christ as we serve others as He has served us. It is possible to distort the fasting guidelines and other disciplines of Lent into legalistic acts we think will somehow satisfy God or make us look virtuous in the eyes of others. Doing so is simply a distraction, however, from fulfilling the true purpose of the coming season. It is the vain effort of trying to serve ourselves instead of God and those who bear His image and likeness. In Lent, our focus must be set squarely on Christ and His living icons, not on us. The fundamental calling of the Christian life is to become like our Lord, Who offered Himself up for the salvation of the world purely out of love. If we want to approach Lent in a spiritually healthy way that will enable us to participate more fully in Him, then we too must offer up ourselves for our neighbors.
The particular form of that self-offering will vary according to the needs of the people we encounter and our gifts, callings, and life circumstances. Discerning how to live faithfully is not a matter of cold-blooded rational calculation, but of being so conformed to Christ that we become a “living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1) such that the Savior’s healing of fallen humanity becomes active and effective in us. Instead of living as isolated individuals who define themselves over against one another in an endless cycle of competition and grievance, we must grow as persons in communion with Christ and all those who bear His image and likeness. His life will truly become ours as we grow in relationships of sacrificial love with one another.
According to today’s gospel reading, this alone is the true path to the eternal life of the Kingdom. Whether we pursue it will determine if we have the spiritual clarity to behold the glory of the Lord as joyful, brilliant light or instead become so blind that we perceive only the burning torment of our own refusal to be transformed by His love. The difference between the sheep and the goats on the last day is not in our Lord, but in how we have responded to Him. His eternal judgment will identify the truth about our souls and reveal clearly and definitively who we have become.
Great Lent presents us all with the opportunity to unite ourselves to Christ in holiness through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, forgiveness, and other forms of repentance. These practices are not individual religious accomplishments, but humble ways of offering ourselves to become the kind of people who share so fully in the life of Christ that we convey His merciful love to all His living icons, especially those we are most inclined to disregard. We are all far from fulfilling this high calling and need the coming weeks to grow closer to the Savior Who emptied Himself on the Cross in order to rise up in glory on the third day for our salvation. If we want to enter into the joy of His resurrection, we must offer ourselves for the good of the neighbors in whom we encounter Him. There is simply no way around this truth: How we serve them shows how we serve Him.
If we wonder whether to take Lent seriously this year, we should ask whether we treat everyone we encounter as a living icon of Christ. If we are honest, the answer is no. That is because we tend to relate to others in light of our own self-centered desires, which lead us to fear, resent, and disregard people as obstacles to getting what we want. Regardless of how right we may be about any point of disagreement with anyone, our spiritual blindness distorts even our best glimpses of the truth. In order to find healing, we must get to the root of the matter by exposing the darkness of our souls to the brilliant light of Christ. Even the best religious and moral practices lack the power to make us radiant with the gracious divine energies. Only the restoration of the human person worked by our Savior in His victory over death can do that. Let us use Lent to unite ourselves to Christ so that we will find the strength to serve Him in our neighbors. The point is not legalism about food or anything else, but acquiring the spiritual character of those who serve Him even in the most wretched persons without even knowing it. That is who we must become if we are to enter into the eternal joy of the Lord. Yes, we all need a holy Lent this year.