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, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the prisoner, and our enemies, reveals the true state of our souls. How we relate to them reveals how we relate to our Lord.
The tragic events of the last few days, during which the armed forces of one historically Orthodox nation have invaded another, make clear the abiding relevance of our Lord’s teaching. Our Father in Christ, His Eminence Metropolitan JOSEPH has made the following statement regarding the situation in Ukraine:
As Orthodox Christians, we oppose any type of violence or injustice throughout the world. Rather, we call upon Almighty God to send us His heavenly peace and bring us together to resolve our disputes through fair and open discussions. I join with all the clergy and faithful of this God-protected Archdiocese to pray fervently for the immediate end of hostilities, and for the health and safety of His Beatitude Metropolitan Onufriy, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian people in these difficult times.
The Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America has likewise called for “all parties and all people to refrain from further aggression, withdraw…all weapons and troops from sovereign lands, and instead to pursue de-escalation and restoration of peace through dialogue and mutual respect.”
Even as we prepare for the Great Fast and recall that how we treat even the most inconvenient person is how we treat our Lord, we must take these awful circumstances as reminders that merely identifying ourselves as Orthodox Christians does not automatically make us brilliant icons of our Lord’s love and holiness. The passions are deeply rooted within us and there is a strong temptation to somehow convince ourselves that we are justified in repeating Cain’s murder of Abel, whether physically or in our hearts. In our own society with so much lethal violence between its citizens, we should hardly be surprised that nations routinely go to war with one another for reasons that typically amount to nothing more than a desire to dominate. As St. Silouan the Athonite taught,
If the kings and rulers of the nations knew the love of God, they would never make war. War happens to us for our sins, not because of our love….If those in high places kept the commandments of the Lord, and we obeyed them in humility, there would be great peace and gladness on earth, whereas now the whole universe suffers because of the ambition for power and absence of submission among the proud. (1)
We must pray that God will speak good things into the hearts of those who can end the bloodshed, that He will bless those who are injured and displaced, and that He will have mercy upon those who are killed and on those who mourn them. We must also give generously to IOCC and other organizations that can provide food, clothing, shelter, and health care to the victims of the war. If we are ever tempted to think that the Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are antiquated niceties for those removed from the cares of daily life, we must think again. They are absolute necessities for us to live faithfully in our world of corruption. They are not practices focused on individual spiritual gratification, but how we find the strength to offer ourselves for the blessing of our neighbors and the salvation of the world. If we do not embrace them with integrity, then we risk becoming so enslaved to our passions that we will refuse to love and serve Christ in His living icons who are all around us every day of our lives. We may even degrade ourselves to the point that we think we are justified in hating and doing harm to those in whom we encounter our Savior.
Regardless of what we say we believe or what spiritual heritage we claim, whether we truly share in Christ’s life is shown by whether His mercy is 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. Nothing is more characteristic of Him than self-emptying love for all who suffer the degrading consequences of sin. By offering Himself fully on the Cross and rising in glory on the third day, the God-Man has set us free from bondage to corruption and united us to Himself as members of His Body, the Church. He 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 allowed His love to permeate every dimension of who we are and how we live in this world.
The Savior does not call us to try to impress Him by being extremely religious or doing good deeds. Instead, He calls us to embrace His healing to the point that we radiate His selfless love to the other people in whom He is present to us. The more our character conforms to His, the more we will spontaneously offer ourselves to build relationships of love with the neighbors in whom we encounter Him. 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 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 ourselves. 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 self-emptying 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. Above all, we must not hate and condemn them.
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 whether 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.
In the world as we know it, we all need a holy Lent in which we unite ourselves to Christ through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, forgiveness, and other forms of repentance. The passions that are so easy to see in others have taken root in our own souls in ways that are much harder for us to recognize. Our Lenten practices are not individual religious accomplishments, but humble ways of offering ourselves to become the kind of people who share so fully in His life that we convey His merciful love to all His living icons, especially those we are most inclined to disregard and fear. 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 every day of our lives. There is simply no way around this truth: How we serve them shows how we serve Him.
Let us not be Orthodox Christians in name only, but gain the spiritual strength to bear witness to the Savior’s gracious healing of the human person in how we treat even the most inconvenient people, including those we view as our enemies. Let us pray for peace in Ukraine and give alms for those who suffer there. Let us struggle to become living icons of a Kingdom that remains not of this world, for that is surely the only way to love and serve our Lord in the people we encounter every day of our lives.
- Archimandite Sophrony, Saint Silouan the Athonite, Essex: Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of Saint John the Baptist, 1991, 319
 Archimandite Sophrony, Saint Silouan the Athonite, Essex: Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of Saint John the Baptist, 1991, 319