Sunday of the Last Judgment, February 19, 2017
1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2; Matthew 25:31-46
Very Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
We continue today with our ten-week series of meditations on the priesthood according to the themes of the Lenten Triodion, which includes these pre-Lenten weeks.
Today’s theme is frightening. It is the Last Judgment. It is the moment when all of mankind will be assembled before the Lord Jesus, Who will sit on His glorious throne, accompanied by all the angels. He will judge all of mankind, and some will be invited into the Kingdom, while others will be banished into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his fallen angels.
We are probably used to thinking of this scene as something like a courtroom. The guilty and the innocent are lined up, and the Judge lays down His eternal sentence. Or we may think of a royal throne room, with the King giving punishments and rewards to His subjects. These are both useful ways of thinking of this scene.
Today, however, I would like us to consider another image, and it’s not either a legal court or a royal court. Rather, the picture I’d like us to imagine is the Divine Liturgy. And the liturgy I want us to imagine is the Hierarchical Liturgy, that is, the liturgy as celebrated by the bishop, which is really the fullest, most complete expression of the Orthodox liturgy.
When the bishop is celebrating the Divine Liturgy, there is indeed a throne involved. In Byzantine liturgical practice, we see him sitting on his throne in the center of the church at the beginning of the liturgy. And in Orthodox churches with a little more space behind the altar than ours has, there is a throne situated there, as well, up against the back of the apse, that rounded out space behind the altar table in an architecturally traditional church.
During the liturgy, the bishop traditionally goes to stand at his throne to hear the epistle and Gospel readings. In many places in the ancient Church, this was the traditional beginning of the liturgy, with the bishop first processing into the church with all the clergy and the people. The bishop also stands before the altar table to receive the bread and wine as they are carried in procession in the Great Entrance, receiving not just these holy gifts but also the prayers of all the people. And in many cases today, while Holy Communion is being served by the priests and deacons, the bishop will sit on his throne behind the altar, presiding over the communion of all in this way.
So with that specific liturgical image in mind, let’s hear again the beginning of this Gospel passage: “When the Son of man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne.”
So imagine the Lord Jesus as the Great High Priest, having entered the church in His glory, ascending to His liturgical throne, and surrounded by angels, serving with Him and reminding us of priests and deacons assisting the hierarch. In a sense, then, the Last Judgment is a great liturgical act, with the Lord Jesus Himself serving as the Great High Priest.
So what happens, then, at this liturgy? The first thing we read is that the Lord separates mankind before Him as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
This may be a little hard for us to relate to our own experience of the liturgy if we don’t understand the liturgy’s place in the order of the world. We are gathered here together to offer up this sacrifice as the royal priesthood, and those who are here to commune are invited by the celebrant to the Kingdom of God, in which we participate by Holy Communion. But then those who are outside are not being invited—they are not communing.
This separation was in some ways more obvious at earlier points in Church history, because there were whole groups of people who would come to church yet had to spend the service in the narthex or even outside the church itself. These people were separated either because they were not yet part of the Church or because of sins they had committed for which they were repenting.
At the Last Judgment, what will separate mankind into these two groups will be that some are ready to commune, ready to be part of the Kingdom, ready to connect with God and with His Body the Church, while some will not be ready.
And this is what the priesthood is about—not just discerning who is ready to connect and commune, but also being that bridge to communion. Those who enter God’s Kingdom are entering because the High Priest is inviting them, as are those who receive communion in the Divine Liturgy in our churches: “With the fear of God, and with faith and love, draw near.”
But it is not only Christ Who is that discerner and that bridge, and it is not only the celebrants at our liturgies, but it is also all of us who are called to discern who is ready to commune with God and then to become that bridge who connects them to that communion. And that communion is the content of the Kingdom. It is what enacts the Kingdom. The invitation by Christ at the Last Judgment is an invitation not to a good place called “Heaven” but to a common liturgical action of eternal communion.
And in this image we finally see what makes someone ready to receive the invitation into this kingdom of communion, and it is truly a priestly act. It is the act of ministry in love. The Lord mentions several actions here—feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and the imprisoned.
These are all actions of love, and they are all actions of priesthood. It is the task of a priest to love by feeding and giving drink to those he meets—whether literally or in a more figurative, spiritual sense. And is not the central act of the priesthood to commune the faithful with eternal food and drink? But this belongs to all of us. Even if we are not serving Holy Communion as clergy, we are still serving Jesus Christ to our fellow men and women. And one way we may be serving them might be giving them literal food and drink.
And we may clothe the naked literally, but we are also called to clothe them spiritually with the robe of Christ, the garment of incorruption given in baptism and in every spiritual act. This, too, is a priestly act.
Likewise, we welcome strangers through earthly hospitality but also by welcoming those who are strangers to Christ into the house of the Lord. We help them to transform from being strangers to being family.
And we visit and spend time with those who are literally sick or in prison but also those who are sick in their sins and prisoners of their passions.
We also see the frightening reality of what happens to those who do not do these things—they are sent by the Lord to the fire, to the darkness which is rejection from the great and heavenly Divine Liturgy where all are communing and worshiping eternally together. It is because they did not exercise their priesthood that they will be removed from the liturgy. They were not acting as priests, so they are not part of that heavenly worship.
This, then, is the priesthood of the Last Judgment. It is a priesthood whose aim is directed at the end of time, which is finally a path to a liturgical reality, to the heaven of communion and worship. All these levels of priesthood function here—the Lord’s priesthood, the ordained priesthood, and the royal priesthood of the people of God. We are called to discern, to be a bridge, to commune, and to minister in love. These are what bring us into the eternal liturgy, and these actions are what bring others into it, as well.
To our great and righteous High Priest therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.