Homily of Fr. James Hademenos Sunday February 19, 2012 at Assumption of the Virgin Mary Orthodox Church
Today is the Sunday of the Last Judgment. We all know that these Sundays before Great Lent are Sundays of Preparation. What are they preparing us for? Obviously, for the Great Fast. But, why does the Church place such emphasis on the Great Fast, even giving us these preparatory Sundays? Why is the Sunday of the Last Judgment one of those preparatory Sundays?
To answer these questions, we must first ask another question. What is the purpose of our life in the Church? The answer is quite simple, actually: everything that the Church does, all the Holy Mysteries, all the services, all the Feasts and Fasts, the cycles of the Church year, everything has but one purpose. That purpose is to bring all of us along on a journey of salvation.
In the teaching of the Orthodox Church, salvation is a process. It’s not magic or automatic. Salvation, or theosis, is something that we actually have to work out in co-operation with God. We actually have to deliberately enter into this process and struggle with it; however, we do have free will. We can choose to enter into this process, or we can choose to ignore it. But the consequences of our choice are huge. They are eternal. This is a matter of eternal life or eternal death.
What are the steps or stages of this process? “What must I do to be saved?”
According to the Fathers of the Church, there are two aspects to the process. First, there is the cleansing of the passions, and second there is the winning of the virtues. This is expressed in a number of ways in the Holy Scriptures. St. Paul talks about dying to self, that Christ may live in us. He talks about “putting off the old man and putting on the new”. He talks about putting to death the works of the flesh and gaining the fruit of the Holy Spirit. All of these are talking about the same thing: the cleansing of the passions and the winning of the virtues. They are talking about this process of theosis, of salvation, this process of turning from our old fallen ways and turning to God, coming into union or communion with God.
We must be persistent, as the Canaanite woman was, and to keep on seeking salvation and healing from God no matter what the obstacles may be. We’ve already focused upon the fact that God is a loving god and that He wants us to come back to Him, no matter how far we’ve wandered away. When we do turn from our old ways and flee back to Him, He welcomes us with open arms and great joy. That was the message of the Prodigal Son.
We’ve already talked about the passions and the virtues. Pride is a passion, humility is a virtue. We had that vivid picture of this on the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee.
But, the question now is: why should we enter into this process? What will motivate us to actually begin to work on these things? That’s what this Sunday is all about. Judgment day is coming! The day when we will finally stand before God, when all of our masks will be stripped from us and our eternal destiny will become clear.
So, the question becomes: “What have I done to prepare for the Judgment?” Have I just continued in my old ways, continued in the works of the flesh, continued doing what I’ve always done? Or have I entered into the process of returning to God? Am I putting to death the old man in order that Christ may live in me, or is the old man alive and well? Have I actually struggled with the cleansing of the passions, and the winning of the virtues?
The fear of the Last Judgment is that which will motivate us to do something about our eternal life. In fact, St. Maximus the Confessor lists the fear of God, the fear of sin, and the fear of the Last Judgment as the second stage, or step, in the process of salvation. This is what the Sunday of the Last Judgment is all about. The Church reminds us of the judgment of God in order to motivate us to actually do something about our salvation.
And this doing something, actually entering into the process, is what the Great Fast is all about. It’s a time of participating in the death of Christ that we may also participate in the Resurrection of Christ. It is a time of actually struggling with putting off the passions and putting on the virtues.
And just what are the passions that we are to struggle with during the Great Fast? Passions are such things as gluttony, greed, anger, dejection, apathy, self-esteem, and pride. And these are listed in a hierarchy. Let’s talk about the first passion in the list; that is, gluttony which is dealing with the passion of the stomach. We must replace this passion with the virtues of self-control, of hungering and thirsting after Righteousness, of hunger for God, of hunger for the Holy Body and Blood of Christ.
If we don’t enter into the fast, we haven’t even begun to struggle with our passions! Obviously, we haven’t been sufficiently motivated to even take the first step in this Lenten journey to Holy Pascha. “And Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.’”
The Great Fast, the Lenten journey is full of great joy, for it’s a time for drawing ever closer to the Lover of our soul, for actually working out our salvation in the embrace of His loving arms.