(I Cor. 8:8–9:2 Matt. 25:31-46)
The Holy Church has been preparing us over the past several Sundays for the cleansing season of Great Lent, which is almost upon us. We have heard of Zacchaeus – who took action to climb above all that obstructed his view of Christ; we have heard of the Publican and the Pharisee - emphasizing that it is the contrite and humble heart that God loves; and we heard last week of the Prodigal Son – an illustration of repentance and of the steadfast love of God the Father.
Today the Gospel reading takes us before the Great Judgment Seat of Christ. And what is it that the Lord Jesus Christ will ask of us? I think, as this morning’s Gospel makes clear, the essential question that will be put before us by our Lord Jesus Christ is this: ‘Have you loved me?’
When Christ was hungry, did we give Him food? When He was thirsty, did we give Him drink? When He came to us as a stranger, did we take Him in? Did we show love for Christ? And, as the Gospel teaches us: ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to the least of these My brethren, you did it to me’.
This is the essential question, this is the fundamental criterion upon which we will be judged. Have we loved Christ? Have we loved one another?
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ… the Church is preparing us for the season of the Great Fast. It is so easy for us to miss the mark in understanding what the Lenten fast is all about. More than anything else, Great Lent is about increasing our love for God and, consequently, for one another.
Why do we struggle to restrict our diet? Why do we have more frequent Church services? Why do we reduce the distractions of our lives? Why do we make an effort to increase our prayers and spiritual awareness?
These good efforts must… first and foremost… be for the love of God! For what did Christ say to us? ‘If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.’ We strive to keep the commandments and Lenten rules as an expression of our love for God and as a means of increasing that love.
Today is known as ‘Meatfare Sunday’ - it is the last day in which the eating of meat is permitted. This coming week is known as ‘Cheese-fare Week’ – during this week dairy products continue to be allowed. This helps us to spiritually and physically transition ourselves from our unconscious (and perhaps, self-indulgent) ways of eating… first weaning us off of meats and then over the course of this coming week, we finalize our consumption of dairy foods so that we ease off of these things in preparation for the stricter rigors of Lent itself – during which we should do our best to refrain from eating all meats and dairy products.
The Church is wise in providing this gradual transition for our body, our mind, and our spirit – not shocking our system in going from feast to famine, but pacing our growing independence from these foods. This spirit of moderation is instructive and typical of the mind of the fathers of the Church, who taught us to go down the ‘royal path’ – avoiding the extremes of pharisaical zeal on the right and uninspired laziness on the left.
Father Seraphim Rose of blessed memory wrote the following: ‘This rule of fasting, to be sure, is not intended to be a ‘straight-jacket’ for Orthodox believers, nor a source of pharisaical pride for anyone who keeps the letter of the Church's law. It is rather the rule, the standard, against which each is to measure his own practice, and towards which one must always strive, according to one's strength and circumstances. Whenever, for sickness or any other reason, one falls short of the rule, he applies to himself the spiritual medicine of self-reproach and strives to enter more fully into the spirit and discipline of fasting, which is indeed of great spiritual benefit to those who sincerely strive to follow it.’
Metropolitan Kalistos wisely instructs us: ‘The tendency to over-emphasize external rules about food in a legalistic way, and the opposite tendency to scorn these rules as outdated and unnecessary, are both alike to be deplored as a betrayal of true Orthodoxy. In both cases the proper balance between the outward and inward has been impaired.’
Lent calls us to struggle against our selfishness, against our laziness, to push ourselves in a heavenly direction. It is an opportunity for us to prioritize, improve, and to create some space in our lives for prayer, silence, and remembrance of God.
The fast is given to us as a spiritual gift, as a means for us to draw closer to Christ. As Apostle Paul writes in today’s Epistle, ‘food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.’ The point is for us to make strides toward taming our will, raising our mind, and warming our heart.
May we work toward this worthy goal through being obedient to the direction and tools given to us by our caring Mother, the Church. The words of Apostle Paul to the Hebrews provide the right tone for us as we look toward Great Lent: ‘let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.’
May this Lenten season be for us a time to express and to increase our love for God!