The Mercy of Judgement


Sermon preached by Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, PhD, on Sunday, March 10, 2024 

Christ is in our midst!

The Sunday of the Last Judgement sounds ominous, and, indeed, words from the vespers service evoke a tone of fearful solemnity with phrases such as “the dread tribunal.”  A line during vespers also questions, “And as we hear Him call the blessed of His Father to His kingdom, and send the sinners to punishment, who will bear that terrible verdict?” Yet, amidst the imagery of judgement, of condemnation, we also find personal calls for mercy from God, including this one, “O Lord, I have sinned; but I know Thy compassion, O Good Shepherd, Lover of mankind. Forbid me not, therefore, to stand at Thy right hand, for the multitude of Thy mercies.” Could this Sunday, which we typically associate with the separating of the goats and the sheep, be about love and mercy?

 Fr. Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory, in his small but important book on Great Lent, argues that the Sunday of the Last Judgement, which directly follows the Saturday of Souls, a day of universal prayer for and commemoration of the Orthodox departed, is about the promise of love. For Schmemann, this parable is about our Christian vocation to love and what happens when we ultimately embrace or reject love. When we sin, Schmemann notes, we experience the absence of love.

How can we understand the relationship between love and sin? What is its expression? If we recall the gospel reading for today, we can see clearly in Christ’s judgement what the absence of love looks like to him. In a straightforward manner, with real world examples, Christ condemns lack of love and reminds readers of what is essential for entering the kingdom of heaven—love actualized through care. The Lord says to the sheep on his right hand, those who have loved, “I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” In contrast, those on the left did not actively express love toward the other or Christ and thus sinned.

While sin might be the absence of love, those who are on Christ’s left, those who did not express love for the other, those who are judged as wanting, are still not without the love of God, even in Gehenna. St. Isaac the Syrian writes that love works in two ways: for those who “observe its duties, love delights.” At the same time, St. Isaac says that “it [meaning love] torments those who have sinned.” Christ’s love is even with those in Gehenna, for the goal is not damnation but contrition (repentance) so that all might eventually obtain the kingdom. This is, of course, why we pray for the departed. So that all might come to the knowledge of him—in this life or the next. This is the promise of love that Schmemann is talking about, and it is our work of care, praying for the departed in this case, that helps facilitate it.

Christ commands us repeatedly to the work of love and care. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you,” Christ proclaims in the Gospel of John. Love is not only a feeling but an action, and we see this in Christ’s radical commandment to lay down our lives for each other. The theme our reflections during Antiochian Women’s Month this year is: How to become a Christian?  Last week, we explored the importance of repentance and forgiveness.  This week we turn to caring for the other, which could just as easily be termed “Caring for Christ,” for when care for the other we are experiencing Christ. In our exceptionally polarized, politically precarious, and flat-out busy world, loving people can be quite a challenge. Indeed, Schmemann writes, “Christian love is the ‘possible impossibility’ to see Christ in another man, whoever he is, and whom God, in His eternal and mysterious plan, has decided to introduce into my life.”  Schmemann goes on to pose a question: “What is love if not that mysterious power which transcends the accidental and the external in the “other”—his physical appearance, social rank, ethnic origin, intellectual capacity—and reaches the soul, the unique part of God in him?” I opened this sermon with the phrase we often use to greet each other during the kiss of peace—Christ is in our midst. This phrase is used in relationship to the Eucharistic rite, but as we greet one another with this phrase we must also recognize that we are talking about each other. Our incarnational theology teaches that we are made in the image of God. The foundational understanding of human creation from Genesis depicts God saying, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” With the incarnation of Christ as both God and human, we begin to understand how participation in God’s energies, that Teva talked about last week, transform us more fully into the image of God. St. Athanasius’s much quoted phrase rings true here, “God became man so that man might become god.”

Becoming like god is the process of theosis. During our upcoming Lent, we celebrate the Sunday of John Climacus, who wrote the Ladder of Divine Ascent, a book that views the spiritual journey of theosis as rungs in a ladder as we progress toward the divine, with the highest rung of the ladder being that of love, which is arguably one of the most challenging parts of being human. Even as we climb that ladder, it’s easy to be so caught up with our own cares that we lose sight love as the goal in all our ascetic practices. We lose sight of the fact that love, incandescent, divinely lit love is the message of the Gospel. And this is what Christ is trying to reorient us to in the parable of the Last Judgement, when he explains how caring for the other is an act of Christian love fundamentally.  But who is the other? The examples from today’s gospel confront us with the most vulnerable members of our society. Those experiencing food and clothing insecurity, unhoused and incarcerated populations, those who are ill. And, of course, the stranger.

Just who is the stranger? In the Greek, this word is ξένος, which can mean stranger, but it can just as easily mean a foreigner, an alien, or an outlander, depending on the context of the translation. The stranger can be anyone—family and loved ones, those with whom we might politically or socially disagree, refugees, displaced people, and those without supports or community. Time and time again, the scriptures call us to care for the other, the stranger, the marginalized, and oppressed. From invocations of support for the poor and afflicted in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), to reminders in the epistles to give freely and not to hoard wealth, to the very words of Jesus himself throughout the Gospels that instruct us to love each other through good deeds. And our upcoming Lent is the perfect time to work on that process of actively loving each other. The Church provides us this time of preparation to both examine our own lives and to transforms the lives of others through good deeds such as almsgiving. This is not just about digging deep into our pockets to support those in need, although we should do that too! It means, that each of us, within our own capability and capacity, should actively find ways to meet, care for, and love the other.

This, of course, will look different for every one of us. For some, it might mean becoming more involved in our parish ministries at St. Mary. For others, it might be working in local prisons, food pantries, shelters, or mutual aid societies. It could also be as local as reconciling with family and friends. Even in this Triodion, pre-Lenten period, the church provides us with the opportunity to the love through the rite of reconcile with Orthodox Christians. During Forgiveness Vespers next Sunday, we can repent to those whom we might have treated as other, and (hopefully) find love and reconciliation as we prepare ourselves for the Lenten journey. As we start this Lenten journey, even now in the weeks leading up to Clean Monday, ask yourself today and every day: What loving action will I take? If sin is the lack of love, the Triodion period and Lent, times when we are repenting from sin, reordering ourselves towards Christ, become moments in which we can embrace the call to love and mobilize it in our homes, communities, and world.

In the Gospel passage for today, Christ highlights the relationship between the prototype (himself) and his iconographic representatives on earth (all of us) when he clearly states, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” If we venerate, care for, and respect icons, the images that we will in lift high on the Sunday of Orthodoxy in just a few short weeks, as representations of the prototype, how much more should we care for, respect, and exalt one another. The criteria for the Last Judgement should not evoke fear for us but rather become the guidebook by which we live our lives—not because we fear judgement but because we love. We love without reservation or in hope of spiritual reimbursement. If we use parable of the Last Judgement as the model for Christian behavior toward the other, then we take seriously Christ’s words in the Gospel of John: “This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you.”