Last Sunday marked the first of several steps into the Great Fast that is the center of the church year: the weeks when we will focus with intensity on the kind of life we should always be leading (but don't.) Popularly it's called Meatfare Sunday, because we stop eating meat. But to me Meatfare sounds like a buffet of questionable origin, so I prefer the more liturgical term "Judgment Sunday" -- so called because we read the Gospel in which Christ sends the sheep to heaven and the goats to hell.
You know the passage, so I won't repeat it here. There is much to say about seeing the face of Christ in everyone, not just the people who are easy to love. An eyeroll at a co-worker (whether inward or outward) is directed to the Lord. So is a note that makes your sister smile, or a comforting squeeze of the hand to an anxious child.
What really amazed me last Sunday, on the cusp of my seventeenth Lent, was the fact that, right at the outset, the Church tackles the most complex, and frightening, question of human history: What happens when we die?
The answer is, honestly, we don't know. Very few people have tasted death and returned to speak of it. In one of my favorite teachings of all time, the Fathers write that Lazarus, after being raised from four days in the tomb, never laughed until his death. Once, however, when he saw a man stealing a clay pot, he smiled and quipped, "Clay stealing clay." You might think that, like most people who have had near-death experiences, Lazarus would have re-entered life with zest and joy, but what he saw beyond the grave seems to have sobered him a great deal.
What we do know is that God will require us to answer for every single one of our earthly actions, and that He will decide whether to send us to eternal reward or eternal punishment. We know that God is just, and yet we trust in His mercy. We hope and pray for salvation, but ultimately the decision is His to make. Hell may be our final destination, or it may be empty altogether.
This was the hardest thing I struggled with before joining the Orthodox Church. As a Protestant, I had been taught that salvation takes place instantly at the first conscious confession of faith and can never be revoked. Naturally, it frightened me to confront the possibility that one moment of surrender was not an airtight guarantee. Over the years, though, I began to see it differently. Consider two hypothetical "come to Jesus" moments: one is followed by a life of indulgence and sin, and the other by a steady, though slow, progress toward holiness. The logical conclusion is that only one confession was sincere, because it was followed by the fruits of faith. After that, you might dare to ask the question: does the confession itself, the first "I believe, save me," really matter? Or is each kind act, each prayer, itself a confession of faith and a step in the right direction? We know that our works will not save us, but are they not evidence of the faith that will? Ultimately, I believe both points of view are saying the same thing in different words.
Rob likes to say that children should always be a little afraid of their earthly fathers; if they do not fear punishment, their behavior will reflect that familiarity. This applies even more strongly to our relationship with our Heavenly Father: not because He is evil, but because He is good -- Goodness itself -- and we are, emphatically, not. A little fear is a healthy thing. God is not our drinking buddy; He is GOD. If we aren't overwhelmed at times with the depths of our sinfulness, we aren't being honest with ourselves; and if we aren't a little fearful of the day when we will be called to account, we haven't really considered what that means.
It was in the midst of some of these thoughts that, last Saturday night, I began chanting the Aposticha Hymn:
Woe to thee, O darkened soul! How long wilt thou continue in evil? How long wilt thou lie in idleness? Why dost thou not tremble at the dread judgment seat of the Savior? What defense wilt thou make, or what wilt thou answer? Thy works will be there to accuse thee: thine actions will reproach thee and condemn thee. O my soul, the time is near at hand; make haste, before it is too late, and cry aloud in faith: I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned against Thee; but I know Thy love for man and Thy compassion. O Good Shepherd, deprive me not of a place at Thy right hand in Thy great mercy.
If ever there were a call to repentance, this is it. God have mercy on me, a sinner.