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To Judge the Living and the Dead

November 3, 2013

250px-Nicaea_iconThe Creed is a universe unto itself that stretches out all of time from beginning to the end and punctuates it with Christ. And where there is Christ, there is the ultimate answer to the yearnings of the human heart. To those troubled by the unfairness of life, the Creed is a source of consolation. To those disturbed by dishonesty and falsehood unchecked, it is a bedrock of truth. And to those who slumber in carelessness and waste their days in aimless pursuits, it is a clarion call to watchfulness. This is especially true in the teaching that Christ is to come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

There are two ways in which the fathers understand the living and the dead. On the one hand, the living refers to those who are still alive on earth when Christ comes in glory, while the dead refers to those who had departed previously. On the other hand, the living refers to the righteous meaning those with Christ in their heart, while the dead refers to the unrighteous in whose hearts Christ is strangely absent (Rufinus, On the Apostles Creed). In either case, it means that all the answers to life and death, righteousness and unrighteousness, will be answered fully by the perfectly righteous and perfectly merciful Christ. It also means that the question before us is what are we to do to be among the truly living, to be among the truly righteous, to be among those whom Christ recognizes as His own.

Sometimes this article in the Creed is interpreted in terms of judgment related to a moral ledger which has tallied all your good deeds on one side and your bad deeds on the other side. In this view, judgment is based on a set of moral precepts whereby Christianity is reduced to a religion of ethics.  According to such an interpretation, the good will be rewarded heaven and the bad will be cast into hell. And yet this is not the way that Christ judged some rather notorious sinners in the Gospels. Of course, Christ did say, “Go and sin no more”; He did teach that we were not only to keep the Ten Commandments, but for each commandment He also taught us to go further, to go the extra mile. Still, Christ’s judgment that granted one thief paradise, but gave the other thief the freedom to blaspheme was based on more than past actions. It was based on the present state of the heart. It was based on the presence of humility, repentance, and love.

I have written about the problems with a legalistic interpretation of Christianity in the past and summarized it by quoting from the works of Father John Romanides who wrote, “The biblical tradition as preserved by the Fathers cannot be identified with or reduced to a system of moral precepts or Christian ethics. It is rather a therapeutical asceticism which is not daunted by any degree of malady of the heart or noetic faculty short of its complete hardening. To take the shape of this asceticism without its heart and core and to apply it to a system of moral precepts for personal and social ethics is to produce a society of puritanical hypocrites who believe they have a special claim on God’s love because of their morality, or predestination, or both. The commandments of Christ cannot be fulfilled by any simple decision to do so or by any confidence in having been elected.”

The fathers of the church have always interpreted Christ’s second coming and judgment based upon a completely different set of criteria concerning Christianity as a way of life that reshapes the heart, rather than an ethical code of conduct to which the mind adheres.  In this scenario, judgment concerns union with Christ during this lifetime.  Perhaps the most appropriate hermeneutical tool for this 56711.pjudgment may be found in the church’s troparion of the Midnight Office:  “Behold, the Bridegroom cometh at midnight, and blessed is that servant whom He shall find watching, and again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless.  Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given up to death, and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom.  But rouse yourself crying: Holy, Holy, Holy, art Thou, O our God,  through the Theotokos have mercy on us.”

The emphasis is not on the adherence to a set of moral precepts, but an attitude of watchfulness and repentance.  In his work The Arena, Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov exhorts the faithful, “Earthly life—this brief period—is given to man by the mercy of the Creator in order that man may use it for his salvation, that is, for the restoration of himself from death to life.  .  . Everyone who believes in the Savior must necessarily acknowledge and confess his fall and his state of exile on earth; he must acknowledge and confess it by his actual life so that his acknowledgment and confession may be living and effective, and not dead and ineffectual. . .To confess one’s fall by one’s life means to bear all the sufferings of this earthly life as a just recompense for the fall” (Chapter 29 “The Narrow Way is Designed by God Himself”).

In essence, Christ’s second coming will be made manifest in love.  To the extent to which we have conformed ourselves to Him by the manner of our lives, we will either perceive that love as an all-consuming fire or the eternal light of life.  Saint Ignatius notes in the very same chapter, “The acknowledgment of oneself as deserving of temporal and eternal punishment precedes the knowledge of the Savior and leads to the knowledge of the Savior, as we see from the example of the robber who inherited Paradise.  Perhaps you will say that the robber was a flagrant criminal, and therefore confession was easy for him, but how is a person who has committed no crime to make a confession of that sort?  We reply that the other robber who was crucified beside the Lord was also a flagrant criminal, but he did not acknowledge his sinfulness because awareness of sin is a result of love and humility, while unawareness is a result of pride and hardness of heart.  God’s saints were constantly aware that they were sinners, in spite of the obvious spiritual gifts with which they were so lavishly endowed.  On the other hand, the greatest evildoers and criminals have always justified themselves.  While drowning in crime, they never stopped proclaiming their virtue.”

Reflection upon the second coming of Christ and His judgment should not compel us to scurry around tallying up a moral score sheet in an attempt to justify ourselves worthy of heaven as a reward for good behavior.  Rather, such a meditation should have us seeking a deeper repentance and imploring the Lord for his deep and abiding mercy.  The wise bridegrooms were found ready when the Lord arrived at midnight because they had prepared themselves through a focused attention on Christ as Savior and readied themselves through lives of repentance. If we make the truth that Christ will come to judge the living and the dead a core belief that guides our thoughts and actions, we will walk in humility, repentance, and watchfulness. Above all, our lives will be spent in becoming close to the only merciful and only just Judge Who is also our Physician and Healer. If we know Him today, we will be known by Him on that last day, which has no sunset, for He is the Sun who will illumine us all.

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