26 February 2011

Meatfare Sunday of the Last Judgment

The Sunday of the Last Judgment or Meatfare Sunday is the third Sunday using the Lenten Triodion, the liturgical book used in the services of Great Lent. It is the Sunday after the Sunday of the Prodigal Son and Sunday before Forgiveness Sunday (Cheesefare Sunday). This is the third week of the pre-Lenten start of the Paschal (Easter) cycle of worship in the Orthodox Church.

This Sunday is called Meatfare Sunday since it is traditionally the last day before Pascha (Easter) for eating meat. Orthodox Christians observe a fast from meat all week, but still eat dairy products and eggs till the start of Great Lent.

The Gospel reading this Sunday remembers Christ's parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). This adds to the previous pre-Lent Sundays and teaches that it is not enough to see Jesus, to see ourselves as we are, and to come home to God as his prodigal sons. The Church teaches that, in addition, one must also be God’s sons by following Christ, his only-begotten divine Son, and by seeing Christ in everyone and by serving Christ through them.

Salvation and final judgment will depend upon deeds, not merely on intentions or even on the mercies of God apart from personal cooperation and obedience. All piety and prayer is ultimately directed towards the goal of serving Christ through his people.

From the reading, the faithful hear:
… for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you took me in, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and in prison and you visited me. …. For truly I say to you, if you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me (Matthew 25).
The Christian Church has always taught from antiquity that there are two judgments: the first, or "Particular" Judgment, is that experienced by each individual at the time of his or her death, at which time God will decide where the soul is to spend the time until the Second Coming of Christ. This judgment is generally believed to occur on the fortieth day after death. The second, "General" or "Final" Judgment will occur after the Second Coming. Although in modern times some have attempted to introduce the concept of Soul sleep into Christian thought about life after death, it has never been a part of traditional Christian teaching—in fact, it contradicts the traditional understanding of the intercession of the Saints.

Salvation is bestowed by God as a free gift of Divine grace, which cannot be earned, and by which forgiveness of sins is available to all. However, the deeds done by each person is believed to affect how he will be judged, following the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. How forgiveness is to be balanced against behavior is not well-defined in scripture, judgment in the matter being solely Christ's. Similarly, although salvation is obtained only through Christ and His Church, the fate of those outside the Church at the Last Judgment is left to the mercy of God and is not declared.

The theme of the Last Judgment is extremely important in Orthodoxy. Traditionally, an Orthodox church will have a fresco or mosaic of the Last Judgment on the back (western) wall, so that the faithful, as they leave the services, are reminded that they will be judged by what they do during this earthly life.

The icon of the Last Judgement traditionally depicts Christ the Pantokrator, enthroned in glory on a white throne, surrounded by the Theotokos (Virgin Mary), John the Baptist, Apostles, saints and angels. Beneath the throne the scene is divided in half with the "mansions of the righteous" (John 14:2), i.e., those who have been saved to Jesus' right (the viewer's left); and the torments of those who have been damned to his left. Separating the two is the River of fire which proceeds from Jesus' left foot.

The theme of the Last Judgment is found in the funeral and memorial hymnody of the Church, and is a major theme in the services during Great Lent. The second Sunday before the beginning of Great Lent is dedicated to the Last Judgment. It is also found in the hymns of the Octoechos used on Saturdays throughout the year.
Kondakion (Tone 1)
When You, O God, shall come to earth with glory,
All things shall tremble
And the river of fire shall flow before Your judgment seat;
The books shall be opened and the hidden things disclosed!
Then deliver me from the unquenchable fire,
And make me worthy to stand at Your right hand, righteous Judge!

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