Judgement (Meatfare) Sunday
When a person dies, when the soul is separated from the body, we know that the body, because it is composite — composed of various elements — it dissolves into those constituent parts, but the soul, because it is simple — not made up of parts — remains intact, and continues after death. The state in which the soul continues is determined by what we refer to as the ‘particular judgement’. At the moment of death, the soul is freed from all the delusions and vanity of the world: fame, money, physical beauty, worldly pleasure, the “Well done, well done!” of others (Psalm 69:3), all those things disappear; the only thing that remains is the remembrance of our good and evil deeds. And this judgement of our conscience will decide whether the soul after death will be in a state of rejoicing or of torment.
However, this judgement and this state after death are temporary, because they only relate to the soul and not to the entire human being. The final and eternal state of every person will be decided at the General Judgement, which will take place at the Second Coming of Christ. The souls of all the dead will be reunited with their resurrected bodies, and all people will together meet Christ who shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
And the criteria by which we will be judged is love, genuine and practical acts of love: whether we fed the hungry, clothed the naked, gave charity to the poor, spent time with the lonely, stood up on behalf of those who suffer injustice. St James the Apostles clearly says, “Faith without works is dead” (2:26). If the faith we say we have as Orthodox Christians does not bear the fruit of love, then this faith is a false faith: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar” (1 John 4:20). The Lord says, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15), and these commandments are the two great commandments to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind [and to] love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:37–39). And these two commandments are in reality one commandment, because, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me”. The love we show to our neighbour, we also show to God. As St John Chrysostom says, if you cannot find Christ in the face of the beggar sitting on the church steps, nor will you find him in the Holy Chalice.
In other words, we should not and cannot separate our religious life from the practical display of love towards our fellow man. And this is also the message today’s Gospel gives us in connection with the upcoming fast of Great Lent. The fast should not be something individualistic or inward-looking, but must be connected to love. We fast for many different reasons — to learn obedience, self-control, to subdue the passions, to remember Paradise before the Fall where there was no death — but the primary reason we fast is love.
In the Apostolic Constitutions, one of the oldest collection of Church canons, we read how it is incumbent on every Christian to fast Wednesdays, Fridays, and Great Lent, in order that “the surplusage of your fast be given to the needy” (5:20). In other words, we eat less and eat more simply for a period of time so that we will have more to give to others.
It would be inappropriate for me to stand here and tell everyone how they ought to fast. That’s a personal matter. Each person fasts according to their own strength and the guidance of their spiritual father. However, it is nonetheless useful to know what the canons mean by fasting because it helps us to understand the intended meaning of fasting.
Fasting, simply put, is when we don’t eat anything at all, usually until the evening. This is why we don’t receive Holy Communion in the morning during weekdays of Great Lent, but Communion is given in the evening, at Vespers, at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, so that we don’t break the fast by receiving Communion and antidoron. So the term ‘fasting foods’ is really an oxymoron; there’s no such thing. ‘Fasting foods’ are the foods we can eat in the evening after we break the fast for the day.
Fasting then, means sacrifice and it means going hungry. And if we voluntarily experienced hunger during our fasting, is this not going to help us sympathise with those who experience involuntary hunger? And if all the world’s 350,000,000 Orthodox Christians only ate one simple vegan meal in the evening on Wednesdays, Fridays, and weekdays of Lent, and they gave all their savings to the poor, as well as the money saved on cutting down on different forms of entertainment, imagine how different society would be, how different the charitable work of the Church would be, and how different Christianity would seem in the eyes of others. The same thing is true of our time. If we gave to our neighbour every hour we saved by cutting down on television, social media, or video games during the Fast, imagine how much more beautiful and meaningful the period of Great Lent would be for the world.
According to Newton’s third law of motion: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. I would say that the law of fasting is that “every act of self-deprivation must be accompanied by an equal and opposite act of love of neighbour”. Again, I want to emphasise that, how each person fasts is a personal matter; some will fast strictly, others less so. Not everyone is able fast according to the exactness, the akriveia, of the canons. However, I mention this canonical akriveia simply because it helps us to see more clearly what is the meaning of fasting and what are its essential elements; namely, sacrifice and charity. However you fast, whether strictly or less strictly, this is what matters: that our fast is a fast of love.
Fr Kristian Akselberg