Saturday, March 05, 2005

Holy Mourners

Vespers tonight for the Sunday of the Last Judgement. A stichera from the service:
I lament and weep when I think of the eternal fire, the outer darkness and the netherworld, the dread worm and the gnashing of teeth, and the unceasing anguish that shall befall those who have sinned without measure, by their wickedness arousing Thee to anger, O Supreme in love. Among them in my misery I am first: but, O Judge compassionate, in Thy mercy save me.
In Orthodoxy, as opposed to the faith I was reared in, there is the very real possibility that I will see hell. I never did understand why, when I told people as a young man that I was a Baptist, they immediately equated me with a hellfire-and-brimstone preachin' church that was fixated on the Judgement Seat. Only thing was, for us, there was no Judgement Seat! According to the teachings of the Baptist churches I attended growing up, the imagery in the hymns I sang tonight was strictly for the lost; I could rest assured that I would never see it, for I had the assurance that I was a child of God, and that I had already "passed from death unto life" and would never need to account for my sins in life, as Christ had dealt with all of this apart from me.

As comforting as this message is, though, one of the things the earliest Christian writers unanimously state is that it is absolutely not true. This was one of the things that blew me out of the Baptist waters in which I happily swam for twenty years. And sure, I had my background that told me what "Scripture plainly says," but when all the folks who were trained by the authors of the book I cherished said otherwise, well...who'm I gonna b'lieve?

And the about hellfire. There is plenty here to sober us. The author of a rather well-known blog (at least, among Orthodox bloggers) has a picture of the burial box of St. James with the words written underneath, "We're all gonna go!" Faced with the fact that, in spite of our baptism, in spite of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit through chrismation, in spite of prayer, in spite of the partaking of the Body and Blood of our Lord--or, more horrifyingly, perhaps even because of these things and our attitudes toward them--we may end up no better than the vilest sinner. St. Symeon the New Theologion (who lived, ironically enough, a thousand years ago) says we're actually worse than Adam in his sin, for while he was a newly created man who had only started to "grow into" his divine potential, we have the very Body and Blood of Christ! And, what's worse, no sooner do we partake of it than we use the same mouth to gossip about our neighbor! And the fault we find with him may be what blinds us to our own damning pride.

And therein lies the paradox, I think, of the Final Judgement. We are called, in Orthodoxy, to look at the world, in all its insanity and utter depravity, and say that, in spite of it all, we, as individual people, are desperately in need of God's grace, and, as far as we can tell, are the worst off all things on this earth. We have to say this and absolutely mean it. And it's only when we believe it, when we truly are so acutely aware of our own sinfulness and we wonder how any could surpass it (forgetting for the moment that, in reality, other people actually have) that we finally are open to the salvation that comes through humble service, through work--our whole being is opposed to it), it is the blessed comfort promised by the Savior to all those--and only those--who would be holy mourners.

No comments: