The Gospel reading that we heard today during the Divine Liturgy begins with the words of the Lord “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory” (Mt. 25:31). St. John Chrysostom comments on this 25th chapter of St. Matthew: “His words inspire great fear and awe, because when He comes down from the heavens to be seated on the throne of His glory, all the holy angels also come down with Him to the place of the Last Judgment, vacating the entire heavenly realm.”
It is for good reason that the Lord emphasizes this. The first time He came to the earth was in a humble, self-effacing way. He was born in a cave, laid in a manger, “had nowhere to lay His head” as He Himself said (Mt. 8:20), and, in the end, was nailed to the Cross and buried. His Second Coming will be completely different. He will then come in His glory. Every earthly splendor, earthly magnificence, and earthly glory will be like a worthless plaything before His divine glory! And He will come in ALL His glory!
His disciples beheld only a fraction of His glory on Mount Tabor, ‘as much as they could bear’ (troparion for the Feast of the Transfiguration). His vestments were white as snow, and His countenance shone like the sun. This was only a small fraction of His glory. What will it be like when He comes to the Last Judgment and demands an account from mankind for the great mercy rendered to them? This Final Judgment will be fearsome, because nothing of what we did in life will be hidden from the All-knowing God – not even our innermost thoughts and hidden emotions. The Holy Fathers say that only those things which were absolved through repentance and confession will be gone. The Lord will not reveal these, for the sacrament of repentance not only grants a person forgiveness of sins, but does away with them completely as if they never existed. The Lord will reveal everything else, however, so that all the people and all the angels will see the person not as he appeared to be in his earthly life, but as he was in reality. Every person had certain inner feelings he kept secret, especially those that were unclean, sinful, and shameful. Unless they were cleansed through repentance, the Lord brings them out into the open. People who knew us will see what we were really like, and probably be horrified… Indeed, we ourselves will be horrified, because, as St. Theophan the Recluse said, “The righteousness of God will prevail, and in the light of this righteousness a person will judge himself for his own sins, his failings and sinful falls, and all that was not corrected in himself”.
Here is something that is so often overlooked. Our Lord in His limitless love calls these lowly, poor, and sick ‘My brethren’, and He so loves them that, in His love, whatever good that was done to them He considers done to Himself, just like, for example, a loving mother seeing her son receiving a gift rejoices as if she herself were receiving that gift. This is characteristic of love. The Lord considers done for Himself what the righteous, pious people did for their lesser brothers.
However, if the first part of the Dread Judgment was joyful, the second part will be terrifying! The Stern and Awesome Judge will say to those who will stand at His left Hand, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41). While we do not read anywhere else in the New Testament about anyone being cursed, neither about anger towards another that is against us, sinners will hear these fearsome words from the Lord’s Lips: “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared [for whom? For you? No, that is not what He says; He says prepared] for the devil and his angels!” The everlasting fire was prepared for the evil first apostate and his followers who sowed the seeds of evil into our earthly lives, not for you, for whom the Kingdom of Heaven was prepared. Yet, you made it so that there could be no other fate for you except this. How terrible it will be then for these unfortunate souls – they will be overcome with despair… For one last time in eternity they will again try to justify themselves in the same way they were accustomed to in their earthly lives, to exalt themselves, to justify themselves in everything, and not blame themselves by saying, “Lord, when did we see You in need, sick, in prison, or naked, and did not clothe You? We saw these parasites, beggars, and drunks – they did not deserve to be helped. If it had been You, we would have helped You”. This is the unqualified answer they got: “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me!” (Mt. 25:45) The Lord ended this conversation about the Dread Judgment saying, “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life!” (Mt. 25:45-46). As the Holy Fathers also said, this Judgment will be fearsome not only because all people will see us our true character as we really are on the inside, but because the Judge is IMPLACABLE! During His earthly life, our Lord Jesus Christ never turned anyone away. He Himself said, “the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out” (Jn. 6:37) and after His Ascension, throughout the whole history of mankind “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). The Lord is true to His word in His endless love and mercy, and, as we have said many times, there has never been, or will be, any occasion when He does not receive or grant forgiveness to a person coming to Him with repentance. This is not possible!
However, at the Judgment, there will be no more chance for repentance, and the Judge will be IMPLACABLE, as the Holy Fathers said. Nonetheless, it is true that we sinners still have one hope, a hope that is depicted by a faithful and pious iconographer in the icon of the Dread Judgment. All present are stricken with fear and awe. We no longer hear St. John the Forerunner preaching and calling everyone to repent – he is now silent, and so are the apostles and all the saints. The sinners stand terrified. ONLY ONE PERSON IS NOT SILENT – the Mother of God. She leans over the shoulder of Her Son and pleads to Him on behalf of the unfortunate sinners who are just about to hear the terrible sentence of eternal torment. This is our Christian hope, that the Mother of God will intercede for us at Christ’s Dread Judgment.
If only people would think more often about the end of their earthly life, and furthermore, about the end of the history of mankind and how it will all come to an end. People nowadays do not give this the least thought, or if it comes to mind, they try to brush it aside. Others comfort themselves saying that since God is merciful, He ought to forgive everyone. To this kind of thinking we can reply, “Pardon, but look in the Gospel at what God Himself said. Does He say that He will forgive everyone without exception? Certainly not! He says that the righteous will inherit eternal life and the sinners will go to everlasting torment”. The Lord reveals the prospect of the Dread Judgment ahead of time to give us the opportunity to avoid being on the left side after our earthly life, and to instead be on the right side. One ancient wise man said, “Remember your end and you will never sin”. This, of course, does not mean that a person can be without sin. No! But, he says that if a person keeps the end of his life in mind, he will not take sin so light-mindedly, as people usually do. Remember your end, ye Christian people, remember Christ’s Dread Judgment, remember that this Judgment will be final and determine your fate for eternity, and always pray sincerely when you hear this petition in the church services: “A Christian ending to our life, painless, blameless, peaceful, and A GOOD DEFENSE BEFORE THE DREAD JUDGMENT SEAT OF CHRIST, let us ask.”
St. Metropolitan Philaret of New York, Sermons, Vol. II, pp. 17-20