This Sunday is called “Meat-Fare” because during the week following it a limited fasting – abstention from meat – is prescribed by the Church. This prescription is to be understood in the light of what has been said about the meaning of preparation. The Church begins now to “adjust” us to the great effort, which she will expect from us seven days later. The Church gradually takes us into that effort – knowing our frailty, foreseeing our spiritual weakness.
On the eve of that day, the Church invites us to a universal commemoration of all those who have “fallen asleep in the hope of resurrection and life eternal.” This is indeed the Church’s great day of prayer for her departed members. To understand the meaning of this connection between Lent and the prayer for the dead, one must remember that Christianity is the religion of love. Christ left with His disciples not a doctrine of individual salvation but a new commandment “that they love one another,” and He added: “By this shall all know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Love is thus the foundation, the very life of the Church, which is, in the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch, the “unity of faith and love.” Sin is always absence of love, and therefore separation, isolation, war of all against all. The new life given by Christ and conveyed to us by the Church is, first, a life of reconciliation, of “gathering into oneness of those who were dispersed,” the restoration of love broken by sin. However, how can we even begin our return to God and our reconciliation with Him if in ourselves we do not return to the unique new commandment of love? Praying for the dead is an essential expression of the Church as love. We ask God to remember those whom we remember and we remember them because we love them. Praying for them, we meet them in Christ who is Love and who, because He is Love, overcomes death, which is the ultimate victory of separation and loveless-ness. In Christ, there is no difference between living and dead because all are alive in Him. He is the Life and that Life is the light of man. Loving Christ, we love all those who are in Him; loving those who are in Him, we love Christ: this is the law of the Church and the obvious rationale for her of prayer for the dead. It is truly our love in Christ that keeps them alive because it keeps them “in Christ.”
It is love again that constitutes the theme of “Meat-Fare Sunday.” The Gospel lesson for the day is Christ’s parable of the Last Judgment (Matt. 25:31-46). When Christ comes to judge us, what will be the criterion of His judgment? The parable answers: love – not a mere humanitarian concern for abstract justice and the anonymous “poor,” but concrete and personal love for the human person, any human person, that God makes me encounter in my life. This distinction is important because today more and more Christians tend to identify Christian love with political, economic, and social concerns; in other words, they shift from the unique person and its unique personal destiny, to anonymous entities such as “class,” “race,” etc. Not that these concerns are wrong. It is obvious that in their respective walks of life, in their responsibilities as citizens, professional men, etc., Christians are called to care, to the best of their possibilities and understanding, for a just, equal, and in general more humane society. All this, to be sure, stems from Christianity and my inspired by Christian love. But Christian love as such is something different, and this difference is to be understood and maintained if the Church is to preserve her unique mission and not become a mere “social agency,” which definitely she is not.
Christian love is the “possible impossibility” to see Christ in another man, whoever he is, and whom God, in His eternal and mysterious plan, has decided to introduce into my life, be it only for a few moments, not as an occasion for a “good deed” or an exercise in philanthropy, but as the beginning of an eternal companionship in God Himself. For, indeed, what is love if not the mysterious power which transcends the accidental and the external in the “other” – his physical appearance, social rank, ethnic origin, intellectual capacity – and reaches the soul, the unique and uniquely personal “root” of a human being, truly the part of God in him? If God loves every man it is because He alone knows the priceless and absolutely unique treasure, the “soul” or “person” He gave every man. Christian love then is the participation in that divine knowledge and the gift of that divine love. There is no “impersonal” love because love is the wonderful discovery of the “person” in “man,” of the personal and unique in the common and general. It is the discovery in each man of that which is “lovable” in him, of that which is from God.
Christian love aims beyond “this world.” It is itself a ray, a manifestation of the Kingdom of God; it transcends and overcomes all limitations, all “conditions” of this world because its motivation as well as its goals and consummation is in God. And we know that even in this world, which “lies in evil,” the only lasting and transforming victories are those of love. To remind man of this personal love and vocation, to fill the sinful world with this love – this is the true mission of the Church.
The parable of the Last Judgment is about Christian love. Not all of us are called to work for “humanity,” yet each one of us has received the gift and the grace of Christ’s love. We know that all men ultimately need this personal love – the recognition in them of their unique soul in which the beauty of the whole creation is reflected in a unique way. We also know that men are in prison and are sick and thirsty and hungry because that personal love has been denied them. And, finally, we know that however narrow and limited the framework of our personal existence, each one of us has been made responsible for a tiny part of the Kingdom of God, made responsible by that very gift of Christ’s love. Thus, on whether or not we have accepted this responsibility, on whether we have loved or refused to love, shall we be judged. For “inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto Me…”
VERSES FOR VESPERS – MEATFARE SUNDAY
When you shall come, O righteous Judge, to execute just judgment, seated on Your Throne of glory, a river of fire will draw all men amazed before Your judgment seat; the powers of heaven will stand beside You, and in fear mankind will be judged according to the deeds that each has done. Then spare us, Christ, in Your compassion, with faith we entreat You, and count us worthy of Your blessings with those that are saved.
The books will be opened and the acts of men will be revealed before the unbearable judgment-seat; and the whole vale of sorrow shall echo with the fearful sound of lamentation, as all the sinners, weeping in vain, are sent by Your just judgment to everlasting torment. Therefore, we beseech You, O compassionate and loving Lord: spare us who sing Your praise, for You alone are rich in mercy.
The trumpets shall sound and the tombs shall be emptied, and all mankind in trembling shall be raised. Those that have done good shall rejoice in gladness, awaiting their reward; those that have sinned shall tremble and bitterly lament, as they are sent to punishment and parted from the chosen. O Lord of glory, take pity on us in Your goodness, and count us worthy of a place with them that have loved You.
I lament and weep when I think of the eternal fire, the outer darkness and the nether world, 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 You to anger, O Supreme in love. Among them in misery, I am first: but O Judge compassionate, in Your mercy save me.
When the thrones are set up and the books are opened, and God sits in judgment, O what fear there will be then! When the angels stand trembling in Your presence and the river of fire flows before You, what shall we do then, guilty of many sins? When we hear Him call the blessed of His Father into the Kingdom, but send the sinners to their punishment, who shall endure His fearful condemnation? But Savior, who alone love mankind, King of the ages, before the end comes turn me back through repentance
and have mercy on me.