The Lenten liturgies of the Orthodox Church characterize the season as one of exile and darkness, but also of compassion, enlightenment, and reconciliation. Our separation from God and our need for each other are more intensely felt, as our liturgies shape us more and more closely into an exiled community searching for a home in God. This year, the Sunday of the Last Judgement, one of the preparatory Sundays before the beginning of Great Lent, fell three days after Russia invaded Ukraine. Also known as Meatfare Sunday (as it’s the last day of eating meat until the paschal celebration), the Sunday of Last Judgement features Matthew 25:31-46 for the Gospel reading:
The Lord said, "When the Son of man comes in his glory and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?' And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.' Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?' Then he will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.' And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
The Church in her wisdom assigns this reading in preparation for Lent so that we are reminded and exhorted to keep the refugee, the incarcerated, the unhoused, the infirm, at the center of our Lenten devotion through prayer, compassion, and the giving of time, money, and resources. And yet, at the same time, the passage implies that these very same acts of love and charity don’t earn us any special claim over salvation or deliverance from death—in that neither the “sheep” nor the “goats” were aware that they were serving the Son in the figure of “the least of these.” At the Last Judgement, we find out that we do not have the power of life eternal—human power is only the power of death. But if we want to serve eternal life, we should serve “the least of these.”
This Gospel reading takes on an added poignancy in the current moment as many are dying and thousands fleeing Ukraine, that this season of liturgical exile is quite literally a time of separation, suffering, and death, a Lenten pilgrimage that is not made manageable by the telos of liturgical resolution, but rather one that is unsure, terrifying, and violent. Given that both Russia and Ukraine are historically Orthodox countries, and Putin himself performs public devotion frequently, it’s all the more distressing that many Russian Orthodox religious leaders have failed to condemn this most recent attack on Ukraine. One of the most egregious of these is Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, who on March 6th preached an arrogant and divisive sermon that blamed Ukraine’s so-called Western values (including gay pride parades) for Russia’s invasion. His words indicate that, contra the teaching of Matthew 25, Kirill thinks he knows who the sheep and goats are and considers himself their judge. The tragic irony of his preaching such a sermon on the day of Forgiveness Sunday (also known as Cheesefare Sunday) was certainly lost on him, but hundreds of Orthodox clergy, theologians, and laypeople have since publicly condemned his hate speech, bad theology, and partnership with Putin (see, for example, here, here, and here). (As of last week, the Russians have stopped trying to take territory and have started leveling cities—Mariupol has been all but wiped off the map.)
Let us respond to this crisis with open hearts, compassionate actions, and a relentless call for justice and accountability. The global response to the invasion of Ukraine has also highlighted the lack of comparable reactions to other humanitarian crises and military conflicts around the world, and thus presents an opportunity to reflect on the racial, ethnic, and religious biases in our respective responses. Because the Orthodox are not the Last Judge and make no final claim even over our enemies, we pray “for those who love us and those who hate us” and with the same breath we condemn those who make war and claim divine authority for themselves. In our confession that Christ is the Last Judge, the Orthodox take up responsibility to do justice—not as an abstract position against war, but concretely for those who ask for help and against those who have death in their hearts.
Resources for supporting those in Ukraine:
Ukrainian Congress Committee of America's fundraiser toward purchasing pharmaceutical and medical kits. Donate at ucca.org.
Rebuild Ukraine: https://www.rebuild-ua.org/about-us
International Theologians in Support of Ukraine
A Prayer for Ukraine
We pray, O Lord our God, for all those who suffer from acts of war, especially for the victims in Ukraine. We pray for your peace and mercy in the midst of the great suffering of your people. Accept the prayers of your Church, so that by your goodness, peace may return to all peoples; hear us and have mercy. Lord have mercy (3x)
We also pray, O Lord our God, to remember and have mercy on our siblings in Russia and Ukraine who are involved in violent conflict. Remove from their midst all hostility, confusion, and hatred. Lead everyone along the path of reconciliation and peace, we pray, hear us and have mercy. Lord have mercy (3x)
Deliver Your people from civil strife, cease the spilling of blood, and turn back the misfortunes set against them. Lead into sanctuary those bereft of shelter, feed the hungry, comfort those who weep, and unite the divided. Leave not Your own flock, who abide in sorrows on account of their kinsmen, to diminish, but rather, as You are benevolent, give speedy reconciliation. Soften the hearts of the unmerciful and convert them to the knowledge of You. Grant peace to Your Church and to Her children, that with one heart and one mouth we may glorify You, our Lord and Savior, unto the ages of ages.
(Prayer adapted from the Diocese of the Midwest)
* One Public Orthodoxy link was added above on March 28, 2022.