For those of us who are Byzantine or Eastern Catholic, this Sunday is Meat Fare Sunday. What is that? Well, from this Sunday until Pascha, we will allow no meat to touch our lips. And to begin the Great Fast, we start Meat Fare by listening to the Gospel of Matthew and looking upon the Icon of the Last Judgement. The icon of the Last Judgement shows much about the coming Last Judgement of Christ. I love this scriptural reference to the sheep and the goats that we will read and as we read the words, we can see it in this icon. (Mt 21:31-46).
When our sons were younger and we were living on dairy farms, we had the supreme good fortune to belong to 4-H. What a wonderful group of people we came to know and love! We were encouraged to get as involved as we could, which meant we were very active! I have fond memories of rushing our junior sheep to the State Fairgrounds in the back of a calf trailer. Once we got them to their designated stalls, we then had to haul out all the hay and feed, watering dishes, etc. We set up a mini-campsite and someone from our group was with the animals 24/7. I can personally vouch for washing and grooming sheep – they can be every bit as stubborn as goats! The goats moan a lot louder, and dig their feet in a little harder, but eventually, they can be persuaded to cooperate. Sheep and goats are so very similar that some people can confuse them. Personality-wise, as I said, they can both be stubborn, but goats are a lot stronger and tended to be more “loners,” whereas the sheep tended to bunch together and be more fearful of everything. The only thing they did not fear was their owners, their shepherd. In fact, we had problems keeping them in their pens. They escaped numerous times, looking for my sons. They loved the attention and they also knew the boys would always feed and water them. Goats can be left in an enclosure but you have to give them something to do or they will eat everything…they have to be kept occupied or they would get into trouble. Sound familiar?
Our Lord used images to teach people and the people he most interacted with were usually connected to the land…farmers. And they knew the ins and outs of farm life. They knew the size of a mustard seed; they knew about the threshing floor; they were very knowledgeable about farm animals, especially sheep and goats. So Christ used them as examples. It is no different on Meat Fare Sunday, when we muse over the scripture references to sheep and goats, and gaze upon the Icon. And being intimate with sheep and goats myself, I have always wondered why I identify more with goats than sheep.
The verses we read this week scare me, because of my tendency to be more goat-like. And Christ does not mince words in these verses, either. “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.” I don’t know about you, but being cursed by Christ and told to enter into the eternal fire sort of scares me. He is lamenting all the times He reached for us and we did not respond to Him. He gave us all free will, an opportunity to hear Him say to us, “`Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;” I would personally much rather hear that, than the cursing above. He separates the nations! On an international scale, that is also frightening. The Last Judgement applies to EVERYONE. No one gets to skip this part. I was taught that we all have two final judgements – the one we experience personally upon our death, and the second one when Christ comes again, at the Final Judgement of the Nations. It is FINAL. It is complete. It is just.
This Sunday we begin to prepare ourselves for Great Lent by giving up the eating of flesh. We call it Meat Fare, as I said before. From this Sunday forward, until Pascha, no flesh may be consumed, but dairy is allowed on all days of this week, even Wednesday and Friday. The following Sunday is Cheese Fare, and after that we keep the strict Fast of Great Lent, where we do not consume flesh, dairy, olive oil, or wine until the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. During this preparation for Great Lent, we also celebrate the Saturdays of the Souls, beginning with last Saturday through next Saturday. This is when we commemorate those who have gone before us. It all ties in with the Last Judgement. We pray for the souls of our departed, and pray we see them again, at the Last Judgement.
So, when you think of yourself, do you see the cute, little lamb or the cranky, old goat? Every year I struggle with this because these verses are pretty explicit. And I usually think of Bl. Mother Theresa. When Christ lists all the ways in which the goats have let Him down, I see Bl. Mother Theresa, out in the alleyways of Calcutta, taking care of all the lost sheep. She fed, she housed, she clothed, she comforted. How do I measure up? Not so well. Now I realize we are not supposed to compare ourselves to Bl. Mother Theresa or any other Christian, we are only to look to Christ. And I do. I do look to Christ and when He exhorts us in these verses, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for the one least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt. 25:40) and I tremble, just a little bit. Am I doing enough? Is my heart right with God? Is He the center of my day? Where do I lack? Where do I fall short? Where must I rip out the goat and replace it with the sheep?
So here I am, struggling with my identity, remembering that Christ was literally comparing sheep and goats. And I remember some things about the animals we had. Sheep hang out in groups. Goats go their own way. Sheep are meekly led where their master directs them. Goats you have to chase down and collar them and drag them where you want them to go. Christ was revealing His true self to His Apostles, and “when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21: 15-17). Christ refers to us as His “sheep.” It is not because we are mindless drones. He gave us free will. We need to understand that our free will can corrupt us until we are goats; we become stubborn and we choose not to follow Christ. Christ will not drag us by our collars, rather, He will open the gates of Heaven for us, allowing us to meekly enter into Paradise with Him.
I learned something a long time ago that, for me, reminds me of the importance of things said in scripture. Whenever Christ wants to be sure you get what He is saying, and that He means, unwaveringly, what He is saying, he says it three times. For example, “Amen Amen Amen, I say to you…” or “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” With the proper emphasis, He was telling St. Peter that the flock Christ was gathering to Himself was to be guided, guarded, and fed by St. Peter in His absence. Christ left us St. Peter and the Apostles, and their wisdom in the form of His Church. Their wisdom has come down to us over the centuries in the prayers and prostrations, in the exhortations written down for us, in the historical record left to us, all bound together in our traditions and in Holy Tradition; the unshakeable truth that is our Faith.
“This Sunday sets before us the eschatological dimension of Lent: the Great Fast is a preparation for the Second Coming of the Savior, for the eternal Passover in the Age to Come, a theme that is also the focus of the first three days of Holy Week. But the judgment is not only in the future. Here and now, each day and each hour, in hardening our hearts toward others and in failing to respond to the opportunities we are given of helping them, we are already passing judgment on ourselves.”
“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 persons 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 people 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.” (http://lent.goarch.org/judgement)
On this day, we sing tones and prayers that have been handed down to us through the ages. I find such comfort in that. I also find that as I pray and ponder on this year after year, I am less inclined to be such a goat. I try, rather, to celebrate my uniqueness of self and soul, and to rejoice in the fact that my faith helps me to prayerfully hope that Christ will say to me, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt 25: 33-34)