By St. Ignatius Brianchaninov
"The Son of man shall come in His glory." (Mt. 25:31)
Beloved brethren! Not long ago, we beheld our Lord Jesus Christ born in the manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes, placed in the cradle, having taken upon Himself with His humanity all human weakness other than sin. Not long ago, we beheld Him persecuted by Herod, fleeing from the murderer’s sword to Egypt, returning to Judea, not daring to remain there, moving to Nazareth—a poor and unimportant town in inglorious Galilee, receiving baptism on the level of those who needed baptism, preaching repentance and the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. We beheld this not long ago, and we are preparing ourselves for a new, utterly astounding sight. In order to become worthy of this sight to the extent possible for humans, we intend to pre-purify our spiritual eyes — our mind and heart — through the podvig of fasting. We intend to refine through the podvig of fasting our own flesh, so that this veil which covers our spiritual nature would not be excessively thick and impenetrable, not prevent us from beholding with the required purity, faith, and contrition our Savior Who is crucified for us, Who has destroyed on the cross the wall of division between us and God (cf. Eph. 2:14). And a terrifying, most formidable sight also awaits us: the second coming to earth of our Lord Jesus Christ. We can behold the first coming in pious remembrance, while the second coming has been represented to us by the Word of God in a picture of graphic eloquence and power. This picture can salvifically shake our souls with fear of God, arouse us from our deep negligence over our eternal lot, as from a lethargic sleep brought upon us by our fleshly life. "The Son of man shall come in His glory."
Filled with deep and constant humility was the first coming of our Lord to earth and His time on earth. The Lord paid no attention to all that is respected and valued highly by the world. He did not deign to appear in the flash and thunder of earthly glory; He did not deign to appear surrounded by pompousness and magnificence; He did not deign to appear amidst shouts of festivity and triumph. He came to earth as to the land where the transgressors of God’s commandments were banished. He resided in it and acted upon it as in a land of sorrows, to which those who once lived in paradise were cast down for transgressing God’s commandment in paradise; He abided there and acted upon it as the Redeemer of the lost, becoming a participant in all the misfortunes that befell iniquitous mankind. He was as one of the impoverished and rejected of men. He was a stranger, with no place to lay His head. He was persecuted, covered about with dishonor, and He constantly rewarded evil with good: "For the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them" (Lk. 9:56). He ended His earthly pilgrimage with the torturous and shameful death of a criminal, the death of a slave, for whom even the very manner of death is not equal by right to that of the citizens of the world. Such was the first coming on earth of the Son of God. In time, there will also be His second coming to us: "The son of man shall come," who is also the Son of God, "in His glory." His first coming was that of the Redeemer, Who submitted Himself to all the human weaknesses, taking them upon Himself in order to destroy them by Himself. The second coming will be the coming of the Judge, to receive mankind's account of its behavior in relation to the redemption God gave it. "When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall He sit upon the throne of his glory: And before Him shall be gathered all nations" (Mt. 25:31–32), in order to present their deeds to Him for judgment, and receive either reward or punishment from Him according to their deeds.
When we receive word that some earthly authority and judge is coming, we take all measures to put our affairs in order and thus be found deserving of approval. Even more so should the Judgment of Christ concern us, for by it will the eternal lot be determined for each one of us. The judge is terrifying, unspeakably terrifying. He is terrifying in His magnitude, His omnipotence; He is terrifying because He sees into the depth of the human spirit, and no secret human thought, not the subtlest feeling is hidden from Him. Self-justification has no place at His judgment—not only will the man dead in sin not be justified, but "no man living shall be justified" (Ps. 142:2), though he lived a righteous life. "Thou shalt prevail," cries the God-inspired Prophet [David] to the coming judge, "when Thou art judged" (Ps. 50:5)! Every human being will tremble when he appears before the Judge — not only sinners, but even the righteous. Sinners will tremble in despair at the expectation of their impending torment, and from the extraordinary fear that will produce an upheaval in them capable of changing the universe. They will cry to the hills and crevasses: "And [they] said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand" (Rev. 6:16–17)? They will tremble and sing His praises, albeit belated. The Creator hid His unapproachable and unbearable glory in a cloak of humility— only then could the creation freely possess thoughts and feelings, freely pronounce a word, and freely win favor through its acts. When the Creator appears in His glory, the creation's freedom will wither before the magnitude of His glory, just as when this freedom, which remains our own possession even under extraordinary circumstances, is as if destroyed by the force of circumstance. The most hardened enemies of the Lord, the very Sanhedrin who crucified Him and swore their hatred for Him, will cry out with praise when they meet the Judge, as the Lord foretold to them: "Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven" (Mt. 26:64). "For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord" (Mt. 23:39).
The righteous will tremble from the measureless glory of the appearing Judge; they will look at their own righteousness, and in the light of Higher Truth, their righteousness will appear to them as the ragged garment of a beggar. They will not see any surety of mercy for them in their righteousness. They will await mercy only from God's boundless mercy. The very Angels of God will come in fear and shame because of the revealed greatness of their God (cf. Lk. 21:27), "Who hath committed all judgment unto the Son: That all men should honour the Son, even as they honour the Father" (Jn. 5:22–23). Insensible, material nature will not be able to withstand the gaze of the Son of God: "And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places" (Rev. 6:14).
At the judgment of Christ, a justification for mercy will be demanded as an active expression of love, and only mercy will deserve mercy, as a manifest proof of love. "I will have mercy, and not sacrifice" (Mt. 9:13), announced the coming terrible and impartial Judge. Mercy will bring justification for those who love mercy, while those who rejected it will be condemned. Mercy will stand boldly before the Lord, and present all its children to Him. It will present those who showed it materially, who fed their hungry brothers, received strangers into their homes, clothed the naked, visited the sick and imprisoned. Mercy will present to Christ those who wrought it secretly in their souls, who had mercy upon their neighbor by refraining from judging him when he stumbled, forgiving him any insults and offences, rendering him blessings for his curses, and good deeds for his evil ones. Mercy will present to Christ the pastors of the Church, who gave their brethren incorruptible food — the Word of God; who clothed those naked in sin with the garments of virtue, supplied spiritual medicine to those sick of soul, and patiently visited with edification those imprisoned by their unbelief or the darkness of error. It will present to Christ the humble monks [and nuns], who sought the mysterious and essential knowledge of Christ dwelling within them, who thirsted with a blessed thirst for the Gospel truths, taking all care to clothe themselves in the likeness [of God] and holiness, who purified themselves of the subtlest human infirmities — the passions of life, and thus attained the Gospel freedom. Mercy will present to Christ also those who were only able to show mercy to themselves, who visited themselves with self-criticism and freed themselves from the poverty, sickness, and prison of sin through repentance. Repentance is impossible for the hardened heart: the heart must be softened, filled with sympathy and mercy toward its catastrophic state of sinfulness. Only when the heart is embraced and filled by mercy can it become capable of repentance. Only when it has abandoned its condemnation of others can it turn and look at itself; and, salvifically condemning itself, apply the cure of its wounds by repentance.
Christ Himself redeemed all people and every person. The person who turns out to be capable only of mercy toward himself, and showed this mercy by nourishing his hungry soul with the Word of God, by giving it to drink of those feelings which proceed from the Holy Spirit, by turning it from its destructive wandering in all manner of sin to the house of piety and virtue, by clothing it in good deeds, healing its former sins by confessing them and by acting in ways that oppose them, by leading himself from the prison of his carnal mind and state into reason and a spiritual state—will be considered as having done all of this for the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Mercy will present to Christ all those who practiced it, and will intercede with Him for mercy and eternal blessedness. "Come," He will say to them, "ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me" (Mt. 25:34–36, 40).