Preparing for the Parousia
During this weekend of our Greek Festival, we are proudly offering our ethnic food, music and dancing. We also are seeking to share our faith through our bookstore, free literature and church tours. In the tour of the church we use the architecture and iconography to explain Eastern Orthodox Christianity. One of the main features of an Orthodox church temple is that it is oriented towards the East. (BTW- that sentence is redundant because ‘orient’ means ‘East’ anyways. In fact, that’s what one of the dictionary definitions says, “to place so as to face the east, esp. to build (a church) with the chief altar to the east and the chief entrance to the west.”) Why is that? Why do we build our church temples oriented to the East?
The gospel reading from this past Friday (11th Week of Matthew 24:27-33,42-51) gives us the main clue. As a quick aside the Orthodox Church uses a lectionary, a system of reading the scriptures, beginning on Pascha the Feast of the Resurrection of Christ. This lectionary assigns a specific epistle and gospel reading for each day based on a set of rules that are too complicated to get into right now. But, returning to the orient clue, in this passage Jesus Himself is speaking about the Second Coming, what we call in Greek the “Parousia.” Jesus says, 13But he who endures to the end shall be saved. 14And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come. 21For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. 27For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. That’s it right there. The Son of Man, Jesus Christ Himself, will come from the East.
The connection between the Son of Man and the rising sun, goes back into the Old Testament in the prophecy given through Malachi (4:1-3):
1"For behold, the day is coming, Burning like an oven, And all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up," Says the LORD of hosts, "That will leave them neither root nor branch. 2But to you who fear My name The Sun of Righteousness shall arise With healing in His wings; And you shall go out And grow fat like stall-fed calves. 3You shall trample the wicked, For they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet On the day that I do this," Says the LORD of hosts.
As well listen to the words of the Much-Suffering Prophet Job (38:12-15)
12"Have you commanded the morning since your days began, And caused the dawn to know its place, 13That it might take hold of the ends of the earth, And the wicked be shaken out of it? 14It takes on form like clay under a seal, And stands out like a garment. 15From the wicked their light is withheld, And the upraised arm is broken.
Therefore, our churches are built so that we the worshippers are facing East in expectation of the Parousia, the return of our Lord, God and Savior. Now, what is one of the things that will happen when Christ returns? In the Funeral service of the Orthodox Church, the epistle reading is from 1Thessalonians 4:13-18. St. Paul says, “The Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first” (v.16). In the Gospel (John 5:24-30) of the same service Jesus says, “The hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth” (v.28). So, one of the events of the Parousia is the rising of the dead. For what purpose though? Jesus continues, “Those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation (v.29). In other words, the dead are resurrected for judgment. That’s why we bury the dead with their feet towards the East, so that when they are raised, they will also be facing East.
However, it’s not only the dead that will be judged but the living too. We must give account of our lives and if we have sincere efforts to fulfill God’s commandments. This explains why, in Orthodox church temples there is a seat or throne in the very back of the altar. It represents the judgment seat of Christ. So, if we are living in expectation of the Second Coming of Christ and also trying to prepare for it, one might ask, “When is Jesus coming? I need to know so I can be ready.” Returning to this past Friday’s gospel, Jesus gives a warning, “42Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. 43But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. 44Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” Thus, Jesus tells us plainly that we will not know the time of His return. Therefore, He tells us to watch and be ready.
The future judgment of humankind is alluded to in today’s Gospel reading, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, from the 11th Sunday of Matthew (18:23-35). It began with v.18 23Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. The king is Christ, the settling of accounts is the judgment.
The coming of Christ may seem ominous and scary but we believe that the fear of God can be a good thing. That’s why the priest says before Holy Communion, “With the fear of God, with faith and love, draw near.” The Apostle Paul offers guidance to prepare for the coming judgement in the epistle reading from this past Friday (2Corinthians 4:13-18). They are encouraging words, “14We know that He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus, and will present us with you. 15For all things are for your sakes, that grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God. 16Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. 17For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, 18while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
Notice the play on words here. St. Paul says, “light affliction” but we often feel our trials and sufferings are not so light but quite burdensome at times. He says they are light because he is comparing them to future life of resurrection, what he calls the “eternal weight of glory.” Some people sentimentalize heaven with puffy white clouds and little baby cherubs playing harp music. The point St. Paul is making is that heaven is far more important on the scales compared to our earthly existence. We must remember that how we live our earthly life determines how we will live the resurrected life in heaven. As Jesus stated in the Gospel of the Funeral service, we know everyone will be resurrected, but some will be raised to life and others will be raised to condemnation. It all depends on if our life has been a struggle for goodness or has been dominated by unrepentant sin and evil. Were we like the forgiving merciful king in today’s Gospel? Or were we more like the unforgiving servant of Jesus’ parable?
In conclusion, when St. Paul says, we should not look to the temporary things which are seen, he means that our life should not be focused on houses, cars, clothing, money, toys, possessions and the like. Rather, he instructs us to look to the eternal things that are not seen like love, mercy, justice, faith, hope, forgiveness, repentance. We cannot grab love and put in a bottle or take faith and put it on a shelf. We cannot buy hope or sell forgiveness. Therefore, let us look to the East and watch for the return of Christ and be ready for the judgment unto eternal life. Amen!