Kontakion of the Sunday of the Last Judgment
Before the beginning of Great Lent, the Orthodox Church offers her faithful four Sundays of preparation. The period is called the Triodion after the book which contains the hymns for this period and for the Great Lent and Holy Week. Each of these preparatory Sundays presents a theme to help the faithful map their way through the journey to Pascha. The themes of these Sundays are:
- The Publican and the Pharisee–humility and prayer
- The Prodigal Son–humility, repentance, forgiveness
- The Last Judgment
- Forgiveness Sunday–forgiveness and prayer
Each Sunday has a special hymn, called a Kontakion, which is sung at the Divine Liturgy as the last in the series of hymns sung as the Gospel Book is brought in procession to the altar. These special hymns stress the theme of the Sunday.
Ὅταν ἔλθῃς ὁ Θεός, ἐπὶ γῆς μετὰ δόξης,
καὶ τρέμωσι τὰ σύμπαντα,
ποταμὸς δὲ τοῦ πυρὸς πρὸ τοῦ Βήματος ἕλκῃ,
καὶ βίβλοι ἀνοίγωνται,
καὶ τὰ κρυπτὰ δημοσιεύωνται,
τότε ῥῦσαί με, ἐκ τοῦ πυρὸς τοῦ ἀσβέστου,
καὶ ἀξίωσον, ἐκ δεξιῶν σου μὲ στῆναι,
Otan elthis o Theos epi yis meta doxis,
ke tremosi ta sympanta,
potamos de tou pyros pro tou Vimatos elki,
ke vivli anigonde,
ke ta krypta dimosievonde,
tote ryse me ek tou pyros tou asvestou,
ke axioson ek dexion sou me stine,
When You come, O God, to earth with glory,
and all things tremble,
and the river of fire flows before the judgment tribunal,
and the books are opened,
and the secret deeds are made public,
then save me from the unquenchable fire,
and make me worthy to stand at Your right hand,
O most just Judge.
God the Most Just Judge
As we have seen with many hymns, this hymn falls into two parts. The first part sets the scene, governed by the conjunction otan—when. The second part picks up the first with the adverb tote–then. The whole hymn is united into a whole by the address to God in the first line (o Theos), who comes to earth with glory, and in the last line (Krita dikeotate) as the most just Judge.
5 Fearful Aspects of the End
The first part of the hymn lists 5 fearful events of the Last Judgment:
- God’s coming in glory
- all things trembling
- the river of fire flowing
- the books are opened
- the secrets made public
God’s coming in glory is a reference to the Gospel reading for the Sunday of the Last Judgment. We hear the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, which begins with Our Lord, identifying Himself as the Son of Man, coming in glory and sitting on His throne (Matthew 25:31. God finally takes His throne as true king of all creation.
But, instead of all creation rejoicing and welcoming its true king, we see the opposite reaction: fear is the prevailing emotion. The prevalence of this emotion is explained in the following actions: all the secret acts of our lives are revealed in public.
These two actions are joined together by the central image of the river of fire. The river flows past the judgment tribunal, and represents both the revelation and judgment of the actions during life of each person, and the punishment for these actions.
Saved from the Fire
The river of fire is taken up in the second part of the hymn with unquenchable fire of condemnation (ek tou pyros tou asvestou). This second part, however, takes an unexpected turn. The connection of the otan and the tote leads the hearer to expect a description of the judgment scene the first part of the hymn is building up to. However, instead of judgment, the second part of the hymn is a plea for mercy. In the light of the first part of the hymn, we realize that, before the light of God’s justice, our actions have made us worthy of a place in the fire. With that knowledge, we have no recourse but to throw ourselves on the mercy of God.
Becoming a Sheep
The unusual turn of the hymn then has an even more unusual conclusion: not only do we beg for mercy and rescue from the fire, we actually beg God to be placed with the saved, to be placed with the sheep. This reference to the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats takes us back to the first line of the hymn, and leads to the concluding address to God. In a final twist, this address, following on a plea for mercy, is to the perfect justice of God Himself. The hymn, then, tells us that God as King and Judge shows Himself most just when He shows the greatest mercy.
The Apolytikion of the Meeting of the Lord with the Elder Symeon in the Temple
The feast of the Meeting of the Lord with the Elder Symeon occurs on February 2nd, about halfway between Christmas and Pascha. We celebrate the day when Mary and Joseph brought the Christ Child to the Temple to fulfill two commandments of the Law: the purification of the mother from the flow of blood from giving birth (Leviticus 12:1-8); and the “buying back” of the first born male from God (Exodus 13:11-16).
Χαῖρε κεχαριτωμένη Θεοτόκε Παρθένε,
ἐκ σοῦ γὰρ ἀνέτειλεν ὁ Ἥλιος τῆς δικαιοσύνης,
Χριστὸς ὁ Θεὸς ἡμῶν, φωτίζων τοὺς ἐν σκότει.
Εὐφραίνου καὶ σὺ Πρεσβύτα δίκαιε,
δεξάμενος ἐν ἀγκάλαις τὸν ἐλευθερωτὴν τῶν ψυχῶν ἡμῶν,
χαριζόμενον ἡμῖν καὶ τὴν Ἀνάστασιν.
Chere kecharitomeni Theotoke Parthene,
ek sou gar anetilen o Ilios tis dikeosynis,
Christos o Theos imon, photizon tous en skoti.
Efphrenou ke si Presvita dikee,
dexamenos en angales ton eleftherotin ton psychon imon,
charizomenon imin ke tin Anastasin.
Rejoice full of grace Theotokos Virgin,
For from you arose the Sun of Righteousness,
Christ our God, enlightening those in darkness.
Rejoice also, righteous Elder,
having received in your arms the Liberator of our souls,
who grants us also the Resurrection.
The Hymn Sung in Greek and in English
A Dance Around Christ
The hymn, as is typical of many hymns, falls into two parts. Each part looks at a main character of the story, and directs the characters to the overarching main character, Christ.
The first part addresses the Thetokos, the second the Elder Symeon. Each is given a command to rejoice.
Chere kecharitomeni Theotoke Parthene
Efphrenou ke si Presvita dikee
They are then given the reason for this: the Theotokos has given birth to Christ; Symeon has received the Christ child in his arms.
The third line then applies a participle to Christ, attributing an aspect of our Salvation to the particular description of Christ.
- In the first part, Christ is addressed as the Sun of Righteousness. His action is to enlighten those in darkness.
- In the second part, Christ is called the Liberator of our souls. His action is to grant the Resurrection, the ultimate liberation from sin and death.
From Christmas to Pascha and Back
Since this feast fall roughly midway between Christmas and Pascha, it looks in both directions, thereby joining the themes of the two feasts together. In order to express this aspect of the feast, the Apolytikion uses language which captures all the highlights of the various feasts, melding them into one hymn.
The Previous Feasts
The first line:
Chere kecharitomeni Theotoke Parthene
is a variation on the greeting of the Angel Gabriel to Mary when he announced to her that she was chosen to be the mother of God (Luke 1:28).
Chere kecharitomeni, o Kyrios meta sou
Thus, the hymn begins at the beginning, at the Annunciation.
The second line:
ek sou gar aneteile o Ilios tis dikeosynis
mimics a line from the Apolytikion of the Nativity:
[tous magous] se proskynin ton Ilion tis dikeosynis
quickly moving from the Annunciation to the Birth of Christ.
The third line:
Christos o Theos imon, photizon tous en skotis
connects the hymn to the Feast of Lights, Theophany. In the Gospel for the Sunday after Theophany, we read how St. Matthew refers this prophecy of Isaiah to our Lord (Matthew 4:16):
O laos o kathimenos en skoti phos eiden mega, ke tis kathimenis en chora ke skia thanatou phos anetile aftis.
The people who were sitting in the shadow saw a great light, and upon those sitting in the land and the shadow of death a light has arisen.
The Future Feasts
The shift to the righteous Elder Symeon also shifts the perspective to the future, just as Symeon himself looks to the future of the child in his arms.
Symeon has received the liberator of our souls:
dexamenos en angales ton eleftherotin ton psychon imon.
The title eleftherotis is appropriate for our Lord’s death on the cross, since through His death He liberated us from sin and death.
Finally, through His conquest of death, Christ also grants to us the Resurrection, the promise of renewed life.
From Christmas and Pascha and Back…to Us
On this Feast Day, we too stand poised between Christmas and Pascha. Our hymn reminds us that we cannot separate the two events, that they are inextricably bound up with each other. Christmas can never be for the Orthodox Christian a warm cuddly feeling about a little child in a manger with cute little animals all around. Christmas must always point to God’s great sacrifice for us, it shows us the Child, not a sweet little boy, but as the Liberator of our souls. In the same way, the great acts of our salvation, our Lord’s Death and Resurrection, can never be separated from the initial sacrifice of the Son of God in becoming a human being, in taking on our human nature and living and sanctifying every aspect of our human lives. Very often in our “religious thought” we consider the only events of our Lord’s life to be Christmas and Pascha, and that these are two very distinct events. This Feast and its apolytikion remind us that these events frame a whole life and that they can never be separated but must be joined together into one whole continuum of salvation.