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.

Greek Text

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,
Κριτὰ δικαιότατε.

English Transliteration

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,
Krita dikeotate.

English Translation

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.

last-judgment

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 otanwhen. 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.

 

 

Resurrection Apolytikion in Plagal 4th Tone

They say, “Less is more.” This is certainly true of the Resurrection Apolytikion in Plagal 4th Tone. The story of our redemption is reduced to the bare minimum of words; the melody is also simple and somewhat standard for this tone. And yet, the whole mystery of redemption is contained in these few words!

Greek Text

Ἐξ ὕψους κατῆλθες ὁ εὔσπλαγχνος,
ταφὴν κατεδέξω τριήμερον,
ἵνα ἡμᾶς ἐλευθερώσῃς τῶν παθῶν.
Ἡ ζωὴ καὶ ἡ Ἀνάστασις ἡμῶν, Κύριε δόξα σοι.

Transliteration

 Ex ipsous katilthes, o efsplachnos,
taphin katedexo tri-imeron,
ina imas eleftherosis ton pathon.
I zoi ke i Anastasis imon, Kyrie doxa si.


Translation

From on high You descended O Merciful One,
You accepted the three-day tomb,
In order to free us from the passions.
Our Life and Resurrection, O Lord, glory to You.

Sung in English

 

What’s in a Title?

 The hymn is structured around titles of our Lord:

  • Efsplachnos—Merciful One
  • Zoi—Life
  • Anastasis–Resurrection

The hymn opens with an address to “The Merciful One”. The ancients Greeks believed that the center of pity was the bowels, the efsplachna. This is not an unreasonable assumption; if we reflect on feelings of pity or empathy, the physical aspect of this emotion seems to arise from the center of our bodies. And so, someone who is “full of pity” is literally, a “bowel person” or “Efsplachnos.”

By opening the hymn with this title, then, the author wants to emphasize for us that God became a human being and underwent death and burial out of pity for us, for our condition of slavery to sin and death.

The other two titles, Life and Resurrection, reflect “the other end” of the story. When God undergoes death according to the flesh out of pity for us, He destroys death for us, and replaces it with life. The second title, Resurrection, is not simply another way of saying that. God does not grant us some abstract “eternal life” which is spiritual and disembodied. No—He grants us complete life as we were created—soul and body. Just as He rose from the dead physically and not just spiritually, so also He raises us to life, recreating and renewing us as a unity of soul and body.

How Do We Get There?

 In between these titles, we have the story of redemption. The balance of the first two lines of the hymn reveals the whole story. The phrases each consist of three words, balanced in the center by the verb.

              Ex ipsous                     katilthes                       o Efsplachnos

             Taphin                         katedexo                      tri-imeron

Both verbs—katilthes and katedoxo—are compounds of the simple verbs erchomai (to come) and dehomai (to accept) with the prefix kata, which indicates a downward motion. The first line takes us down from the spiritual realm of heaven into the earthly realm by God taking on our human nature and becoming a human being. The second takes us down farther into the tomb and, by extension, into the underworld and the realm of death, where Christ won the victory of life over death.

The nouns and the modifiers are also balanced in a chiastic manner (i.e. ABC—CBA), so that the realm of eternity (ex ipsous—from above) yields, ultimately, to the temporal confinement of the tomb (tri-imeronof three days). The balance of efsplachnos and taphin shows that God in Jesus did not die by accident, but planned the working out of our salvation through His pity for us.

Why Did It All Happen?

The next phrase adds the purpose, the way that our redemption works itself out in our daily lives. This third phrase consists of four words (an expansion from the previous pattern, indicating a completion of the action), balanced by the verb.

Ex ipsous                     katilthes                       o Efsplachnos

            Taphin                         katedexo                      tri-imeron

            Ina imas                      eleftherosis                  ton pathon

God takes pity on us, descends into time and space by taking our nature and then further descends into death and the grave. By freeing us from death (giving us life and resurrection), He also frees us from our passions. Here, the chiasm reaches its fulfillment: efsplachnos  in the first line (indicating the giver of freedom) is balanced with imas (us) in the third (indicating the receiver of the freedom). The ex ipsous (the heavenly realm) by descending into the earthly and fallen realm enables the slavery of ton pathon (the passions) to be broken.

The Holy Fathers saw the passions and the roots of sin, the expression of our fallen nature which pervert and warp the gifts which God originally gave us in creation. They are our desires gone wild, which then enslave us to sin, which we commit by following them.

(For a good discussion of the Patristic idea of the passions, please see Deacon Charles Joiner’s blog Orthodox Way of Life: Walking the Path to Theosis: http://orthodoxwayoflife.blogspot.com/2009/07/what-are-passions.html)

When God enters our human nature and descends to death, in order to free us from the passions, it does not mean we are reduced to a state of emotionlessness. Rather, when God frees us from death, He also frees us from the slavery to these passions, and through His own life, transforms them into their original good state, a state in which they serve us in order to bring us to that true life.

So Where Does That Leave Us?

When we contemplate the great, cosmic truths which these few simple words contain, there is only one response: Doxology. Because of His pity for us, He entered our world, entered our death, destroyed its slavery and the slavery of the passions. Now, as free men and women we can only bow down in worship and thanksgiving: Kyrie, doxa siLord, glory to You.

Yesterday was Black Friday. It gets its name from the fact that the amount of shopping that goes on today usually puts businesses in the black. However, to me the description “black” always has a different connotation. It is the festival of consumerism, the feast of the god of this world. Not that shopping or buying gifts is bad; but the greed encouraged by society and manifested today throughs a black pall over any sense of generosity or love.

In our New Testament Challenge passage for today (Mark 6:30-52) we hear our Lord tell the disciples:

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going and they had no leisure even to eat (6:31).

The press of the crowds even disturbed our Lord. He saw that the constant coming and going of people, the constant stream of people in distress, illness, sins all in need of healing was wearing down the disciples. So they planned to get away from the crowd for some “spiritual battery recharging.”

To their surprise, the crowds figured out where they were going and beat them to the place. But, instead of chasing them away, our Lord had pity on them.

…and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. (6:34)

The desert place turned out to be as busy as every other place. But our Lord doesn’t chase them away. He doesn’t complain about the crowd. His first reaction is love and compassion. And he begins to heal their souls through his teaching.

But what about the desert place and the promised quiet. Our Lord shows us that the desert place is not necessarily some physical location (although it can be; we see him going up into the mountain alone to pray in 6:46); rather the desert place can even exist in the midst of the crowds. We need to retreat to the desert place in our heart, the place where the healing words of Christ give us rest and refreshment. Even if we go out into the crowds on Black Friday, we do not need to let our spiritual concentration become distracted. Our hearts can still be at peace. While we walk through malls or stand in the endless checkout lines, the Jesus Prayer can fill our hearts and minds and pour a refreshing balm over our souls. There will be a lot of jostling, a lot of rude people shoving ahead of us. But keeping our hearts and minds centered on our Lord through the Jesus Prayer will help us retain our patience and calm.

Multiplication of the loaves and fish

Not only does our Lord refresh the hearts of the crowd with his words, he also feeds them. There in the desert place, where there is no food, the disciples bring him five loaves and two fish. The poverty of the desert is suddenly transformed into paradise, the place where food is produced on its own. This food from heaven is also ours in the desert of our souls. Our Lord can transform our souls into a paradise; he can take our small offering of a few loaves of bread and transform them into the nourishment we need to maintain our spiritual strength.