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.


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.




Mother Gavrilia

Mother Gavrilia (1897-1992) is another contemporary example of a person who made God present in our world. She came from Constantinople, studied podiatry in England, ministered to the poor in India, became a nun in Jerusalem, and lived out her life in Athens. Her faith and her desire to follow Christ in every way was so strong that she never travelled anywhere with money. She felt that if God wanted her to go somewhere or do something, he would provide the means; if he did not provide the means, that meant he did not want her to go.

Throughout her long life, and despite her popularity, Mother Gavrilia remained an icon of God’s presence to his people. Whether healing lepers in India or talking with bikers in Greece, she always conveyed to those around her the love of God.

I would highly recommend reading the story of her life, as well as her sayings and spiritual conferences as recorded by the Nun Gavrilia in The Ascetic of Love (3rd edition 2006).

I would like to quote here two of her spiritual counsels in order to illustrate the depth of her insight and her love. The first deals with prayer and love (p. 299).

If you don’t love, don’t dare pray. for your prayer will not reach the ears of the Lord. It is abomination to God. somebody comes and tells me: “I cannot stand this person. Of course, I do not wish him any harm, but I pray that God may guide him.” And I say: “How dare you? If I say: “Lord, please guide this person whom I do not love”, He will tell me: “why do you care, since you do not love him? First love him, then come an ask Me to guide him. I will grant it at once.” Because He said: “Love your enemies”.

The second passage is on pride (p. 300):

Mother Gavrilia in India

G.G. Father Lazarus says that the mountain we have to move with our faith is our own pride!…A big mountain! And we throw it inot the sea!

G. Fine…But how can we do this?

G.G. Onlywith the grace of God. Pray with all your heart: “Lord, take away my pride”…The next day, He starts! Today I heard on the radio the Preacher say: “St. John Chrysostom tells us that what we need, what will take us to Paradise, is the shattering of our own pride–that and nothing else!” Let me give you an example. Someone comes to see me, we discuss his problem and we find a solution. If I say: “It’s a good thing I was here to help!” Hey!…What a fall (I mean, for me)! I happened to be here to help. But if I were not, God would have sent someone else! for the Lord says: “I can make children for Abraham even out of stones.” Regrettably, that’s how things are. Man takes pride in himself…I helped! I helped! But who are you? Who? Something else, too…When someone does you a good turn, tell him: “Ah! You are greatly blessed! you must thank God for giving you the opportunity to do this. For, otherwise, He would have sent someone else instead of you.” As for me, I had to be helped: for it was God’s time. Now, whom will God send? Whoever comes will be blessed. he will be blessed for himself–not for me! Anyhow, it is very difficult to fight pride. Because our Ego is kneaded together with this monster and we cannot see it. We are blind. “Blind…leading the blind.” There is also another thing. From our early childhood we are told: “Be the first in your class…Don’t be like that child.” What does this mean? Since, “who is first will be last, and the last first.” But, by the time we understand that…Pride is man’s greatest sin. It comes from the Source of Darkness–truly from Darkness. Pride and Egoism: they go hand in hand. Where the Grace of God is, these two cannot be. This is why when we qualify somebody as a “great man,” the first trait of his character that makes us call him “great” is his humility. For humility is a synonym of Love…

God showed us the meaning of humility and love in becoming one of us, taking on our nature and living our life. As we prepare to celebrate the Feast of Love and the Feast of Humility, let us examine ourselves and see where pride prevents us from love, where it stands in the way of praying for others.

Today our New Testament Challenge brings us to the heart of the Gospel of Mark. Our Lord throws a question at the disciples and at us, a challenge to our preconceptions:

27 Now Jesus and His disciples went out to the towns of Caesarea Philippi; and on the road He asked His disciples, saying to them, “Who do men say that I am?” 28 So they answered, “John the Baptist; but some say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” 29 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered and said to Him, “You are the Christ.”

What do people say about Christ? Who is he for most people. We could probably boil the opinions down to three.

Some people think of Jesus as a good man, a great teacher, someone right up there with Buddha, Confucius, and other great religious teachers. He had some great things to say and gave us a wonderful example of a good life style.

Some people think of Jesus as some sort of cosmic spirit, a heavenly Pez dispenser of good things, a vague personification of morality, a supporter of political causes, whether on the right or on the left.

Some people think that Jesus never existed, was invented by the early Christians or by St. Paul, or even was the tranformation of a pagan god like Dionysos or Herakles.

This is the atmosphere that we live and work. Our families, our fellow students or workers probably believe some variation (or even combination) of these beliefs. In fact, many of our Orthodox faithful have bought into a version of these beliefs.

But our Lord’s question rings in our ears like a challenge: Who do YOU say that I am? Where is your faith? Do you even know me? Are you going to decide who I am without ever talking or walking with me?

Peter answers for all the disciples, “You are the Christ,” that is, the Messiah, the Anointed of God. They have finally reached a new level. Our Lord had been teaching them, showing them miracles which revealed the presence of the Kingdom of God breaking into history. And they did not seem to get it. But when our Lord revealed to them that he would suffer and die in Jerusalem, and then rise from the dead, they could not accept it; they were unwilling to take that next step with our Lord. For the disciples, as for all pious Jews of that time, a dead Messiah was no Messiah at all. They had heard about too many men who claimed to be the Messiah and who were put to death by the Romans and their movement came to an abrupt end. They were not ready to adjust their definition of Messiah to include the idea of victory in defeat, of life in death, of the overcoming of death by crashing down the gates of death and empyting the tombs.

Very often we smugly smirk at the scene of poor Peter trying to convince our Lord not to go to his death. We have the advantage of hindsight (always 20/20!); we know the end of the story. And yet, if we had to stand in Peter’s shoes, would we have reacted in the same way, with the same lack of understanding? Do we ourselves really understand the implications of what our Lord is saying? Do we really know who he is, or do we only still have a Sunday School understanding of who he is?

How can we grow beyond that limited understanding? First of all, we need to meet with our Lord, to talk with him, to walk with him, to learn to love and trust him. That is prayer. Have you ever been with someone you love, a spouse or a friend, and just sat together in silence for a while, a silence that speaks far more than words? That is what prayer is like. Our problem with prayer is not that we do not want to do it, but that we think we have to have a constant monologue going. Place yourself in the presence of your Lord, even for a few moments, and just enjoy being with him in silence.

Secondly, we can meet our Lord in the Liturgy and especially in Holy Communion. Our resurrected and living Lord comes in our midst when we gather to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. If we approach the Liturgy as enfolding us in divine love rather than simply an obligation or something that gives us an hour and a half rest from the kids, then our heart will be touched by our Lord, and he will speak to us in the depths of our being.

Who do YOU say that I am? That is the challenge of our Challenge today. And it is the work of a lifetime to begin to approach an answer to the question.

Elder Porphyrios

From the great Elder Porphyrios On Prayer (Wounded by Love: the Life and Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios, p. 126-127):

Let us love Christ. Then the name of Christ will burst forth from within us with impellent desire, with fervor, with divine eros. We will shout His name secretly, without speaking words. let us stand before God in adoration, humbly, and in the footsteps of Christ–that Christ may free us from every trace of our fallen nature. Let us ask for tears to be given to us before prayer. but be careful! Do not let your right hand know what the left is doing (Matthew 6:3). Pray with contrition: “Am I worthy for You to give such grace, O Christ?” And then these tears become tears of gratitude. I am deeply moved; I have not done the will of God, but I ask for His mercy.

Pray to God with love and yearning, in tranquility, with meekness, gently and without forcing yourself. And when you repeat the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” say it slowly, humbly, gently and with divine love. Pronounce the name of Christ with sweetness. Say the words one at a time: “Lord…Jesus…Christ…have mercy on me”, smoothly, tenderly, affectionately, silently, secretly mystically, but with exaltation, with longing, with passion, without tension, force or unbecoming emphasis, without compulsion and pressure. In the way a mother speaks to the child she loves: “my little boy…my darling girl…my little Johnny…my wee Mary!” With longing. Yes, longing.  That’s the whole secret. Here the heart is speaking: “My little child, my joy!” My Lord, my Jesus, my Jesus, my Jesus!” What you have in your heart and in your mind, that is what you express with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind (Luke 10:27).

No need to add anything to this!