Preparing for 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. It should be said that 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. Returning to the 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 be from the East.
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. 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. I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek my own will but the will of the Father who sent Me? (vv.29-30). 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. 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, one might ask, ?When is Jesus coming? I need to know so I can be ready.? However, 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 coming of Christ may seem ominous and scary but we know 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.? Yet, in the epistle reading from this past Friday (2Corinthians 4:13-18), St. Paul offers some very 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 unbearable. Of course, he says they are light because he compares them to the ?eternal weight of glory.? We tend to sentimentalize heaven with little baby cherubs playing harp music. The point he is making is that heaven is far more important on the scales compared to our earthly existence. However, how we live this earthly life depends on how we live the resurrected life in heaven. Thinking of Jesus words earlier, we know everyone will be resurrected but will be raised to life or condemnation. It all depends on if our life has been a struggle for goodness or has been dominated by unrepentant evil. 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. 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!