Preparation for the coming season of repentance continues in the Church with the Sunday of the Last Judgment. On this day we are reminded of the final end of all things before Christ, who comes to judge with utter finality the living and the dead, separating the righteous from the unrighteous. (Matthew 25:31–46)
Traditionally, the icon of the Last Judgment shows Christ enthroned and all the peoples of all times gathered before him for judgment. To the right of Christ, are gathered all the righteous. Strikingly, from the throne there flows a great fiery river (Dan. 7:10) to the left of Christ in which the devil, the demons, and the unrighteous can variously be seen.
Understandably, when contemplating the place and fate of the unrighteous, our attention goes to what stands out as the primary characteristic of this river, specifically its burning fire. But there is something else. Almost in passing, St. Gregory Palamas notes, “They say a river draws that fire along, apparently bearing it ever further away from God.”
When all things are to be gathered together to Christ, this river alone flows away from Christ. Of all the terrible things that may be realized by the unrighteous at the judgment, one of the most fearsome must be this inexorable current carrying people ever further away from Christ.
The Orthodox understanding of the Last Judgment of God has little to do with a divine decision about where the Lord will assign us. Rather, it is really a revelation of what kind of heart and life we have chosen. In this context, the river’s movement away from God is but the fixed continuation of a heart and life long accustomed to moving away from him. A life spent in willful retreat from Christ or a silent, careless drifting—these are not so much actions that will be punished as directions that will be confirmed on the Last Day.
But as we gaze on the icon of that Day to come we should look with hope. The purpose of the Gospel and the icon is not lead to despair. We listen and we look and we strain to find our face in that crowd gathered before Christ, wondering where we will find ourselves? The answer to that question, however, is rooted not in tomorrow, but today. Today we set the course. The gospel and the icon whisper to us: “There is yet time; there is yet one more day, perhaps.” May we turn, even today, more fully towards Christ as a prayer to God that this is the direction we wish to set for all ages.