How many of us would like to meet God? Think about this. To meet God face to face. Would we be excited and anticipate such a meeting with joy, or would we be afraid, quite fearful to truly encounter Him? Let’s all think about this for a moment.
Maybe it would be better to think about how to prepare for a meeting with Almighty God? Of course, on one hand, we gather together in the Divine Liturgy every week and enter into the kingdom of heaven encountering God in a mystical manner – we receive Him through partaking of His Body and Blood. Also remember, the goal of our life, we claim as Orthodox Christians, is to unite ourselves with God which means we must want to meet God.
Yet the idea of meeting God face to face can be quite overwhelming if we seriously think about it.
There is a fascinating story in the life of Saint Innocent, the great Russian missionary who spent 50 years evangelizing the people of Alaska and Siberia throughout the early part of the 19th century. This was a missionary who traveled 12,000 miles in one year over the frozen wastelands by dogsled and through the freezing waters in a one-man kayak. Once, when he arrived on the island of Akun for the first time, he was greeted by all the villagers who were dressed festively to weclome him on his arrival. They even knew his name. He was taken aback, wondering how they knew who he was and how did they know to wait for his arrival? It was his first time ever to visit this village. Yet all the villagers told him that their old Ivan Smirennikov, the local shaman had told them who he was and when he would arrive. When St. Innocent spoke with Ivan, he realized this man knew many things about the Orthodox Christian faith, even though the last missionary to be on the island was there 30 years ago. Yet this shaman was teaching and guiding the people on how to pray and how to live a virtuous life in Christ. When he asked the man how he had all this sacred knowledge, the shaman shared that every day for the past 30 years two spirits in human form people in white vestments would visit him and they taught him all about Christ and the Orthodox Christian way. After further discussion, St. Innocent came to the conclusion that this man wasn’t being deceived by some demons, but he was actually meeting angels who were teaching him. When he asked the shaman if he could meet his two friends. The angels gave their approval to meet St. Innocent, even though they wondered why it was necessary. But as Saint Innocent thought further about this possible encounter, he hesitated. “What if I see these angels, and they confirm all that the old man has said? How can I appear before them? Sinful that I am, I am unworthy of speaking to angels, and it would be pride and presumption on my part if I dared to go to them. Meeting angels might make me too proud of my faith or think too highly of myself.” So I, the unworthy one, finally decided not to go to them.”
When we say we want to meet God, think of St. Innocent. He was too humble to dare approach and encounter these angels. What about us meeting God. Do we truly want to encounter God? Yes, it can be the most beautiful encounter in our lives, coming face to face with Love Incarnate, the Source of all Divine Love, but it’s also an awesome and fearful thought. Who are we to meet God?!? Yet despite any fear, we must realize that the greatest and deepest desire of our soul is to meet its Creator. Our hearts remain restless until they rest in God, as St. Augustine says.
With this in mind, let us turn our attention to today’s Gospel on what the Church calls Judgment Sunday. It is the famous story of the sheep and goats, the judgment of those put at the right hand of the Judge and those placed on the left hand. “I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and in prison and you visited me. Whatever you did to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did to me.” Or “whatever you didn’t do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you didn’t do to me.”
St. Maria Skobtsova of Paris reflects on this parable by noting that “when someone turns their spiritual world toward the spiritual world of another person, they encounter an awesome and inspiring mystery …. They come into contact with the true image of God in man, with the very icon of God incarnate in the world, with a reflection of the mystery of God’s incarnation and divine manhood.”
Do you want to meet God? Well, Christ is telling us that we can meet Him in the other person, especially in the most marginalized of people, if we have the eyes of faith to see, if we cultivate a pure heart of love that we understand the other as Christ Himself.
Jesus Himself addresses us in every beggar, in every person in need. Our communion with people too often passes on the level of an earthly encounter, yet St. Maria of Paris tells us that we can have an authentic mystical encounter with God Himself through these people!
“We can venerate the image of God in our brother or sister. Of course, this mystical encounter will reveal another mystery – one that will demand our most dedicated efforts…. We will perceive that the divine image in the human person is veiled, distorted and disfigured by the power of evil.” Yet we don’t focus on someone’s disfigurement and distortion. We look at their beauty, a beauty in the image of God.
Seeing Christ in every other person, especially in the “least” of others is “the beginning of an eternal companionship with God” as Alexander Schmemann describes it.
Let me repeat this profound observation. Schmemann reminds us that we can “begin an eternal companionship with God” through our interactions with the least of people we encounter here on earth. Our relationship with God begins here and now through our relationship with the least of our brother and sisters!
Do you want to meet God? Well, we have an opportunity to not only meet Him but to develop an intimate companionship, a deep relationship that continues into eternity!
Christ is in each person, and the way we treat the other person is the way we treat Jesus. We express our love for Christ by loving the “other.” And this interaction with Christ in the other doesn’t have to be through some great deeds. Our intimate interaction can take place in the simplest of actions, through simply noticing a person in need and offering them help in a spirit of love. Simple things done with great love. Noticing the other and recognizing in them the image of God.
Understanding this sacred encounter with God will keep us from offering abstract love to some anonymous poor person. The person in need has a name, has a face, has an identity and when we strive to know this person, when we offer concrete and personal love to them, we will come to know them and through knowing them, we will meet Jesus Christ Himself. Think about that. Christ puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need. This is how we have an opportunity to meet God every day.
So, do you want to meet God? Let us go out and meet Him, with fear, in humility, and with deep love; let us go out and meet Him in the least of our brothers and sisters.