In the late pre-Conciliar period, Sunday Matins had its number of lessons reduced from nine to three; the three Scriptural lessons of the first Nocturn were retained (the third lesson being united to the second), but – foolishly – of the three homiletic lessons of the third Nocturn, commenting upon the Gospel of the day, only the first was retained (and, as it was oft but introductory to the main import of the commentary, this truncated passage is generally uninformative); and, worst of all, the Patristic lessons of the second Nocturn were completely omitted.
It is doubtless in reaction to this too-radical reduction in the lessons read at Matins that the Council Fathers decreed that "The hour… shall be made up of fewer psalms and longer readings" (Sacrosanctum concilium, 89, c) and likewise ordered that "Readings excerpted from the works of the fathers, doctors, and ecclesiastical writers shall be better selected" (Sacrosanctum concilium, 92, b).
Having said Matins of this, the last Sunday of the Church's year, I thought to see what the former readings of the second Nocturn were; and, turning first to a Monastic Breviary (having the same lessons, though with the first of them divided into two, since in the Benedictine Office Sunday Matins has not nine but twelve readings), then to a handy online translation after I had enjoyed the rich Latin translating the author's Greek, I thought to post this sobering passage, intended since it was written over 1600 years ago to act as an antidote to sin, by turning our thoughts to that most just and strict judgement we all of us shall face, when we depart this world:
Sermo sancti Basilii Magni in Psalmum trigesimum tertium.
Cum te appetitus invaserit peccandi, velim cogites horribile illud et intolerabile Christi tribunal, in quo præsidebit judex in alto et excelso throno; astabit autem omnis creatura, ad gloriosum illius conspectum contremiscens. Adducendi etiam nos sumus singuli, eorum quae in vita gesserimus rationem reddituri.Mox illis, qui multa mala in vita perpetrarint, terribiles quidam et deformes assistent angeli, igneos vultus præ se ferentes atque ignem spirantes, ea re propositi et voluntatis acerbitatem ostendentes, nocti vultu similes, propter mærorem et odium in humanum genus.Ad hæc cogites profundum barathrum, inextricabiles tenebras, ignem carentem splendore, urendi quidem vim habentem, sed privatum lumine: deinde vermium genus venenum immittens, et carnem vorans, inexplebiliter edens neque umquam saturitatem sentiens, intolerabiles dolores corrosione ipsa infigens: postremo, quod suppliciorum omnium gravissimum est, opprobrium illud et confusionem sempiternam. Hæc time, et hoc timore correptus animam a peccatorum concupiscentia tamquam freno quodam reprime.Hunc timorem Domini se docturum propheta promisit. Docere autem non simpliciter promisit, sed eos, qui eum audire voluerint: non eos, qui longius prolapsi sunt, sed qui salutem appetentes accurrunt: non alienos a promissionibus, sed ex baptismate filiorum adoptionis verbo ipsi conciliatos atque conjunctos. Propterea, Venite, inquit, hoc est, per bona opera accedite ad me, filii, quippe qui per regenerationem filii lucis effici digni facti estis: audite, qui aures cordis habetis apertas; timorem Domini docebo vos [Ps. 33, 12]: illum scilicet, quem paulo ante oratione nostra descripsimus.
[From] the Sermon of St Basil the Great, upon the Thirty-third Psalm.
Whenever the desire to sin cometh over thee, I would that thou couldest think of the awful and overwhelming judgment-seat of Christ. There the Judge shall sit upon a throne high and lifted up. Every creature shall stand before Him, quaking because of the glory of His presence. There are we to be led up, one by one, to give account for those things which we have done in life.Presently there will be found, by the sides of those who have in life wrought much evil, dreadful and hideous angels with faces of fire, and burning breath, appointed thereto, and showing their evil will, in appearance like the night, in their despair and hatred of mankind.Think again of the bottomless pit, the impenetrable darkness, the lightless fire, burning, but not glowing, the poisonous mass of worms, preying upon the flesh, ever feeding, and never filled, causing by their gnawing unbearable agony; lastly, the greatest punishment of all, shame and confusion for ever. Have a dread of these things, and let that dread correct thee, and be as a curb to thy mind to hold it in from the hankering after sin.This fear of the Lord the Prophet hath promised to teach. But he hath not promised to teach it to all, but only to such as will hear him, not to such as have fallen far away, but to such as run to him, hungry for salvation, not to such as have no part in the promises, but to such as by baptism are born children of adoption, set at peace and oneness with the Word. Come, ye children, saith he, that is to say, Draw nigh unto me by good works, all ye who by the new birth have become the worthy children of light, hearken unto me, all ye who have the ears of your heart opened, I will teach you the fear of the Lord, [Ps 33:12] even the fear of that Being of Whom we have just been speaking.
As the Byzantine Liturgy sings time and again,
Christianum vitæ nostræ finem, sine dolore et dedecore, pacificam, et bonam ante terribile tribunal Christi defensionem [a Domino] petamus. — Concede, Domine.
For a Christian, painless, unashamed, peaceful end of our life, and for a good defence before the fearsome judgment‐seat of Christ, let us beseech [the Lord]. — Grant this, O Lord.