Thursday, February 15, 2007

Forgiveness Sunday

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Today we stand at the threshold of Great Lent. Tonight during Forgiveness Vespers, we will step across that threshold and enter once again into that holy and saving season, by God’s infinite mercy. It is a privilege for us to do this together, and there is much for the Orthodox Christian to be reminded of during this very important time.

First, let us understand that we do not enter into Great Lent as mere individuals, but as a community. Today’s popular Christianity promotes a bizarre myth of “stand-alone” salvation, allegedly based on one’s subjective and individualistic “relationship to God”. In contrast, traditional Christianity has always emphasized a communion of the faithful with God and one another in the Church as being that from which our salvation flows. This is because salvation comes from the Holy Trinity, which is both the model for our life, and its fulfillment as well.

The Holy Trinity is comprised of three Persons united in the perfect communion of love. From this model flows the kingdom of heaven, which is a true community of the heavenly hosts and all the saints who have found favor with God throughout the ages, the very life of which is a sharing in that same communion of love with the Holy Three. The Church is the visible component of this kingdom, through which men and women on earth seeking salvation are permitted entry into this communion that they too may find the ultimate fulfillment of their life in the Holy Trinity from which it began.

Thus, all begins and ends with the Trinity, and everything in the true Christian life follows that model of community and communion, rather than the falsehood of individualism and independence. Therefore, although we each individually have much to gain from Great Lent, we really only gain that if we participate in Lent as community.

This is why we begin Great Lent together, by leaving the comfort of our homes and our evening routines, assembling together as the church in prayer, taking the time to make a metania before one another and to ask and grant forgiveness, with a love which befits those seeking communion with God.

In the “Our Father,” our Lord taught us to pray “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. In his commentary on this passage, St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote, “For we have many sins. We offend both in word and in thought, and in the very many things we do worthy of condemnation. And 'if we say that we have no sin' (1 John 1:8), we lie. The offenses committed against us are slight and trivial, and are easily settled; but those which we have committed against God are great, and need such mercy as is only His. Take heed, therefore, lest for the slight and trivial sins against you, you shut out for yourself forgiveness from God for your very grievous sins.”

St. Cosmas of Aitolos, an 18th century priest-monk, evangelist, and martyr once wrote, “If you want cure your soul, you need four things. The first is to forgive your enemies. The second is to confess thoroughly. The third is to blame yourself. The fourth is to resolve to sin no more. If we wish to be saved, we must always blame ourselves and not attribute our wrong acts to others. And God, Who is most compassionate, will forgive us.”

These illumined teachings from two of our holy fathers show us that our forgiveness from God is not at all unconditional, but is predicated entirely upon whether or not we forgive others. Once again we see that our salvation is not independent, but very closely connected to one another.

Our forgiveness toward one another must be from the heart and complete. But this is not often easy. Many times we may assure ourselves that we have forgiven someone, and might even put on a nice if slightly insincere smile when we encounter that person. But in an unguarded moment, anger may flare or gossip may flow, and the truth is revealed that we have not forgiven at all.

This is where St. Cosmas’ advice can be soul-saving. True forgiveness does not occur by merely trying to suppress anger that deep inside we honestly believe is justified. True forgiveness can only come when we begin to blame ourselves.

What can this mean? Our whole culture and even the language that we use militates against this idea of blaming ourselves. I might say, for example, that “Bob made me angry by what he did”. But is Bob really responsible for my reaction of anger, or is that my fault? Another person might also be affected by what Bob did, but not react with anger because he realizes that he is capable of doing the exact same thing that Bob did. Thus, rather than blaming Bob, he blames himself and asks God’s mercy upon both himself and his fellow sinner Bob.

If we are careless and do not recognize our own sins, especially in the actions of others, then we will always judge harshly. This is why the Lenten prayer of St. Ephraim pleads, “Help me to see my own sins, and not to judge my brother”.

This sort of self-blame is not destructive, unlike the child who wrongly blames himself for his parent’s divorce. On the contrary, the kind of self-blame that St. Cosmas describes is very liberating and allows us to be largely at peace with all men, despite their imperfections. It allows us to focus on our own repentance, and react with mercy toward those who would otherwise offend us.

Why do we begin Great Lent with a service of mutual forgiveness? Because at one time or another during the previous year, someone has annoyed, disappointed, or offended you, and you have judged them in your heart. Or perhaps it is the other way around. Either way, our Lord gave us a specific commandment regarding this. He said, “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave there your gift before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

That’s what our Lord said. What do we say? “It’s OK. I never said anything to the other person about it; I only quietly judged him in my heart. Besides, I’ve gotten over it”. Oh, how magnanimous of us! Why, we don’t even need the commandments of Christ when we can deal with things so effectively on our own!

I hate to be a drag, but it just doesn’t work that way. That judgmental little heart of ours needs to be healed. According to Christ, that can only begin to happen when we first go to our brother or sister seeking reconciliation. If we wish to obey our Lord, to truly be a part of this holy community seeking salvation, and allow our Lenten effort to be crowned with success, we need to come tonight and be reconciled to one another. As is always the case when we submit ourselves to Christ, this will make all the difference.

Let us rejoice that God has mercifully brought us once again to this saving season together. And let us begin with forgiveness for all.

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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