Humility as Being Human

“’What is humility?’ had a simple but penetrating answer: ‘It is when your brother sins against you and you forgive him before he comes to ask forgiveness.’ One story, which illustrates this, suggests that it was only through realizing this kind of humility in practice that one could become reconciled to another with whom one had a disagreement.

A brother was angry with another brother for something he had done. As soon as the second one learned of this, he came to ask the brother to forgive him. But the first brother would not open the door to him. So the one who had come to ask for forgiveness went to ask an old man the reason for this and what he should do. The old man told him,
‘See if there is not a motive in your heart such as blaming your brother or thinking that it is he who is responsible. You justify yourself and that is why he is not moved to open the door to you. In addition, I tell you this: even it is he who has sinned against you, settle it in your heart that it is you who have sinned against him and justify your brother. Then God will move him to reconcile himself with you.’

Convinced, the brother did this; then he went to knock at the brother’s door and almost before he heard the sound the other was first to ask pardon from the inside. Then he opened the door and embraced him with all his heart.”

(Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, pp. 252-253)

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Forgiveness Sunday: Starting the Journey Home

Great Lent is often metaphorically described as a journey.  It is not a journey that we embark on by ourselves, but we do sojourn with our community of fellow believers.  It is a strange journey though.  Often when groups start on a sojourn more people begin the journey than finish it, as some always drop out along the way.  Lent is not like that.  For today we will begin the Lenten journey, officially it begins at Forgiveness Vespers tonight.  And while we all should be there to wish each other a good journey, sadly only a few well wishers will show up.  But at Pascha, the end of the journey, suddenly everyone wants to be there even if they didn’t sojourn at all.

The Lenten Journey is strange for another reason – for all of the spiritual hymns suggest that we are not beginning our journey today, but rather are headed home.  We are now far away from home, we are in exile in this land we call home – like the Prodigal Son, we find ourselves far away from home.  Where we are is a land of exile, even if earth is the only planet we’ve ever been on – and yes even the United States of America turns out to be a land of exile, not paradise.  And we only have to pay attention to the news to remember this – this is a land in which we use guns to murder our children.

But out true home is God’s paradise, and that is where we are headed, to the kingdom of God.    We are not leaving home, but going home.  And the foods we will eat on the way – Lenten foods – are not foreign foods, but the foods of paradise.  We have been away from home so long that we have forgotten what God gave to us.   Our Lenten sojourn is to revive in us that sense that we are in exile here and we need to find our way home, to our heavenly Father’s home.  In the Narnia books, if you read them, you might remember that the witch gave the children a candy delight which they loved so much that they forgot their true home.  That is the world which seduces us into wanting this to be the only world there is.  We think America is great again, so we aren’t even looking for our true home.

In a few hours we will embark on that noble journey which will last 7 weeks.  Few of us are ever willing to travel for seven weeks to get somewhere.  But Great Lent is a 7 week sojourn which is worth every minute, if we make it so.   We will be challenged by the duties we are to perform – forgiving one another, fasting, repenting, praying, maintaining sobriety, loving, being spiritually vigilant, attending the weekday church services.

Sometimes when we think about this great voyage of Lent, the image which comes to mind is that Pascha is all light, the light at the end of the tunnel.  The tunnel which we must pass through to get to the light is darkness.  This is often how we feel about Great Lent.  But the image is not correct.  In today’s Epistle we heard these words:

Romans 13:11-14:4
And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.

The imagery of today’s epistle is not that we are moving into darkness, but rather we are putting the darkness behind us.  The darkness is ending and the light is dawning on us.

In Lent we are moving into the Light.  So one of the hymns of Vespers tonight says:

The Lenten Spring shines forth, the flower of repentance!

Let us cleanse ourselves from all evil, crying out to the Giver of Light:

Glory to You, O lover of mankind!

We are to awaken from our spiritual hibernation and joyfully embrace the Light of Great Lent who is Jesus Christ.

One image to keep in mind – it is said in dealing with alcoholism and other addiction that the definition of insanity is to do the same things over and over but to expect that one will get a different result.  Nothing changes unless we do something different.  Great Lent is the time to stop the insanity, to stop our addictions and to do things differently:  repent, forgive, pray and love.

Forgive others from your heart and God will forgive you.   Treat people as if you have forgiven them.  Do it not to change them but to change yourself.

This past week in our country we had yet another instance of gun violence in which 17 people died in in one shooting incident.  A  young man with a gun inflicted untold pain on so many families in Parkland, Florida, but really across our nation.

Today is forgiveness Sunday and I want us to think about another story of a young person who lost her life to violence in an event that happened over 100 years ago in Italy.

Maria Goretti, an 11 year old Italian girl who was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.  Maria’s father died when she was 9 years old, and her mother and siblings lived in poverty, sharing a house with another family.  On July 5, 1902, Maria was home sewing and watching her younger siblings when the teenage son of the family whom they shared the home with attacked Maria with the intent of raping her.  Maria resisted her assailant and he stabbed her 14 times.  She lived about 24 hours after the assault and before she died she forgave her attacker who because he was a teenager was spared the death sentence and instead was sentenced to 30 years in prison.   While in prison, her assailant had a vision of Maria who came to him to say she had forgiven him.  She handed him a bunch of lilies but as soon as he took them in his hand they wilted and died.  He repented of his sin against Maria and when after 30 years  he was released from prison he became a lay monk and even attended the service in which Maria was declared to be a saint.

We are to forgive those who trespass against us – we forgive the sinner, we don’t forgive the trespass, for we cannot always undo the trespass.  Maria forgave her assailant but not what he did to her, for in the end he murdered her.

Maria understood the words of today’s Gospel that we are to forgive.  Maybe you feel someone you know has offended you and you can’t forgive them, maybe they even stabbed you 14 times by their deeds and comments.  Eleven year old Maria Goretti shows us it is possible to forgive such a person.

Our sojourn begins with forgiveness.

Forgiveness Sunday (2018)

If Lent is to be a truly Christian fast, it must be accompanied by love and forgiveness. Thus, before Lent begins, we are called to forgive everyone who has injured or offended us from the bottom of our hearts. Only then can we have a truly Christian Lent. Only then can our fast be pleasing to God.”   (Vassilios Papavassiliou, MEDITATIONS FOR GREAT LENT: Reflections on the Triodion, Kindle Loc. 281-83)

St. John Chrysostom tells us that we should consider forgiving others and reconciling with them as an essential part of spiritual lives – not something optional if it is convenient and easy, but something critical and necessary no matter what what the obstacles or what the cost.

If the Emperor had laid down a law that all those who were enemies should be reconciled to one another, or have their heads cut off, should we not every one make haste to a reconciliation with his neighbor? Yes, truly, I think so!

What excuse then have we, in not ascribing the same honour to the LORD that we should do to those who are our fellow servants? For this reason we are commanded to say, ‘Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors’. (Matt. 6:12) What can be more mild, what more merciful, than this precept! He has made you a judge of the pardon of your own offenses! If you forgive few things, he forgives you few! If you forgive many things, he forgives you many! If you pardon from the heart, and sincerely, God in like manner also pardons you…

Do not tell me, ‘I have besought him many times, I have entreated, I have supplicated, but I have not effected a reconciliation.’ Never desist till you have reconciled him. For he said not, ‘Leave your gift, and go your way’. Although you may have made many entreaties, yet you must not desist until you have persuaded. God entreats us every day, and we do not hear; yet he does not cease entreating. And do not then disdain to entreat your fellow-servant. How is it then possible for you ever to be saved? In proportion as the good work is accomplished with greater difficulty, and the reconciliation is one of much labour, so much the greater will be the judgment on him, and so much the brighter will be the crowns of victory for your forbearance. (Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Kindle 2950-62)

The Unforgiving Servant

In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.  . . .  We love, because he first loved us.  (1 John 4:10,19)

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“We cannot continue without mentioning the parable of the destitute servant (Mt 18:23-35)–and we are all destitute servants! A man owed the king a tremendous sum of money which we was unable to repay. So, he was to be sold into slavery together with his entire family. But the king was moved to put and forgave him his debt. No sooner had this servant gone out then he came upon another who owed him a small sum and fiercely grabbing him by the throat, he had him cast into prison. The master having heard this brought harsh justice upon him saying; ‘You wicked servant! I forgive you all that debt because you besought me; and should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?

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We must carefully note the progression of the parable. It is not because I forgive the sins of those who are in my debt that God forgives my own. I cannot exact God’s forgiveness. It is because God forgives me and leads me back to Himself, because He enables me to exist, in freedom, in His grace and because I am so overwhelmed with gratitude that I then free others from my egocentric ways and let them live in the freedom of grace as well.

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We are constantly expecting something from others. They owe us their love, their attention, or their admiration. My interest is not in others but in my self-gratification, which they provide. The stuff of which I am made is vanity and irritability. And since others are a perpetual disappointment, since they cannot settle their debts with me, I pursue them out of spite and bear towards them dark and negative feelings, I get lost in a wilderness of ill defined ‘vendettas.’ Or else, nursing my offended dignity, I remove myself, taking on an air of proud indifference and pay myself for the offenses of others…in fool’s gold!”   (Olivier Clement, Three Prayers, pp. 33-34)

Obey Christ by Forgiving Others

Many Orthodox saints are known for their rigorist asceticism.  We also see them taking a maximalist point of view when it comes to fulfilling Christ’s Gospel commandments.  They did not shy away from taking Christ’s teachings quite literally.  For example, the 11th Century saint, Symeon the New Theologian says:

“If someone, whether justly or unjustly, should insult you, or revile you, or slander you, and you do not bear the slight meekly, or, grieved and wounded at heart, you fail to endure it and rein in the movements of your soul, but instead insult in turn the one who insulted you, or revile him, or do something else against him, or, again do none of these things to him, but instead go away carrying a grudge against him in your heart and do not forgive him with all your soul and pray for him with all your heart, behold! you have at once taken up arms against Christ by doing what is opposed to His ordinances and have become His enemy. You have as well destroyed your own soul by falling in with and putting the seal on your former sins and making them ineradicable.” (St. Symeon the New Theologian, On the Mystical Life: The Ethical Discourses Vol. 2, p 149)

Forgive us as We Forgive Others

“For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.”  (Matthew 7:2)

In our Orthodox Church we begin Great Lent with Forgiveness Vespers and within the parish mutually asking each other for forgiveness and forgiving others.    If Great Lent is a season of repentance – seeking God’s forgiveness, Christ would tell us the first step along this path is to forgive others.   Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev expands on this theme while commenting on one line in the Lord’s Prayer.

“ ‘And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Prayer is inextricably bound up with a person’s way of life. The reason for the difficulties a person experiences in prayer lies in an incorrect, unspiritual, and non-evangelical life. We sense this especially when we say the ‘Our Father’. Each petition of this prayer places us in front of a given reality, as if we were being judged – judged by our own conscience. And this prayer, if we pray from our soul and heart – if we really think about what is written here – should constantly force us to change our lives.

Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Mt 18:21-35)

We say:

‘And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,’

that is, we ask God to forgive us our debts, as we forgive those who are in debt to us. When we speak these words, we should ask ourselves: do we forgive our neighbors? Are we ready to place our own forgiveness by God in dependence on whether we forgive others? Isn’t this too frightening? Isn’t this too much responsibility?”

(Prayer: Encounter with the Living God, pp 117-118)

It indeed is both frightening and tremendous responsibility.  The way we will be judged by God is totally dependent on how we treat other people.  God judges us by our own criterion of judgment.   This is no doubt why in the church we pray constantly, “Lord, have mercy.”  God’s judgments are righteous, we constantly ask Him to remember to be merciful.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.“By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

God Moved by Compassion, Forgives

At that time, Jesus said to Peter, “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.

 

But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and   besought him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you   besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

(Matthew 18:23-35)

“The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt. 18:23-35) or, what the kingdom of heaven is like:

Moved with compassion, a king forgives his servant who owes him a ridiculously large sum of money. The king releases him from debtor’s prison. But when this servant won’t forgive a fellow servant a small debt, he shows he doesn’t really understand the king’s action.

The servant rejects the sort of ‘economy’ found in the kingdom of heaven. This economy is not a market economy in which we are encouraged to make as much money as we can for ourselves. It is not a barter economy in which we trade with others who can give us something in return. It is not a tit-for-tat or you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-your-back economy. It is not an economy in which we do business only with those dear to us or who can do something for us. The economy in the kingdom of heaven is a gift economy in which we are all invited to participate. When he compassionately forgave the debts of the servant, the king gave a gift of forgiveness and compassion to the servant. The servant, however, did not pass that gift on by forgiving his fellow servant. He wasted both the compassion and forgiveness given to him. So, he excluded himself from the kingdom of heaven.”  (Fr. John D. Jones in In Communion:Journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, Spring – April/June 2012, pp 8-9)

Forgiving From and For One’s Heart

God shows his love for us

in that while we were yet sinners

Christ died for us.

(Romans 5:8)

“What do readers discover? Simple, basic things, such as the fact that the person who does the forgiving gets the first benefit from doing it. They may have heard that forgiving is a hard duty God lays on Christian people. Then they discover that forgiving is an opportunity for injured people to heal their own wounds. They discover that forgiving is something that happens inside the injured person’s mind, and that sometimes the person they forgive never even hears about it. That if we wait to forgive people until they say they are sorry we make ourselves hostages to the very person who wronged us to begin with. They discover that forgiving does not turn us into doormats. And that when we forgive, we set a prisoner free and then discover that the prisoner we set free was us.

In a way, forgiving makes up for what God could not give us when he made us. What he could not give us was the power to change the past; he could not invent a delete button for the bad things that happen to us. All he could give us was the power to remember them. This would be no great problem if the past had not saddled us with wrongs that people have done us, wrongs we can neither undo nor forget, wrongs that infest our memories and make us sick. Once we are wounded and wronged, the gift of memory becomes an inability to forget. And our inability to be glad about life. We all know that persistent resentment of a wrong we cannot forget is a toxin that poisons, not just one person’s memory, but the whole human system. It poisons the life of tribes, of nations, of families, of friends, as well as the lives of wounded individuals. Resentment escalates into grudge, grudge raises the ante to rage, and rage can drive people crazy. It sets brother against brother, gang against gang, and people against people. Most of all, it sets a wounded person against himself and compounds his pain. We are discovering that the only way to get over the misery of resentment for remembered wrongs is to forgive the people who did them. Only when we heal ourselves can there be a healing between us and the person that did the wounding.” (Lewis B. Smedes, Forgive and Forget, pp x-xi)

Forgiving Others: The Greatest Lenten Practice

Liturgically, we Orthodox enter Great Lent at Forgiveness Vespers.  The first thing, the most important thing we do for Great Lent is to forgive from our hearts our fellow parishioners and our family members.

The sign of sincere love is to forgive wrongs done to us. It was with such love that the Lord loved the world.   (St. Mark the Ascetic, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 3609-10)

St. Peter of Damaskos reminds us that it is forgiving others, more than anything else we do as Christians, which will lead to God forgiving us.  Nothing, not fasting, nor even repentance more quickly brings about God forgiving us than our forgiving others!

Moreover, if we do not forgive others their debts, the Father will not forgive us our debts (cf. Matt. 6:14). Indeed, nothing leads more swiftly to the forgiveness of sins than this virtue or commandment: ‘Forgive, and you will be forgiven’ (cf. Matt. 6:14).” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 26234-40)

We of course read in the Orthodox Church the Matthew 6 Gospel about forgiveness on the day before Great Lent begins.  We are reminded of the utmost importance of forgiveness to our own spiritual lives.   The way to being forgiven our sins, the way to repentance, the way to Pascha, the way to the Kingdom of God is to forgive others.

Indebted to Christ for Being Freed of Debt

SS Peter and Paul

“It is evident from the Scripture that forgiveness of offences – debts – is central to the teaching and ministry of Christ, and fundamental to our own salvation, and the inclination to forgive even appears to be ingrained in our nature, though frequently it is not manifested and often it is ardently resisted. Moreover, Christ is firm and absolute in telling us that if we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven. It is evident, therefore, that any failure on our part to forgive, forms a barricade between us and the heavenly kingdom, a wall between us and God. Forgiveness of others and sincere repentance are intimately related, for when we search our own souls and examine our own sinful disposition and the condition of our own characters, it is easier to forgive others.  […]  

St. Paul converted by Christ

One who has not forgiven others absolutely has not repented of his own sins. He is still in bondage to Satan through his own malice and bitterness; he is still judging his neighbor. Those Christ warns, ‘Do not judge, let you be judged in the same manner.’ Which one of us could survive if we were truly judged with the same measure, criterion and rigidness with which we dare to judge others? Not only is it perfect and all-wise justice that we should be judged by the same standard with which we judge others, and that we should not be forgiven if we have not forgiven others, but no matter how present and available God’s mercy is, one who does not forgive cannot receive forgiveness, because he has not even begun to repent and not even truly sough God’s forgiveness.” (Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, Not By Bread Alone: Homilies on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, pp 54-54)