An Adventure, Great Lent, the Desert and the Heart

How many of you like to travel?  How many of you find the thought of a great voyage or adventure to be exciting?


How many of you find that however wonderful travel can be it is always great to be back home?

Whether you like to travel, like an adventure, or whether you like getting home, Great Lent is for you.  Great Lent is a great spiritual sojourn, a great adventure to the kingdom of heaven, and as it turns out, this heaven to which we are sojourning is also our home!

The Christian sojourn is not traveling to a far-off foreign country, but instead it is a journey to the home God created for us from the beginning.  Today in the Church we also remember the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.  Paradise was the place God created to be our home, but we no longer live in Paradise.   This is reality.  The Scriptures tell us of why Adam and Eve had to leave their home in Paradise, they were expelled from the home God made for them and us because of their own rebellious sin.


At Vespers on the eve of Forgiveness Sunday one of the hymns says:

Adam ate the forbidden fruit and was driven from Paradise.

He sat outside, weeping bitterly:

“Woe to me! What will become of me, a worthless man?

I disobeyed one command of my Master and lost every good thing!

O holy Paradise, planted for me by God, and closed by the weakness of


grant that I may once again gaze on the flowers of your gardens!”

The Savior said to him:

“I do not wish the death of my creation!

I desire that all should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth,

for him who comes to me I shall never cast out!”

Adam and Eve lost not only their home but also lost their way home.  And in them, so did we all.   They couldn’t get back to that home they had lost.  But Christianity says there is a way home.  So in another hymn from Vespers we sing:

O Paradise, garden of delight and beauty,

dwelling-place made perfect by God,

unending gladness and eternal joy,

the hope of the prophets and the home of the saints,

by the music of your rustling leaves beseech the Creator of all

to open the gates which my sins have closed,

that I may partake of the Tree of Life and Grace

which was given to me in the beginning!


Even the leaves in paradise when they rustle create music which calls to us to return.   And when we think about this beautiful paradise we should feel homesick because this world is full of problems – violence, disease, war, pain, sorrow, addiction, emotional illness, shattered marriages, dysfunctional families.  Something is wrong in this world and with this world.  Sin has shattered our lives.  We have lost touch with God.

Yet, the fact that we can recognize there is a problem gives us hope.  We don’t find ultimate purpose of life in this world, but it is available to us in the life in the world to come.  We can believe there is purpose and meaning to life despite the  sorrows and problems of this world because we understand this world is only a small part of the totality of creation, and life here is a tiny portion of the big history or creation.  We can believe that there is a better way, and trust that there is a God to help us.  Thus we can be full of hope.


Many years ago I read a book called Emotions Anonymous In which a physician wrote these words:

“As a doctor it took me a long time to find that actually relieving pain is not my goal.  I found that behind all the suffering, pain, diseases, and all the conditions that cause dis-ease, lie the thirst and the hunger of the human being for spirituality.

This hunger and thirst is the aspiration of a human being to be a whole again.”  (p 18)

This physician was describing what we Orthodox have known for centuries.  He went on to say about this world:

“I believe

We want to have no conflict, but we still have conflict.

We want life to be perfect here and now but it is far from perfect.

We want to have constant pleasure but we have pain.

We so want to succeed in every effort we make that when we fail in one area we reject not only our actions but ourselves as well.

We become very fearful.

We try to impress other people by being something we are not, by being phony.

We find ourselves being resentful toward people and life.

We become experts as manipulating people.

We become very self-centered.”  (Emotions Anonymous, p 29)


In so many ways he is describing the same things we read in the Scriptures about the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise and why we struggle on earth with pain and sorrow.  He is describing the descent into sin and a world which is broken.

And when we allow ourselves to truly look at this world, we realize all of the things of this earth not only are intermixed with pain and sorrow but they also are transient, all is passing away.

And so we can think about Christ’s words:  “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.”   Our treasure should be our true home that Kingdom of God which is  true, permanent and eternal, rather than being the things of this world which are intermixed with grief and pain.  We should prefer the eternal and everlasting Kingdom to the temporary and transient things of this world which in any case will all pass away.


Great Lent calls us to look for the eternal even though we live in the temporal world.   Great Lent reminds us that we really do love these temporary things of this world – our favorite foods, the comforts of home, being entertained, the abundance of the earth.  But all we need to do is look around and realize we continue to age, we really are sojourners on this planet and are here only a short time.  Not only are our lives on earth temporary, but everything we so love on earth will pass away as well.

And as we think about all of this we come to the words of the Prophet Hosea in which God himself musing about his own love for Israel  says:  “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.”  (Hosea 2:14)


God in His love for His people calls us into the wilderness, into the desert to find Him and to find our way home.  Great Lent is a sojourn, it is the journey into the desert where we find God’s love and  our way home to God.    We experience in Lent some discomfort, some self-denial, to awaken in ourselves the knowledge that we are not in our permanent home but are just passing through this life on the way to our home.  Fasting is a spiritual discipline to help us put this world and our lives into a proper framework so that we can seek that which is eternal as well as that which is our true home.

When we think about fasting, we also have to consider that before teaching us about fasting, Jesus spoke first about forgiveness as we see in today’s Gospel.

 For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  (Matthew 6:14-21)

In the Gospel, Christ teaches us first about forgiving and then fasting.  Before we begin the fast we are to forgive.  We cannot pursue the heights of spirituality without first ridding ourselves of the depth of anger and resentment by forgiving one another.


St Gregory the Great said even sinners and demons can perform spectacular miracles (Pharaoh’s magicians for example did).  St Gregory says forgiving is an even a greater miracle than healing the sick, and every Christian is capable of performing the miracle of forgiveness.   Demons and sinners are not able to perform the miracle of forgiveness.  Perform a miracle today, forgive someone who has offended you or who owes you or against whom you have a grudge.

You are God’s servant, does it serve God for you to hold on to a grudge, a hurt, the anger, the resentment?

The journey we are about to undertake is a spiritual sojourn, and the desert through which we must traverse turns out to be our own hearts which have become hardened, barren and arid by our experiences in this world.  But now we are being called by God to turn away from the world and to come into the desert to meet Him, to turn our hearts into the very place where we will meet God face to face.  The experience of God awaits us if we will undertake the journey.


We are preparing ourselves to commemorate the Resurrection of our Lord, not as past history, but as our own experience, our history, Christ is risen from the dead, not Christ was risen.  We celebrate this yearly because it is our personal experience, and our community’s experience, not just something that happened to people long ago.  We are to enter into that experience and make it our own.  I do this because of what the Lord has done for me.  God has blessed us in this world and invites us into that blessed life in the world to come.  Are you ready to make this sojourn home?

For the Peace from Above

For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord.

Jesus answered:  “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”   (John 3:3)


Jesus speaks to us about being ‘born again’ or ‘born from above’ – which Orthodoxy has understood as the spiritual and heavenly birth given us in baptism.  The phrase “from above” does occur at various times in Orthodox liturgical prayers as in the petition of the litany listed above.  We come to experience the forgiveness we offer to others as the peace from above.  St. Isaac of Nineveh writes:

Consider the forgiveness of your debtors in these things as a work of righteousness.  Then you will see peace exult in your mind from two sides: namely when you are above propriety and justice in your way, and you yield to freedom in all things. (On Ascetical Life, p. 65)

For St Isaac  when someone decides to forgive, they decide that mercy trumps judgment (James 2:13).  In forgiveness, we decide to forego retribution, justice or even validation for one’s hurt because of the offense.  You choose freedom from the demands of justice.


Forgiveness Sunday is our time to choose the peace from above, to let go the demands of justice and validation and to love another as God loves us.  We enter into Great Lent with the intention to live the Gospel.  “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14).  We offer to others what we want from God.

The second theme, that of forgiveness, is emphasized in the Gospel reading for this Sunday (Matthew 6:14-21) and in the special ceremony of mutual forgiveness at the end of Vespers on Sunday evening. Before we enter the Lenten fast, we are reminded that there can be no true fast, no genuine repentance, no reconciliation with God, unless we are at the same time reconciled with one another. A fast without mutual love is the fast of demons. As the commemoration of the ascetic saints on the previous Saturday has just made clear to us, we do not travel the road of Lent as isolated individuals but as members of a family. Our asceticism and fasting should not separate us from our fellow men but link us to them with ever stronger bonds. The Lenten ascetic is called to be a man for others. (The Lenten Triodion, p. 47)


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)

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)

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)

The Expulsion of Adam from Paradise

In the long history of Christianity, many insightful meditations have been offered giving Adam voice to explain his free choice and to lament the loss of Paradise after sinning against God and being expelled from God’s hand-planted Garden of Eden.  Below is a modern meditation from Archimandrite Aimilianos who has Adam fearfully explaining himself, ignoring the merciful nature of the God whom Adam knew from the beginning.

“And so it was with Adam: ‘I’m over here, hiding, because I was afraid to see you, because I have sinned. I’m afraid that you wouldn’t accept my excuses; that You’d say it was all my fault. I was afraid that you would no longer acknowledge me as Your child.’

To be sure, Adam’s desire to justify himself, the various excuses he contemplated, were the signs of certain death. And this is why St. Makarios says: ‘When Adam fell away from God, he died spirtually,’ Seeking to justify himself, Adam condemned himself to life without God. Until then, the damage wasn’t fully done; the blow could have been blunted, the tradgedy averted. This was the critical moment which we all must face, when it becomes clear whether we’ll choose God or our self. As a general rule, we choose our self. Every day we repeat the sin of Adam. He fell when he opened his soul to the poison of the serpent, but there was still hope that he might turn and embrace God.

He could have raised his arms to God and cried: ‘God, I am your voice, your self-expression; I am your creation, your child, and I have sinned. Bend down and hold me; save me before I perish completely!’ Instead, he said, in effect: ‘What do You want, God? Have you come here to judge me?’” (Archimandrite Aimilianos, The Way of the Spirit, p 239)

Interestingly in the Gospels, it is the demons who have nothing but fear for Christ; they are terrified that He is there to judge them, yet they do not repent.  For example in Mark 1:24, the demons possessing the man cry out:

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

Adam feared God and God’s judgment, yet it did not bring him to repentance, to seek reconciliation with God.  Instead, Adam blames Eve and God for his sin and fails to ask the merciful God for forgiveness and reconciliation.

Also in the various versions of the Gospel lesson of the Gadarene swine and the demoniacs (Mt 8:28-34; Mk 5:1-20; Lk 8:26-39), the demons squeal in fear that Christ is there to torment them before the Judgment Day, yet they do not seek to be reconciled to God.  So too in Archimandrite Aimilianos’ meditation, Adam fears God’s judgment, yet fails to seek reconciliation with the merciful Lord.

So often many want a just God who punishes sinners, yet so seldom do we willingly seek God in confession.   We believe sinners should fear God like the demons, yet what we should be doing is offering all an example by our own repentance.

In the next post we will consider words from St Silouan as he too gives Adam a voice of lament for sinning against his Creator:  Adam Laments His Exile.

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.

The Expulsion of Eve and Adam from Paradise

The Sunday before we enter into Great Lent has the theme of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.   Early church writers imagined that Paradise was a temple which God had built so that we could worship Him.  God’s expelling Eve and Adam from the Edenic temple was not done for punishment but rather to make us long for God and our lost relationship with Him.  On earth, we experience the absence of God and so seek for Him.  Liturgy and the church sanctuary are where we look to find God.

So repentance and the prayer life are natural ways which God provided for us on earth to seek Him and to work to re-establish the proper relationship with Him.   Priest and Professor Baby Varghese writes about the wisdom of St. Ephrem the Syrian regarding the Fall:

“When Adam and Eve trusted the word of Satan instead of God’s commandment, God ceased to be the center of their life. Thus man ceased to be a liturgical being and priest of the creation. He was incapacitated to offer worship pleasing to God. God expelled Adam precisely to give him an opportunity to repent and to make him aware of his former glory. God wanted that we should supplicate to regain our lost inheritance and dignity:

The Good One in His love wished to discipline us for doing wrong,

and so we had to leave Paradise with its bridal chamber of glory;

He made us live with the wild beast which caused sorrow,

So that we might see how little our honor had become,

and so would supplicate Him and beg to return to our inheritance.

In fact the goal of prayer is to return to our former inheritance:

We should learn from Daniel, who prayed

that he might come up from Babylon to the land of promise;

Babylon is the likeness of this earth, full of curse.

God gave us this type which He depicted so that we too

might pray that we return to our dwelling in Eden.

Blessed is He who brings forth through grace to our goal.

[…]For Ephrem, Adam’s fall means estrangement from God and consequently the cessation of the worship of true God. The very goal of incarnation was to bring man back to God and to restore the worship of true God:

The All-Knowing saw that we worshipped creatures.

He put on a created body to catch us by our habit,

To draw us by a created body toward the Creator.”

St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly Vol. 56, Number 1, 2012, pp 22 & 24)

Forgiveness Sunday (2014)

The forgiving father embraces his prodigal son.

Forgiveness is a bookend on both sides of the Great Lenten season.  The Sunday immediately before Great Lent begins is called “Forgiveness Sunday.”  On this day, we Orthodox take time to mutually ask forgiveness of our fellow parish/community members and to grant them forgiveness for any ways they may have offended us.  We are to enter Lent in a forgiving spirit.  And no doubt even if we poorly keep the food fast of Lent, if we manage to forgive from our hearts someone who has offended us, we have spiritually accomplished more than all the food abstinence could ever do for us.   Satan never eats and never forgives.   For the fast to be spiritually purposeful, we have to do more than Satan!  We are to forgive others from our hearts.

The other “bookend” of Great Lent is Pascha itself – this is the Feast in which we celebrate God’s forgiving us humans our sins as demonstrated in the death and resurrection of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.   All of Lent, the season of repentance and forgiveness, prepares  us for celebrating our being forgiven by God for our sins . . .  with this caveat:  we must be willing to forgive those who sinned against us.  More important than denying ourselves food, Lent is a time for us to let go of grudges, to forgive those who have offended us, to free ourselves from such resentments, so that we can in fact celebrate the resurrection of Christ, the destruction of sin and the forgiveness of sinners.  The abstinence from food is a way to learn to deny ourselves – even when we don’t want to forgive and don’t want to give up our ‘righteous’ anger – we teach ourselves to overcome our passions in order to love neighbor.

The Gospel Lesson for Forgiveness Sunday is Matthew 6:14-21, in which Jesus lays down for us the Gospel command regarding forgiveness:

Then the Lord said, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your   trespasses.”And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Icon for the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

So we find in the desert fathers a meditation on God’s forgiveness of our sins and how we should be joyously willing to forgive others:

“ ‘If you say [to God], ‘Have mercy on me,’ God says to you, ‘If you want me to have mercy on you, do you also have mercy on your brother; if you want me to forgive you, do you also forgive your neighbor’ [Mt. 6:14]’

A basic question about forgiveness was whether one could be forgiven by God for one’s sins. A story is told of a soldier who came to Abba Mius and asked him ‘if God accepted repentance.’ The old man responded to the soldier with great tenderness by putting a question to him in the soldier’s own language: ‘Tell me, my dear, if your cloak is torn, do you throw it away? He replied, ‘No, I mend it and use it again.’ The old man said to him, ‘If you are so careful about your cloak, will not God be equally careful about his creature’ [John 4:10]’

On another occasion, a brother, probably a new convert to Christianity, asked Abba Poemen a very similar question, ‘If a brother is involved in a sin and is converted, will God forgive him’ Poeman responded with a question of his own, ‘Will not God, who has commanded men to act thus, do as much himself and even more? For God commanded Peter to forgive till seventy times seven [Mt. 18:22].’”

(The Word in the Desert, Douglas Burton-Christie, pg. 276)