The Church in her wisdom has given us, very carefully considered Gospel readings all during the year. On this, the Sunday Great Lent begins – also known as the Sunday of the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise – we are always given the passage we just heard from Matthew. Our Lord is explaining to His disciples what is expected of all who wish to follow Him. He starts with Forgiveness putting it very simply; “if you forgive, then I forgive. If you do not forgive, then I do not forgive” A very direct and clear instruction which is pretty hard to misunderstand – although we do our best to do so.
He then moves on to Fasting. He doesn’t say: “if” you fast but starts with “when” you fast, and then explains that you should do it very quietly and secretly and not draw any attention to the fact that you are fasting. The sin that caused the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise – was disobedience to God by refusing to fast; and eating from the tree which God asked them not to eat of. Fasting struggles have been with us from the start. I might add that some of the Father’s are fond of saying that you should not just fast from meat, dairy and other foods, but it is even better to fast from devouring your brothers and sisters, and fill the time you gain from fasting by feeding on the Word of God and prayer.
This Gospel reading then concludes with some simple instructions for a great eternal investment plan that is risk free and guaranteed to yield huge gains. Invest in God’s Kingdom; in feeding and clothing the poor, in building and beatifying His Churches, in supporting His work here upon the earth, and your rewards will be exponentially and permanently multiplied in the Kingdom of heaven. Here on earth with peace and joy, and in God’s Kingdom with solid returns that can not be wiped out by the economy.
So as we move into Great Lent the Church would have us consider this same advice every year – for hundreds of years the advice has been the same and no matter what the culture or how technologically advanced our civilization becomes, the passage and the advice stays the same going into Great Lent. Forgiveness – Fasting – Almsgiving.
Now this obviously doesn’t apply only to lent but is the advice that Christ gives to his disciples for all time as essential requirements to living a Christian life. But, the Church has given us the Lenten season to enable us to re-focus on what is truly important. To help us to start to consider once again what the real purpose of our very short time on planet earth is really all about. We are so easily distracted. I count myself as first in this department as those who know me will be happy to confirm. There is just so much going on, so much to get involved with, so many diversions – work, play, entertainment, the kids activities, all good and blessed things; and these days social media which certainly isn’t always a blessed and good thing strangles the life and any free time out of many in our culture. Somehow our prayer, church and devotional time seem to take a back seat as life gets in the way.
I do know better, and I really look forward to getting another chance to get my spiritual priorities and discipline back on track during Great Lent. I then really count on God’s forgiveness, as my great intentions end up being a whimper compared to what I had hoped to accomplish. Thank God He always does forgive when we turn to Him in genuine repentance.
The more we are able to experience and accept God’s forgiveness for ourselves, the more we can in turn, pass forgiveness on to those whom we struggle with. Our culture says we need to forgive ourselves, and we often think we just can’t forgive ourselves for whatever terrible sin we have fallen into. We struggle with “if only I could have another chance” or beat ourselves up constantly with “what a lunkhead… dumb, dumb, dumb” or worse. We don’t just beat ourselves up, as soon as we get on this track we have instant help from the enemy and accuser of mankind who takes special delight in doing all he can to keep this self –flagellation at the forefront of our thinking. This isn’t a guilty conscience – this is spiritual self abuse. It really isn’t so important that we forgive ourselves. What is critically important however, is that we accept that God has forgiven us. Then we will be able to move on.
So what did we just hear Christ say about God’s forgiveness, without which none of us can even exist. He didn’t say God wouldn’t forgive us if we didn’t fast properly or even if we struggled with generosity and alms giving. Christ really wants what is best for us and He knows that we will be hurting ourselves, limiting our growth and limiting our experience of His joy and peace in our lives if we don’t practise fasting and almsgiving. He is greatly encouraging us to re-think how we view fasting and almsgiving. To start seeing them as blessed opportunities to allow the Kingdom of God to grow in us. To cooperate with God in allowing the very image of Christ which he has placed within us – and within every human being – to shine forth.
However, He puts forgiveness in a completely different category. “Forgive them and you will be forgiven.” There is a direct link. This is a very simple statement that should be pretty much impossible to misunderstand, but we want to throw a few exceptions into the formula. I can forgive – up to a certain point – but let’s not get carried away here. After all _ _ _ was really just too much. I’m sure there must be some exceptions and this one certainly qualifies. I mean after all I’ve done for that guy to have him treat me like this. He really hurt my feelings. I heard what so and so said to so and so about you know what and I resent it! No-one has the right to treat me like that.
Hmmm “No-one has the right to treat me like that.”
This may be very true or it may be just a little true, and really we might be largely reacting to a finger stuck into our pride. Nothing make us squirm more than having our pride exposed, and a good “undeserved” insult can certainly show us very quickly if we have a healthy worm gnawing away in the hidden recesses of our heart, which only God through our prayer with humility and forgiveness can eradicate – kind of like pouring salt on a slug. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we just roll over and play let’s pretend this didn’t happen. We may have to actively pray to God to help us forgive someone, while actively doing everything we can to have them locked up. Healing requires light and the Father of lights will be exposing every deed and thought to the light at the last judgement, and already knows about them all right now, so it’s a bad idea to try to keep our sin hidden until then. However, the Fathers also tell us that love covers a multitude of sins and exposing what we perceive as others sins publicly would seldom be advised.
That’s why we have the sacrament of confession. It is very healing, when being tortured with the crazy thoughts that the enemy of our souls tries to fill our mind with, to hear our Father confessor say; “Now, having no further care for the sins which you have confessed, depart in peace.” That is why it is a normal practice in the Orthodox Church to do a serious self examination during Great Lent and come to confession. Please let’s not all leave this for the last few days of Holy week.
This teaching on forgiveness which we heard today follows immediately upon some very familiar verses which begin; “In this manner therefore pray: Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be your name…”
I think we are all pretty familiar with this prayer but if not it will be coming up a little later in the Liturgy, just before we receive the Body and Blood of our Christ our Lord for the healing of soul and body. The Lord chose to emphasize immediately after giving us this precious prayer, that forgiving others wasn’t optional. He took “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” directly from His prayer and highlighted it just to be sure there could be no mistaking its importance.
Christ then went on to demonstrate true forgiveness by giving His very life for us on the cross. He who knew no sin voluntarily allowed those filled with sin, to nail Him to the cross, for the forgiveness of our sins. As they nailed Him to the cross He said: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Listen to a phrase from the beautiful Anaphora prayer coming up; “…in the night in which He was given up – or rather gave Himself up for the life of the world -…”
Christ’s very life was about forgiveness. Forgiveness for us. Forgiveness for our rebellion. Forgiveness for our sin. Forgiveness completely undeserved.
Forgiveness is at the heart of every stable and lasting marriage and relationship. We all give each other lots of opportunities to practise and without it our marriage is doomed.
When Saint Prophecies was asked: “Can I have your blessing to receive communion tomorrow?” he replied, “Do you hate anyone?” “No Elder.” “Good, Go and receive communion.” Christ’s Saints lived forgiveness through God’s grace, starting from the very first Martyr St. Stephen. As he was being stoned to death he says: “Lord do not charge them with this sin.” Reading the Prologue or Synaxarion – the lives of the Saints for each day of the year – the stories abound with such forgiveness.
We start Great Lent tonight. The service is called “Forgiveness Sunday.” I highly encourage you to try to come out after our lunch. A very significant and beautiful part of the service is when we all form a circle, and go around to ask forgiveness from each other. The very best way to start Great Lent is for us to search our minds for anyone whom we have not been able to forgive – living or departed – and ask the Lord from the depths of our heart for His grace, to be able to grant forgiveness to that person and ask the Lord for forgiveness in return for taking so long to do so. We need to ask for and accept God’s promised forgiveness. Great healing can begin from such a start. Our hearts can begin to be softened and those whom we forgive can experience a great unburdening.
Please forgive me the sinner: my brothers and sisters in Christ; May God forgive us all.