40th Sunday after Pentecost – Orthodox Homily on Forgiveness

Having arrived at this ‘door’ of repentance, the Sunday of Adam and Eve’s Expulsion from Paradise but also of God’s forgiveness of their and our sins, Christ invites, beseeches us, to enter the Fast for our soul’s sake so that we may make a new beginning, one marked by a renewed and more earnest effort to become more united with Christ, to gain greater liberty from the shackles of the passions, to advance in our communion with God the Holy Trinity.  Through our worship, our prayer, our fasting and alms—the disciplines of Lent—we learn to struggle and engage the spiritual battle for our souls on a deeper level—to orientate ourselves more to Christ God and His Kingdom than ever before, to build up for ourselves treasure in heaven.  We do this knowing that salvation is at hand, that this “tithe of the year,” as Lent is also referred to, is meant for our advancement in the Kingdom of God, just as we hear in today’s Epistle: “Our salvation is nearer at hand than when we first believed” (Rom.13:11).  

This verse from the Matins of Cheesefare Monday brings this invitation to the fore:

The door of divine repentance has been opened.

Let us enter with fervor, having cleansed our bodies,

Observing abstinence from foods and passions in obedience to Christ

Who has called the whole world to His heavenly Kingdom,

Offering to the Master of all this tithe of the year,

That we may look with love upon His Holy Resurrection (Matins of Cheesefare Monday)

This opening of the door of divine repentance, growing our hearts to accept a great communion with God and find healing for our souls, is what Lent is all about.  We neglect such an opportunity at our own peril.  Complacency, being satisfied with our current spiritual state, is a great enemy to our healing and salvation.  In order to do battle and advance, we throw off all those worldly distractions, entertainment, sating the body with its wants, and instead, strive to fill our time, our thoughts and hearts with Christ, to be sated onlyby Christ.  We make use of the divine services Christ gives us through His Church so that we can allow the truth that He is to ‘wash’ over us again and again, till it has, by God’s grace, begun a change in us.  

Christ teaches us this day that all our ‘actions’: fasting, abstinence, worship, prayer, increased offerings, alms giving, are meaningless if not also accompanied with a sincere desire for an interior change: to learn to love more as He loves us, to forgive as He has first forgiven us. And so, we discover this truth: the fasting, praying, worshiping, and alms-giving are internalized if they’re to have their full and deifying effect, furthering us in our growth and healing in Christ. 

This is the purpose of this great ‘spiritual hospital’ we call Lent: We cross the doorstep into Lent with this desirefor healing, for freedom from bitterness, envy, anger, pride, lust—all the sins and passions that cause us spiritual sickness and death: death, because they separate us from our life-source, Jesus Christ; death, because we cannot hold onto them and come into Christ’s near presence and be deified or enter into His Kingdom. Into our brokenness—the brokenness of ourselves and our relationships, Christ calls on us to interject this act of grace: love, forgiveness.  But how?  It’s beyond us! Yes!  So, we learn to trust God for the faith to believe a new way is not only possible but inevitable as we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in our lives this Lent.

Let’s face it: if taken seriously, Lent is hard work, a greatstruggle; it can be daunting.  But that’s just it: There’s no ‘comfortable’ or ‘armchair’ road that leads us into the Kingdom of Heaven.  We cannot serve two Masters, Christ reminds us this day: We have to ask ourselves, “Where is my treasure?”  We either love the world and all its allurements, or we love the Kingdom of God and life with Him. It’s that simple.  Lent, in order to be effectual for our healing, growth, and salvation, cannot, by definition, be ‘comfortable.’  ‘No pain, no gain’ could also perhaps be an apt slogan for our Lenten struggles too.  

Being open to Christ’s healing means we follow the prescription He gives us through His holy Church as close as we can.  We don’t go to a doctor, receive the diagnosis and medicine, but then say, “Oh, I’ll just take half of it, thank you!”  Or, “I know this has been proven effective, but I’ll just make up my own.”  We fast, as close to the ‘prescription’of the Church as possible, always with a blessing, because accountability is also part of the healing from our pride and disobedience.  We pray the Prayer of St. Ephraim with prostrations and metaniastwice a day, as physically able. We carve out time from work and family life to attend the Wednesday Presanctified Liturgies, the Canon of St. Andrew, and the services of Holy Week, so we can orientate ourselves to the life in Christ, so we can learn to, as the Psalmist says, “long for the courts of the Lord.” (Ps. 84:2), we make full use of sacramental Confession, so thatwe can renew our baptism to hunger and thirst more after Christ and His Kingdom, the true Life.

In order for this return, this victory to happen in us, in order for us to participate more fully and faithfully, we begin Lent with an interior cleansing of the soul, forgiving one another and asking forgiveness from one another for all the ways that we, through our sinfulness, ‘pollute’ the world and our relationships which God has made good.  Asking forgiveness and forgiving is an act truly reflective of the Kingdom of God, the fullness of the life in Christ. To forgive involves both love and humility; where pride reigns, forgiveness and love cannot take root.  

Forgiveness is, then, in its sincerity, reflective of that return to Paradise from the exile caused by our sins (another name for this Sunday is “Adam’s Expulsion from Paradise).  It bespeaks the ultimate purpose of our Lenten journey–to return—i.e., to return or make (for the first time) Christ our Lord, God and Savior—in how we prioritize our lives, our time, our focus, everything.  

Amidst the background of this teaching, Christ reminds us in today’s Gospel: “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.”  When we ask forgiveness, we’re recognizing that we’re sinners too, that our sins affect others and dim the light of Christ in us; our sins mar the beauty and goodness of creation and darken the image of God and His likeness in us even as they weaken our witness to the truth.  For this reason, the faithful participate in the Rite of Forgiveness this day, asking each other’s forgiveness, whether or not they have any ‘personal’ sins to forgive or be forgiven for, recognizing that we are all sinners in need of God’s forgiveness. 

This journey to healing and growth alwaysinvolves struggle because the coping patterns and habitual sins we’ve become accustomed to can be so ingrained in us, being part of the fallenness around us andinside us.  Forgiveness is a big part of this healing, which is why it’s not an ‘optional’ part of our life in Christ, as the Lord reminds us today.  When we activelyforgive, we become more like God Himself, who forgives us readily; making us more fit to be in communion with—and in the near presence of—holy God. 

With this objective in mind—with Christ before us—I encourage you, to beseech the Holy Spirit to open your heart to this work of healing in your soul as we participate in the Rite of Forgiveness this day and throughout our Lenten journey.  In this renewed spirit of mutual love and forgiveness, we journey with Christ through the desert of the next 40 days and on to the cross and resurrection on the third day.  May our treasure truly be found in heaven as we prioritize the life in Christ above all else this holy season.  Then and only then, His victory over sin and death will become our victory as well.