Sunday, March 13, 2016: Sunday of Forgiveness (Cheese Fare); Translation of the relics of Nikephoros, patriarch of Constantinople; Bishops Poplias and Marios
St Paul challenges us when he tells us to remember that our salvation is drawing closer; it “is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” This is why he tells us to “cast off the works of darkness” and instead clothe ourselves with “the armor of light.” It is important to distinguish this call to repentance—to laying aside sin and taking up the practice of virtue—from the various spiritual disciplines of the ascetical life. While we can practice asceticism without repentance, the opposite is simply not possible. That radical change of heart (metanoia) that with baptism is foundational to our life in Christ is simply impossible without ascetical struggle.
We need to be careful though in hw we understand the relationship between asceticism and repentance.
Ascetical struggle is not about keeping the Church’s fasting discipline. To be sure I should fast, and fast as strenuously as I am able to do so. But this along with the other disciplines of Great Lent (prayer and almsgiving) fasting is a tool to help us to lay aside our sins and acquire the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving and by God’s grace, I slowly lay aside “the works of the flesh… adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like” that keep me from “the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5: 19-21, NJKV).
Hearing the list, you might be thinking “But I haven’t committed any of those sins!” Or maybe “I haven’t committed the serious sins! And even the ones I have committed, there were very mild in form.” Fair enough. We are most of us decent people and our sins are typically minor and done more from weakness than malice.
But these sins, however minor, are not so much the cause of my loss of the Kingdom of God but the symptom of my estrangement from Christ and the Kingdom. In whatever form they take in my life, they highlight for the absence of Christ in my heart. Or maybe better, those parts of my life that I have closed off from Christ and His grace.
And so to repentance, I’ve got to add not only the cultivation of virtues. Not only those unique to the Christian life but also those common to all persons of good will. The “fruit of the Spirit,” Paul says is “joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5: 19-21, NJKV) but for these to exist I must also cultivate not only the theological virtues of faith, hope and love but also the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. I must be not only, if I can dare the expression, a virtuous Christian but also a virtuous pagan!
This brings us to the Gospel.
Jesus tells us that if we wish to lay up for ourselves “treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal” then we must not only fast but do so simply, quietly and without affecting a “dismal” appearance to draw attention to themselves. To draw attention to ourselves and our fasting, He says, is to live “like the hypocrites,” those whose “virtue” is meant simply to gain the approval of other, equally shallow, self-aggrandizing and frankly silly individuals.
Instead Jesus tells us to “anoint your head, and wash your face.” We should cloth our repentance with the joy of having been forgiven. Rather than making a show our asceticism and the repentance it serves, we need to keep both hidden. We do this not out of shame, since after all “your Father who sees in secret will reward you,” but so our struggle doesn’t distract from what is our primary concern not only during Great Lent but always.
To be disciples of Christ, to be witness to His resurrection, means to be apostles—sacraments—of forgiveness and mercy.
Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”
Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven (Matthew 18: 21-22, NJKV).
As we will hear in the Gospel reading for Agape Vespers on Holy Pascha (John 20:19-25), forgiveness of sins is the pre-eminent sign of the Resurrection of Christ from the dead. No matter how well I sing the Troparion, “Christ is Risen from the dead and by death He has conquered death,” no matter how loudly, how enthusiastically or in how many languages I say “Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!” without forgiveness all of this is vain. “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.”
It is here, in our obligation to forgive, that we find the reason for our asceticism, our repentance from sin and our cultivation of the life of virtue. All of this helps us, helps me, to forgive sincerely, generously and wisely.
Sincerely, that is not for show but from our hearts because “your Father who is in secret … sees in secret,” and know what is in my heart.
Generously, that is again and again, without limit but “seventy times seven.”
Wisely, that is in a way that truly liberates not only us but those who we forgive from slavery to sin. Too often, Jesus’ command to forgive is misused simply to smooth over difficulties in the Church. While well-meant, doing so has the practical effect of making me a partner in my neighbor’s sin. This is why St Paul says “As for the man who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over opinions.” Yes, forgive him his weakness but don’t collude with him in his sin. However noble the aim, when I collude with my neighbor’s sin, I become the occasion of his fall and my own and, in so doing, make us both the enemy of God.
Can the standard of wise forgiveness be twisted? Can it become a pretext for revenge? Sadly, yes. But then what hasn’t sin corrupted? . When I do this, to borrow from Tertullian I am “damned in secret” even while appearing “to be absolved in public.” This is why Jesus warns us against hypocrisy
As we begin the Great Fast, let us by all means fast as strictly as we can, pray not simply longer but more sincerely and give alms freely.
Let us cultivate the life of virtue and so root out the consequences of sin.
Let us also forgive not only our neighbor’s sin but also his weakness.
But let us forgive not only sincerely and generously but also wisely, freeing each other from “the punishment of terror and the fear of judgment” so we can be “filled with … joy … and … purity of his heart” as our God by His kindness “dissolves” our sins “into unspeakable gladness and delight” (St John Cassian, The Conferences).
Forgive me a sinner!