Sunday March 1 (O.S., February 17), 2020: Cheese-fare Sunday; Sunday of Forgiveness; Commemoration of Adam’s expulsion from Paradise; Great Martyr Theodore of Tyro (306); Ven. Theodore the silent of the Far Kyivan Caves (XIII); St. Mariamne, sister of the Apostle Philip (I); St. Nicholas Planas, priest in Athens (1932).
Epistle: Romans 13:11-14; 14:1-4
Gospel: Matthew 6:14-21
St Paul reminds us this morning that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” It is tempting to think that it is nearer because, well, we are older. Understood in this way, his observation that “the night is far gone, the day is at hand” might evoke in us a certain anxiety. Hurry, we might say, time is running out.
While understandable, salvation is nearer not because we are older but because God is ever drawing closer to us. It isn’t that we are moving toward God but that God is always moving toward us. In each moment, God draws nearer, revealing a bit more of Himself to us and of His great love for us.
Our repentance and our asceticism have no other goal than–to borrow from St Dionysius the Areopagite–to make our hearts more expansive, to make of ourselves ever larger vessels but always filled to overflowing with divine love.
The problem of sin is that it makes my life small. It narrows my vision, constricts my life, making me less able to receive God’s love for me and so making me less than who God has called me to be. Sin, if I make speak this way, makes me boring and stupid.
This is why the Apostle tells us to welcome those “weak in faith” but not to argue with them. This isn’t because we aren’t to preach the Gospel but we do so through hospitality not polemics. We must first demonstrate by our lives what it means to love God and to be loved by Him. Only then can we correct errors and explain the faith to those who have themselves accepted this love.
Jesus tells us in the Gospel that we do this primarily through our willingness to forgive others “their trespasses” against us. When we do this, we imitate God the Father Who is always eager to forgive us.
After saying this though, the next thing Jesus says might seem like a tangent.
When I fast, I shouldn’t draw attention to myself. My fasting, like whatever good I do in this life, must be done “in secret.” But while fasting in secret is easy enough, how can I forgive in secret? The next verses, I think, explain what Jesus means.
What we are called to do, we are called to do freely, out of love for God and neighbor.
Too often I find myself instead tempted to engage in good deeds in the hope of winning the favor of God or my neighbor. My charity, my asceticism, even my prayer, can too easily become transactional–I do in order to get.
And so Jesus reminds us, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” If I fix my heart on earning your good opinion of me or on winning God’s favor, it’s not God or you I care about but my own ego. When I try to earn love–when I make being loved an item on my to do list–I reveal that I have radically, possibly fatally, misunderstood love.
Love is a gift that God gives to us and we to each other. While it can be received or lost, it can never be earned. Love that is not freely offered and freely received is simply not love.
When we look into our own hearts, when I look into my own heart, I realize how little I understand love. And so the Church asks us at the beginning of our preparation to receive our Risen Lord on Pascha to ask for forgiveness and to offer forgiveness to each other.
We do this not because we have done bad things or hurt each other–though in a fallen world this is unavoidable even if not frequently unintentional–but for the simple reason that we misunderstand love.
But we are made for love!
When we misunderstand love, we misunderstand ourselves, our neighbor and God.
When we misunderstand love, we fail to be who God has created us to be.
When we misunderstand love, we fail each other and become instead impediments to salvation.
When we misunderstand love, we fail to witness to the Gospel and instead forge chains out of its life-giving words
When we misunderstand love, we fail to know God and worship instead an idol of our own creation.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! For all this, and more, forgive me a sinner!