Sunday, February 26, 2017: Forgiveness Sunday; Porphyrius, Bishop of Gaza, The Holy Great Martyr Photine, the Samaritan Women, Holy Martyr Theocletus, John Claphas the new Martyr
Through the Apostle Paul, the Church reminds us that today, this morning, “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand.” There is, or should be, a sense of urgency in how I approach the Great Fast. It’s beginning signals the growing nearest of our victory in Christ.
On first hearing, the Apostle Paul’s words might seem negative—“ cast off the works of darkness.” But this “no” to the “the flesh” is in the service of a greater, “yes.” We cast off the darkness of sin so we can “put on the armor of light.” We have the strength to throw away “reveling and drunkenness, … debauchery and licentiousness, … quarreling and jealousy,” because we have experienced the mercy of God in our own lives and so long to live in charity with our neighbor, especially for the one “who is weak in faith.”
Just before today’s Gospel reading, the disciples ask Jesus how to prayer and so He teaches them the Lord’s Prayer. Reflecting on the prayers, St John Chrysostom says that “everywhere” Jesus “is teaching us to use this plural word that we might not retain so much as a vestige of resentment against our neighbor.”
Our willingness to forgive—to lay aside our resentment for the harm others have caused us—“makes us like God” Chrysostom says. To be like God means to be like Him “Who has made ‘the sun to shine on the evil and on the good.’” This is why,
…Christ is seeking in every possible way to hinder our conflicts with one another. For since love is the root of all that is good, by removing from all quarters whatever mars it He brings us together and cements us to each other (“The Gospel of Matthew, Homily, 19.7,” in ACCS: NT vol Ia Matthew 1-13, p. 139).
Rooted in the grace of the sacraments—above all Holy Communion and Confession—we can summarize the of the acetical life and the life of virtue as nothing more or less than removing all that disfigures or impedes our love for one another.
We often hear people say so long as they don’t hurt anyone, they can do as they want. According to this standard, while quarreling and jealousy are wrong, reveling and drunkenness, and as long as they are consensual, debauchery and licentiousness are merely private choices, no better or worse than any other. Sadly, even Christians, who ought to know better, are liable to hold to this view of the moral life.
This, however, is to get Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel exactly backwards.
In the verses after those we’ve just heard Jesus tell us
The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness! (Matthew 6:22-23, NKJV)
A jealous and argumentative attitude toward my neighbor is the corrupted fruit of exactly those sins that St Paul tells us to lay aside. The more I give myself over to “the flesh,” the more I will come to “despise” my neighbor and to “pass judgment on him.”
This happens because just “as when the eyes are blinded, some of the ability of the other members is diminished, their light be quenched, so also when the mind is depraved, your life will be filled with countless evils” (St John Chrysostom, “The Gospel of Matthew, Homily, 20.3,” in ACCS: NT vol Ia Matthew 1-13, p. 142). To root out the petty jealousy and arguments that ripe apart families and parishes and society I need to root out my own selfish tendencies. I need to fight against those very sins in my that I’m likely to overlook or indulge because they (seemingly) don’t hurt anyone else. But they do because they harm my ability to love my neighbor and so impede our shared restoration and journey to the life God created us to have.
To root out from my heart the petty jealousy and arguments that rip humanity apart, I need to root out my own selfish tendencies. I need to fight against those very sins in me that I’m likely to overlook or indulge because they (seemingly) don’t hurt anyone else.
But they do harm you because they harm my ability to love you and so impede our shared journey to the life God created us to have.
Think with me for a moment about the Apostle Paul command that we welcome “the man who is weak in faith.”
For the Apostle, “the person in question is not healthy” and in need of the love and care of the whole Church. It isn’t just the priest who heals through the sacraments; all of us by virtue of our baptism and willingness to embrace the stranger as our friend also have a role to play in his salvation.
But some of us are “disconcerted by” their neighbor’s weakness. And even though “they do not share it,” their neighbor’s weakness makes them “liable to fall into uncertainty themselves” (St John Chrysostom, “Homilies on Romans,” 25, in ACCS: NT vol VI Romans, p. pp. 337-338).
My neighbor’s weakness reminds me of my own. My willingness to look away from him because there are sins that I have not yet laid aside. In his weakness, my neighbor reveals to me that I am an enemy of charity.
This is why Paul goes on to say that I am not to pass judgment on my neighbor in his weakness. It is in that moment when your weakness reminds me of my own, that I am most tempted to turn you away in the vain hope of finding some relief from my own failings.
I judge my neighbor, I engage in “quarreling and jealousy,” because he reminds me of what I would not see in myself, my own lack of repentance. And the “reveling and drunkenness” the “debauchery and licentiousness,” the petty arguments and jealousy? What are these but feckless attempts to dull the pain, to justify myself by denying my failings?
My brothers and sisters in Christ!
Today is the last Sunday before the beginning of the Great Fast. At Vespers and Matins, we recalled the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden. And on this day as well, we formally ask one another for forgiveness. We ask forgiveness even from those we don’t know and so couldn’t have offended. We ask forgiveness even from those we have never met because we know, I know, that my sin harms them.
Whether the harm is great or small, my sin has harmed you, it has exploited your weakness and impeded your reconciliation with the Father, with our Father. Because my sin harms you, the first step in casting “off the works of darkness,” and putting “on the armor of light,” is simply to acknowledge my failure to love you.
So, my brothers and sisters, forgive me a sinner!
May God grant us a blessed fast and a glorious celebration of His Son Holy and Life-giving Resurrection!