Monday, March 7, 2016

Forgiveness Sunday – A Must Attend

The coming Sunday is Forgiveness Sunday. This Sunday is one of the most important Sundays of the the year. According to the Church's reckoning this Sunday is called “The Casting out of Adam”. In other words, the previous Sunday, the Sunday of the Last Judgment, may be thought of as the last day. With this coming Sunday being the first day – the beginning of the history of salvation. And the scripture readings for Great Lent reflect that. Note that we begin Clean Monday (the first day of Great Lent) with the first chapter of Genesis – the beginning of the Bible and the beginning of the story of the history of the Holy Church.

All very interesting, of course, but why do we also call this coming Sunday “Forgiveness Sunday”? This is due to the fact that after the Divine Liturgy we will immediately serve the first Divine Service of the Holy Fast. That does not mean that at the meal following vespers we will not eat dairy products. Rest assured that we will, but this vespers service is the LITURGICAL beginning of Great Lent. At this service the colors of the icon and altar covers are changed from gold to black (black being the weekday liturgical color for Great Lent), as are the vestments of the clergy. And most importantly for all of us – following the dismissal at vespers we will perform the Rite of Forgiveness. For those who have never participated in this service THIS IS THE YEAR! If kids have sports, art, music, or whatever, I strongly suggest that those activities be skipped if need be to participate in this very important service. At the Rite of Forgiveness we put into action the words of the Gospel read at the Divine Liturgy earlier that day. These words are so useful, so powerful, and so important for us that I will include the entirety of the short Gospel reading here:

“For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly. Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6i:14-21)

At the Rite of Forgiveness we humble ourselves, bowing before each of our parish family members and asking their forgiveness for any way we have wronged them, real or perceived, in the last year. We “...forgiven men their trespasses...” so that our “...heavenly Father will also forgive [us]...”. These words of the Gospel are not just pretty phrases – these are calls to action! As we seek God's forgiveness, as we embrace repentance, as we work to better ourselves spiritually during the Holy Fast we first begin with forgiveness. This is not a quaint old practice. This is not some empty rite. This is LIFE! Our faith is not something we “go through the motions” with. Orthodox Christianity is not a Sunday morning club. It is a way of life – a world view – and a call to transformation. Much of this transformation relies on our struggle for humility and repentance (and of course the cooperation of and with God's Grace).

Recall when you first came to the Church – when you first realized that the life you had lived up until that point was not just an abstraction, but in many ways wrong in God's eyes. The loving Lord, in His mercy, awaited your repentance. And we felt as close to God then as the son felt in the embrace of his father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. That is not by accident – repentance and humility attract God's Grace. Over time, as we become the older son in the parable rather than the prodigal son, we lose that zeal – that desire to repent of our sins. This is something virtually everyone goes through and is, we may say, the “normal” course of spiritual life. But the Holy Church, as a loving mother, appoints for us a time each year when we can again embrace this zeal, when we can be Christians without any hesitation or excuse, when we can throw of that “normal”, and can again draw near to God in a special way that only comes with this understanding of and embracing of repentance.

Does this mean that you are “bad” in God's eyes? That you are “wretched”? Or in some other way unacceptable? Of course not! We are made in God's image, but it is up to us to embrace God's likeness. Our goal as Orthodox Christians is to raise ourselves to Heaven – not to drag God down to the street. We need to rise, to transform, to draw nearer to God. Not to demand that He accept us however we are or however we want to be. The onus is ON US – we need to work, we we need to struggle, we need to humble ourselves, we need to understand that we are the creature and that God is the Creator. And that He calls us to a life of drawing near to Him for our salvation that He shares with us freely out of His love for us. He created us to share His love with us. Now let us thank him by following the precepts that He gave us for salvation. Salvation is not on OUR terms – we cannot demand that it be as we, in all our brilliance and wisdom think it should be – this gift is given based on the terms of the Giver. Salvation is free – but God defines how we are to receive it, for He knows even better than we do what is best for our eternity. And His Holy Church, the Ark of Salvation, teaches us just as He taught us: forgiveness, repentance, spiritual struggle, humility – all these are necessary for our salvation. And all these are provided for us in a special way each year during Great Lent.

AND IT BEGINS ON SUNDAY! Please plan to join us for Forgiveness Vespers, and please reach out to me if you have any questions. Or even better – ask your question here so that other readers may learn from it. Must you also ask forgiveness of those who do not forgive you (at least in your mind)? Unquestionably yes. If your neighbor refuses to forgive you he is running towards perdition. If you in turn refuse to forgive  him to you are chasing him. Let us not chase each other to perdition, but let us embrace each other with love and forgiveness, starting the Christian Spring, the Holy and Great Lent, with light hearts, knowing that we have done all we can to act on the Gospel that we have included above, and trusting too that our Heavenly Father will forgive us as we embrace the special time of year that is Great Lent!

Questions and comments are welcome!

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