My dear friends in our Lord: Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
Today, on the very eve of Lent, the Church calls us with spiritual joy to begin the journey from the darkness of sin to the light of renewal and purification of our soul. For you see, Lent is the dawn of a new spiritual day. As Saint Paul stated in today’s Epistle, “The night is passed, and the day is at hand. Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light.”
So let us take a close look at ourselves, in the light of this new day, and let us examine our souls carefully, that we might honestly discern whether there are, in fact, “works of darkness” that have taken root within us that need to be uprooted in the dawning of the new light of this season of spiritual work. Have we allowed – either wittingly, or, more often, unwittingly – “works of darkness” to grow within our hearts? Perhaps we harbor bitterness or impenitence, disbelief or superstition, laziness or stinginess — all those works that fear the light of reproof, God’s light, the light of grace, and the light of our own conscience. The Apostle Paul today calls for “casting off” these things.
With the onset of the bright days of fasting, we are called upon not simply to modify and moderate what we eat and drink, but also to renew our soul, to be reconciled God and with our neighbors, and to prepare our hearts in order to worthily and joyfully celebrate the glorious feast of our Lord’s Resurrection.
Last Sunday, the Holy Church reminded us of the Last Judgment of Christ, in order to fill our soul with a holy sobriety and a detestation of sin, so that we might be lead to blessed repentance. On this Sunday, we are called to focus on the work of forgiveness – both the forgiveness of God towards the repentant sinner, and the forgiveness that all are called to have and cultivate within themselves at the command of none less than God Almighty.
This very day is called the Sunday of Forgiveness, because of the instruction we hear from our Lord in today’s Gospel: “If you will forgive men their offences, your heavenly Father will forgive you also your offences. But if you will not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive you your offences.” And thus there is the ancient custom that we continue to this day that we ask forgiveness of God and of each other before beginning our fasting.
The Lord says clearly: if you are angry with someone, if you hold a grudge against someone and you do not ask him for forgiveness, then the Lord will not forgive you either. Not because the Lord is vindictive, but because your heart does not know how to forgive and, therefore, cannot contain the grace of God that gives us forgiveness. As long as there is malice in the heart, the grace of God cannot enter there, which means we cannot be cleansed from sin. And cleansing from sin is the very essence of the forgiveness of God!
Sometimes it is hard – very hard – to say to a repentant offender: “I forgive you for the sake of Christ,” especially when we have been insulted or belittled or slighted. Sometimes we might even have a dark perseverance, coming in a destructive way almost to cherish within ourselves an insult we have received, despite all its bitterness and suffering of the soul! We save offense in the heart because it enflames our passion for revenge, our desire for paying back evil for evil, our disordered desire to counter injustice with more injustice, and so on …
In a such a grievance, we are trying to restore “justice” by establishing ourselves as judge over the offender. But this, my dear friends, is a mistrust of God, a mistrust of that Just Judge Who sees everything, knows everything, rewards everyone for their deeds. The apostle says: “Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? To his own lord he standeth or falleth. ” Do not condemn the offender. Look after yourself, and do not judge others, because they are not yours to judge, but God’s, and the Lord himself knows how to rule everyone.
The Apostle Paul admonishes us: “Do not avenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to the wrath of God; for it is written: Vengeance is mine and I will repay, says the Lord ”(Romans 12, 19). We must believe that truth will prevail. And if the Lord does not immediately punish our offender, then perhaps it is that He gives him the opportunity to convert. We are all sinners, and, as long as we have breath within our bodies, our Lord is calling each of us to convert.
Tomorrow we enter Great Lent, in which we can cast off the heavy burden of sins. The Lord teaches that in order for our sins to be forgiven, we must ourselves learn to forgive.
The Holy Chief Apostle Saint Peter asked our Lord, “Lord, how often shall my brother offend against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?” Our Lord replies, “I say not to thee, till seven times; but till seventy times seven times,” that is, almost infinitely. Christ Himself, when He was crucified, as they hammered nails into His hands and feet, prayed for His crucifiers: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23, 34). And the first martyr Archdeacon Stephen, as they were stoning him to death, prayed: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” (Acts 7, 60).
Think of the many examples of the holy martyrs who did not curse even their tormentors and their executioners, but rather prayed for them.
In the ability to forgive those who hate and offend, the saints fulfilled the covenant of the Gospel: “Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you” (Matt. 5, 44). And entering into the Great Lent, the first thing we have to do is forgive: forgive all offenders, forgive wholeheartedly, forget all offenses and all trespasses, so that our petition in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us out trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” will not become an indictment against us.
Now turn to the following in today’s Gospel. The Lord teaches us: “And when you fast, be not as the hypocrites, sad. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward. But thou, when thou fastest anoint thy head, and wash thy face; that thou appear not to men to fast, but to thy Father who is in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret, will repay thee.”(Matt. 6, 18). These words of the gospel complete our Lord’s words of preparation for us for our fasting. We must be fortified with both mutual forgiveness and temperance without exaltation – mutual forgiveness and temperence without exaltation – these contribute to the acquisition of humility and the willpower in the fight against our own sins.
The Lord teaches us that we must fast in secret before God, in order to please Him, and not to please people. By fasting secretly – that is, to realize that the true fast is more a work of the heart than of the mouth – we bear a clear labor before God.
Fasting teaches us abstinence, starting with the simplest step – with food. It might be but a small step, but it is a step towards humility and self-abnegation. It is likewise a step toward rectifying our own will, as keeping the fast strengthens our will against fleeting desires. We make an effort over controlling ourselves, and thus each day we can discover small victories, even amidst our daily life.
It all starts small: refrain from irritation or refrain from a tasty morsel, do a favor for a friend or a loved one, assist the work of the Church and give alms! All of these things are turned into spiritual victories in the light of the new spiritual day of this Lenten season.
The bodily Lent is established to make it easier for our souls to enter eternity, and this can be done by taming our sinful flesh, freeing our soul from its tyranny. The fruits of true fasting are peace and enlightenment of our soul; purity and chastity of thoughts; the desire to refrain from contention and anger, from evil deeds and unclean thoughts; the confession of our sins and the uprooting of them; the joy of purification in repentance and the building up in the soul and body of the temple of the Holy Spirit. We are not our own, but God’s, because we have been bought at a great price — the Precious Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And now, brethren and sisters, I earnestly ask all of you, here present, and all those who are not here, to forgive me for my transgressions, committed in word, or deed, or thought. I have sinned in soul and body, in laziness and idleness, by demonic darkness, by impure thoughts, by forgetfulness, by judging. I have sinned in my heart and by all my senses, voluntarily and involuntarily; and there is no sin which I have not committed. Forgive me for the sake of Christ, and God will forgive you. And with this mutual forgiveness we will open the way to receiving forgiveness from God.
Forgive each other, my brothers and sisters, embarking on the path of Holy Great Lent, leading to renewal and Resurrection, to a new life with our Lord Jesus Christ!