Forgiveness Sunday/ March 5th

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nick cobb

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Mar 4, 2006, 1:22:33 PM3/4/06
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Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann
Forgiveness Sunday

In the Orthodox Church, the last Sunday before Great Lent – the day
on which, at Vespers, Lent is liturgically announced and inaugurated
– is called Forgiveness Sunday. On the morning of that Sunday, at the
Divine Liturgy, we hear the words of Christ:

"If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also
forgive you, but if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither
will your Father forgive your trespasses..." (Mark 6:14-15)

Then after Vespers – after hearing the announcement of Lent in the
Great Prokeimenon: "Turn not away Thy face from Thy child for I am
afflicted! Hear me speedily! Draw near unto my soul and deliver it!",
after making our entrance into Lenten worship, with its special
memories, with the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, with its
prostrations – we ask forgiveness from each other, we perform the
rite of forgiveness and reconciliation. And as we approach each other
with words of reconciliation, the choir intones the Paschal hymns,
filling the church with the anticipation of Paschal joy.

What is the meaning of this rite? Why is it that the Church wants us
to begin Lenten season with forgiveness and reconciliation? These
questions are in order because for too many people Lent means
primarily, and almost exclusively, a change of diet, the compliance
with ecclesiastical regulations concerning fasting. They understand
fasting as an end in itself, as a "good deed" required by God and
carrying in itself its merit and its reward. But, the Church spares
no effort in revealing to us that fasting is but a means, one among
many, towards a higher goal: the spiritual renewal of man, his return
to God, true repentance and, therefore, true reconciliation. The
Church spares no effort in warning us against a hypocritical and
pharisaic fasting, against the reduction of religion to mere external
obligations. As a Lenten hymn says:

In vain do you rejoice in no eating, O soul!

For you abstain from food,

But from passions you are not purified.

If you persevere in sin, you will perform a useless fast.

Now, forgiveness stands at the very center of Christian faith and of
Christian life because Christianity itself is, above all, the
religion of forgiveness. God forgives us, and His forgiveness is in
Christ, His Son, Whom He sends to us, so that by sharing in His
humanity we may share in His love and be truly reconciled with God.
Indeed, Christianity has no other content but love. And it is
primarily the renewal of that love, a return to it, a growth in it,
that we seek in Great Lent, in fasting and prayer, in the entire
spirit and the entire effort of that season. Thus, truly forgiveness
is both the beginning of, and the proper condition for the Lenten
season.

One may ask, however: Why should I perform this rite when I have no
"enemies"? Why should I ask forgiveness from people who have done
nothing to me, and whom I hardly know? To ask these questions, is to
misunderstand the Orthodox teaching concerning forgiveness. It is
true, that open enmity, personal hatred, real animosity may be absent
from our life, though if we experience them, it may be easier for us
to repent, for these feelings openly contradict Divine commandments.
But, the Church reveals to us that there are much subtler ways of
offending Divine Love. These are indifference, selfishness, lack of
interest in other people, of any real concern for them -- in short,
that wall which we usually erect around ourselves, thinking that by
being "polite" and "friendly" we fulfill God’s commandments. The rite
of forgiveness is so important precisely because it makes us realize
– be it only for one minute – that our entire relationship to other
men is wrong, makes us experience that encounter of one child of God
with another, of one person created by God with another, makes us
feel that mutual "recognition" which is so terribly lacking in our
cold and dehumanized world.

On that unique evening, listening to the joyful Paschal hymns we are
called to make a spiritual discovery: to taste of another mode of
life and relationship with people, of life whose essence is love. We
can discover that always and everywhere Christ, the Divine Love
Himself, stands in the midst of us, transforming our mutual
alienation into brotherhood. As l advance towards the other, as the
other comes to me – we begin to realize that it is Christ Who brings
us together by His love for both of us.

And because we make this discovery – and because this discovery is
that of the Kingdom of God itself: the Kingdom of Peace and Love, of
reconciliation with God and, in Him, with all that exists – we hear
the hymns of that Feast, which once a year, "opens to us the doors of
Paradise." We know why we shall fast and pray, what we shall seek
during the long Lenten pilgrimage. Forgiveness Sunday: the day on
which we acquire the power to make our fasting – true fasting; our
effort – true effort; our reconciliation with God – true
reconciliation.

Father Alexander Schmemann

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