The former things have passed away… Behold, I make all things new (Rev. 21:4-5)

Archive for February, 2007

An Image of the Kingdom

At the beginning of Lent I mentioned our “Forgiveness Sunday,” and the fact that we have a forgiveness service at Vespers that evening to prepare ourselves for the season of cleansing and conversion. But I didn’t give any details about it, so I’d like to do it now.

The service is really very simple, yet its effects are profound. At the end of Vespers, the people come one by one to the front of the church and venerate the icon of Christ. Then each in turn prostrates before the priest, saying: “Pray for me and forgive me; I am a sinner.” The priest blesses them and says: “May God forgive you.” Then the priest prostrates and says the same thing to the one he has just forgiven (you don’t see that very often, do you?), and the person responds with the same words; then they embrace in the liturgical “kiss of peace.” This goes on until everyone in the church has offered and received forgiveness from each other, with the mutual prostrations (this is not impractical for us; we have a small church). It is our custom also to anoint each person with holy oil at the end, as a further preparation for the coming Lenten efforts. While everyone is prostrating and forgiving each other, the choir softly sings Easter hymns, so that the goal of Lent is already in sight, and so that this first dawning of the Light of the Resurrection will be a source of quiet strength and hope in all the struggles to come.

It may be that the above description is not particularly powerful, but “you have to be there.” If you experience it yourself it is profound and moving. It’s one thing to talk about it, and quite another to throw yourself down before people with whom you may have had many or serious problems, and ask forgiveness, and then offer it to them as they ask for it. I remember, it was quite a few years ago, that I had had a really long and difficult year with one of the brothers in the monastery. As I approached to prostrate before him, I couldn’t even get out the words, “pray for me and forgive me; I am a sinner.” I just burst into tears, and then we reconciled. Words were not necessary after that.

It isn’t always that dramatic, but it is always moving. It feels good to reconcile, to start fresh, to put the old animosities away. Strength and encouragement are given to live the Gospel more fully and faithfully, beginning now. That doesn’t mean that everyone’s irritating idiosyncrasies are going to disappear, or even that the reasons for repenting and forgiving have vanished, but it does mean that we have made a choice to do things Jesus’ way henceforth, and with our eyes fixed on Him there will be more peace and mercy and wisdom in our hearts.

Being the first to finish, I was able to look out upon the church and the rest of the people. This service is really an image of the Kingdom of God as it is meant to be on this earth. Husbands and wives are prostrating before each other, embracing and forgiving; friends and community members are doing the same, while the air is full of hymns to the risen Christ, who by his death and resurrection reconciled us to the Father and to each other in Himself. There is hardly a dry eye in the place. Hearts are softened, and even if the moving power of this experience is only temporary, we have seen how things are supposed to be, and we are called to remember and put it into practice. We have felt the touch of grace, we have experienced the reconciling power of the Cross, and we have felt the relief of the liberating experience of both offering and receiving forgiveness.

I wish this service could be done in all churches. It should be done in families as well. Why don’t you try it this Lent? Prostrate before each other, husbands and wives and children, siblings and friends; ask for forgiveness and then offer forgiveness to those who ask it of you. If you are in the grace of the Holy Spirit it feels good thus to humble yourself. It brings healing and inner peace and freedom. You walk with a lighter step after that. You begin to understand how the Lord wants us to live in this world as we prepare to enter the next. This is what Lent is really about—not just giving up a few things that you’re going to take back on Easter anyway. If you want to give up something, give up resentments, grudges, animosities, hard-heartedness, and that critical or contemptuous spirit that leaves you unreconciled with everyone.

Repent and forgive. Bow down and be raised up. Embrace and rejoice. Then go forth in peace to serve the Lord, and be a part of that holy and life-giving image of his Kingdom on earth. Many more will be drawn to Him when they see how his disciples love one another.

Snowballs from God

It doesn’t snow here very often, but when it does it’s usually an occasion for wonder and joy (except when the power goes out from some snow-laden branch breaking and falling on a power line; then it’s just a little less wonderful). This year, like last, the snow came after some unseasonably warm weather had tricked the trees into blossoming. We’ll have to wait and see how all that turns out. The poor bees are probably confused.

I went for a little prayer-walk up the mountain, though by that time it was slightly warmer and the snow had morphed into a kind of thick rain, but there was still plenty of the white stuff around to add some extra beauty to the forest. As I trudged up the hill, breathing in the cold, clean, wet air, a pine branch somewhere above me suddenly released its slushy burden, which landed with a thud on my head. Hmmph, I muttered (but with a smile beginning to emerge), God is throwing snowballs at me! I briefly considered throwing one back, but I figured He’d be too fast for me and easily dodge it. Then again, since He’s everywhere present I did stand a chance to hit a piece of Him. Well, I decided to just walk on and see what else might be in store.

More slushballs came plopping down on me and I began to enjoy the game. The mountain path was part snow and part packed earth and part streams of melting snow. The higher I went, the more the snow was still intact. I stopped at a little shrine on the path and prayed for a moment, thanking God for the beauty of his creation and even for his bit of playfulness, since I’d been feeling somewhat burdened with certain difficulties that had recently arisen. I think He wanted me to lighten up, so He tossed a few snowballs at me! But there were more delightful things to come.

On the way back down the mountain, I noticed a few streaks of sun cutting through the trees and splashing about here and there along the mountain path. I looked up and beheld a few bright blue patches above, nicely contrasting the billowing gray-white clouds and fog that had been swirling around. (I had to be careful about looking up, though, lest I receive another cold surprise right in the face!) The farther I walked, the brighter it got. I turned toward the east and saw the sun shining through the falling rain, making it all light up like liquid glitter, dazzling the eye and delighting the soul. Then a certain large drop resting on a fallen branch started throwing around the colors of the spectrum as a sunbeam hit it just right. It really is breathtaking to stand in a cold, bright, sunlit rain in the midst of a snowy forest. I wondered if Paradise would be something like this—new marvels around every bend, fascinating things seen in ways we have never quite seen them before, new delights from that infinitely creative Mind.

Around the next bend a tall pine was carefully holding a droplet on each of its needles, and they glistened as the sun found a new patch of blue from which to shine. Everywhere I turned: blue, white, green, crystal, light, rain, snow, glory! I walked farther down and the sun made glistening rivulets out of the melting snow, while a patch of it still hid under cloud cover in order to retain is frozen character. I wanted to get my camera and capture some of these marvels, though I had a feeling the Lord just wanted me to enjoy it while it lasted. Sure enough, as I turned around, furious gray fog-clouds were already rushing in from the northwest, and soon everything was dark and the rain came down harder. So, that bit of shining glory was just for me!

When I returned to my cabin, I knew I would want to share this moment of brightness and joy with you, so I sat down at my computer. Hmm, what should I call this? “Snowballs from God,” of course!

Surpassing Worth

St Paul was a rather intense kind of guy. Or perhaps we could say, when it came to his relationship to Christ, he was an all-or-nothing kind of guy. Sometimes I can be a rather intense and all-or-nothing kind of guy myself (that’s one reason I landed in a monastery), so one of my favorite passages from St Paul is found in Philippians 3.

When Paul discovered Christ, he discovered everything: his joy, his love, his salvation, his reason of being. But in order to receive everything, he had to lose everything—everything he had worked so long and hard to construct as a way of life. He lists all his credentials as a righteous Pharisee. He was impeccable, blameless, had the perfect religious pedigree. He was even so zealous that he persecuted any threat to his own tradition, any infringement on the rights of God as he saw them. But then he met the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

What then did this intense, all-or-nothing kind of guy do? He tossed it—all his credentials, his position, the direction of his life and energies. “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith…”

Let’s take a look at this. The only thing that could get him to abandon his former prestige, way of life, and deeply-held convictions would have to be something of “surpassing worth.” He didn’t think there was such a thing until he discovered it in Christ Jesus his Lord. Nothing mattered to him anymore. Not position, not wealth, not esteem—nothing. He even had to suffer much persecution himself because of Christ. Didn’t matter. Everything is rubbish compared to Christ and what He offers.

Paul not only desired to share in the power and glory of Christ’s resurrection (don’t we all?), but to that end he also desired to share in his sufferings (don’t we all not desire that?). Paul wouldn’t be found among today’s “Easter people,” who like to celebrate the joyful things and discard the difficult ones. But Paul knew that the Cross was the only way to the Resurrection and, being an all-or-nothing kind of guy, he went for them both. He recognized surpassing worth when he saw it. God didn’t have to tell him twice what the true way was. He ran to the Lord Jesus with open arms and never looked back.

Today’s religious landscape is littered with compromisers, the lukewarm, the “a la carte” pickers and choosers of what suits their spiritual sensibilities, the poseurs who use religion for political or other ends, and, let’s face it, “the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the fornicators, idolaters, and liars” (see Rev. 21:8). Where are those for whom Christ is everything? Where are those who recognize the surpassing worth of wholeheartedly embracing Christ Jesus our Lord? Where are those who regard all else as rubbish if only they can have Him? Where are those who embrace both the Cross and the Resurrection? They exist, and they are holding up the world, and even if they are numerically many they are far too few in a world in which all nations are supposed to be filled with fervent disciples of Christ (see Mt. 28:19-20). It’s time to take stock of our lives and see what really matters to us, see what is worth giving up everything for, see what is going to last forever and what is not. Clean out the rubbish: the attachments, the idols, the “other masters,” whatever is of inferior worth.

So go ahead. Get intense. Be an all-or-nothing kind of person. Recognize the surpassing worth of life in Christ Jesus. Dump your extra baggage, for it won’t fit through the narrow gate to Paradise. Run to Him who loved you first. And never look back.

Love and Passion

When Valentine’s Day came around last week, I had just arrived at the account of the Lord’s passion and death in my daily reading of the Gospel. It occurred to me—on the day when love is celebrated, though often in a superficial, silly, or even sinfully sensual way—that there is no greater love than that one lay down his life for his friends, and especially no greater love that that of Christ, who not only laid down his life, but bore the intolerable burden and pain of all the sins of mankind.

Perhaps we don’t realize often enough, or deeply enough, that our sins have had a personal and painful effect upon the One who takes them away. We do something wrong, we say we’re sorry, and then walk away forgiven, as if we had just slighted a friend and then quickly made up. But there’s something else going on here. We can only easily make up with a friend because Someone Else already absorbed the evil and pain of sin into his own body and soul. Sometimes I wish that the evangelists went into great detail in describing Jesus’ sufferings so that we could have a better idea of what it cost Him. But even the brief descriptions we are given—struck on the face, spat upon, insulted, mocked, scourged, crowned with thorns, crucified, crushed by apparently God-forsaken agony, etc—should be enough to bring us not only to awestruck wonder at what his love was willing to endure for us, but also to tears of repentance for what our sins did to Him, how deeply they hurt Him who loves us.

I wrote in my last post that to sin is to say of Christ: “I do not know the man.” Once we have realized the gravity of what this means, we need to exclaim: “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood!” (Mt. 27:4). But despite all our denials and betrayals, we have recourse to St Paul’s eloquent and concise summary of the meaning of Jesus’ sacrificial death: “He loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

Lent is a time for meditating upon the passion of Christ. We do this not merely to work ourselves into an emotional sorrow for what He suffered (though even this is beneficial if it endures beyond the moment), but to deepen our relationship with Him through awareness of his love for us and what it cost Him to save us. Our Lenten meditations aren’t meant to be discarded come Easter, as if we’ve suddenly been permitted to be in a lighter mood. What we discover of Jesus’ love manifested in his passion must remain with us all the days of our lives, for it is all too easy to fall back into mediocrity, self-indulgence, and our former denials and betrayals. It is time to grow into a mature and permanent commitment of fidelity to Him who loved us first and who calls us to enter into the mystery of his sacrifice, which is the mystery of his love.

On Valentine’s Day, some lovers give heart-shaped gifts. Jesus has one for us too, but look, there seems to be something terribly wrong. There’s a large hole torn in the side of it and all its contents are spilling out. He gave us a Heart full of blood and water, a Heart full of sacrificial and self-emptying love. In the Byzantine tradition, when we prepare the bread for the Holy Eucharist, we take the ritual lance and cut into the side of the Lamb (the main host), saying: “One of the soldiers pierced his side with a lance, and immediately there came forth blood and water. He who saw this has borne witness, and his testimony is true.”

Amen, his testimony is true. The Lord loved us unto death, unto bearing the horror and filth and agony of our sins, that we might find happiness in the eternal Paradise. Let us learn about love and passion—His. And let us spend our own lives in making some sort of a return. It will never even begin to be adequate, but He will be satisfied with our love if it is offered in sincerity and truth. Cor ad cor loquitur. Heart speaks to heart. Let us spend this Lent with Him learning about love.

I Do Not Know the Man

St Peter is one of my favorite apostles, because he is not a “plaster saint.” The evangelists have not papered over his faults, and so he is one of the most genuine and believable figures in the Bible. He was headstrong, impulsive, prone to speaking before thinking, and at a critical moment he not only broke a public promise but vehemently denied his beloved Lord.

But it is not faults as such that make him attractive, but his response to grace in the midst of them. He always accepted correction or even rebuke when the Lord gave it, and he repented wholeheartedly when he recognized his sin. The incidents of his life and relationship to Christ are not, however, presented merely as a character portrait, but as a mirror of our own struggles, a guide for the healing of our own faults.

St Peter’s lamentation (after his denial of Christ) in one of our liturgical texts from Holy Week puts it succinctly, and this could be our own general confession: “I said I would keep the faith, and I have not kept it.” Is not this the essence of every confession of sin? Can we not all make these words our own?

Shortly before the Lord’s passion, Peter boasted: “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you.” A few hours later he insisted: “I do not know the man.” It may be that the same cycle plays out in our own lives. When we’re feeling spiritually strong or secure or joyful, when our spiritual awareness seems heightened, and in general when things are going well for us, we may (at least implicitly) boast that we would never deny our Lord, never turn away from Him or do anything that seriously grieves or offends Him. But when we have been weakened by fatigue, illness, or relentless temptations, when we lose the awareness of his presence or when things suddenly start going wrong all at once, increasing our stress and frustration—and perhaps our suspicion that He is not, after all, hearing our prayers—we say or do things that are translated thus: “I do not know the man.”

It’s not that we hate God or have become apostates, any more than Peter did, but like him we lose courage at the time of trial, or when we sense our well-being threatened, or when we just can’t hide our inner cowardice anymore. But there’s a remedy for our denials, and it is called repentance. St Luke recounts an element in the story which the others don’t, and which makes it all the more dramatic: after the third denial, the Lord looked at Peter, and he remembered Jesus’ prophecy and began to weep bitterly. The Lord did not need to say “I told you so,” or anything else. The combination of pain and pity in his eyes was enough to pierce the heart of the apostle like a two-edged sword, tearing open the floodgate of tears.

There are times when we may perceive that look of Jesus after we have denied Him through sin. We feel its penetrating heat and we know we have done what is displeasing in his sight. The only appropriate response from someone who loves Him is tears and repentance. Yet the Lord does not wish merely to bring us to our knees in shame or self-reproach. He wants to renew us by his love. Recently I came across a text in our liturgy that is rather unusual. Generally in penitential texts we pray for tears of repentance or sorrow. But in this text we pray for “tears of healing.” That outward release from an inwardly contrite heart not only expresses sorrow, it already begins to soothe the self-inflicted wound resulting from sin.

Regrettably, we probably all too often have been caught in that cycle of “I will not deny You…I do not know the man,” but in this our example is not Judas but Peter. Judas despaired of mercy and took matters into his own hands. Peter sought mercy with tears, not because he thought he deserved it, but because his heart was too big to simply walk away. With vehemence he denied Christ, and with equal passion he wept over his denial—and so the Lord’s look was not only one of poignant reproach but also of infinite mercy, for He learned from his Father how to welcome prodigal sons.

So we too must always return to the Lord, no matter how often or grievously we have denied Him, shedding tears of repentance—and of healing—for we know that his mercy endures forever. Then at last, despite all the denials, the falls, the misdirected energies, we can look back over our lives in the presence of the risen Lord and say to Him what the endearingly forthright Peter said to Him over a charcoal fire by the sea: “Lord, you know that I love You.”

Lenten Repentance

As I mentioned in the last post, Lent has already started for us in the Byzantine tradition. There’s no self-indulgent “Mardi Gras” for us; the day before Lent is a day of sober reflection upon our fall from Paradise and upon the mystery of forgiveness. It may seem, because of the fasting (not merely nominal as in current Catholic practice, but quite rigorous) and the longer services with their penitential character, that we’ve entered a time of gloom and oppressive burdens, with much woebegone breast-beating and long faces. One might get that impression from some of the liturgical texts: “Storm-tossed by the tempest of sin, I am dragged down to the depths of despair… I have fallen in my thoughts and sinned in the flesh, and groaning I lament and cry aloud: Save me, O Lord, for You alone are long-suffering; save me and, deserving though I be of condemnation, send me not to the fire of Gehenna” (all texts quoted here are from Matins of the first day of Lent).

But there’s a paradoxical joy that is encouraged in the same services in which we are exhorted to weep for our sins, and this is the characteristic spirit of Lenten life. “Let us joyfully begin the all-hallowed season of abstinence, and let us shine with the bright radiance of the holy commandments of Christ our God, with the brightness of love and the splendor of prayer, with the purity of holiness and the strength of good courage…”

Some people (like me) might not feel too joyful about being forbidden to eat meat, eggs, dairy products, and even fish—except shellfish; vertebrates are considered “animals”—for almost two months, but the focus of our joy is elsewhere. “Come, O people, and today let us accept the grace of the Fast as a gift from God and as a time for repentance, in which we may find mercy with the Savior.” Lent is here called grace and gift, but why? Because it is a time for repentance unto mercy from the Savior.

Lent is a season for recovering our spiritual fervor, shearing off the flab (both physical and spiritual) of our holiday over-indulgences, and redirecting our energies toward the “one thing necessary.” But it’s not just a matter of addressing our laxity or our falling away from previous resolutions (though all that is good). Lent is essentially about rediscovering the mystery of repentance and making it again—or for the first time—our way of life.

As I get older, I become more and more convinced that repentance is a key, if not the key, to a fruitful and genuine Christian life. It is essential, not only because it is necessary for salvation, but because it is necessary for walking the entire path that leads to salvation, day by day. I have said before that when I speak of repentance like this, I’m talking about much more than sorrow or regret for sins, and more than confession of sins (though these are all important aspects of it). Repentance can be called a way of life because it is all about turning away from what is evil and toward what is good. It is about renouncing the world, the flesh, and the devil (and oneself insofar as one is attached to these things), and embracing the life of the Gospel and the Lord Himself. There is no end to repentance, even if someday we attain mastery over the worst of our sins. For there is no limit to how fully, deeply, faithfully and consistently we can turn to God and fulfill his will.

So we pray in the Divine Liturgy and the major Offices every day: “that we may spend the rest of our lives in peace and repentance.” We’re not asking here for a lifetime supply of sins so that we’ll always have something to repent of—or that we may focus forever on the failures of our past. We’re asking that we may daily and always turn from the darkness and toward the Light, that we may have strength to deny our stubborn impulses and disordered passions so as to be free to run to God with a light and pure heart. Thus the Great Fast, with its constant emphasis on repentance, will truly be grace and gift from the Lord—and in this we may find ourselves surprised by the secret joy that He places in the hearts of those who choose to follow Him with love and devotion.

Therefore, “May this the first day of the Fast be for you…a time of abstinence from sin, of turning towards God and drawing near to Him. Flee from all the pits of evil and seek only the paths that lead to the eternal rest of the Age to come.” Let us go forth in peace and joy and courage, in the name of the Lord.

I Am Fallen; Call Me Back!

On the preparatory Sundays before Lent, the texts of Vespers and Matins correspond with the mystery of the Gospel which is proclaimed at the Liturgy—except for this Sunday. But that is OK, and more than OK—for in this case it expresses something of the profound spiritual insight of the Church in this immediate preparation for Lent. The Gospel is about fasting and forgiveness (Mt. 6:14-21), but the Divine Office takes us to a primordial event, one that indicates why we need Lent in the first place: the fall of Adam and Eve and their banishment from Paradise, and hence ours as well.

The liturgical texts are quite poignant in their expression of Adam’s lament. “The Lord my Creator took me as dust from the earth and formed me into a living creature, breathing into me the breath of life and giving me a soul; He honored me, setting me as ruler upon earth over all things visible, making me companion of the angels. But satan the deceiver, using the serpent as his instrument, enticed me… Woe is me! By evil deceit I was persuaded and led astray, and now I am an exile from glory… O Paradise, no more shall I take pleasure in your joy! No more shall I look upon the Lord my God and Maker, for I shall return to the earth whence I was taken. O merciful and compassionate Lord, to You I cry aloud: I am fallen, have mercy on me!”

“I am fallen!” That cry echoes in the depths of every human soul, whether or not one is conscious of it. It is the cry of the lost, the exiled: “I could have been happy; I had every blessing, but I threw it all away because of my sinful pride and disobedience—now all is lost forever!” This is the existential state of mankind since our first parents lost their pristine purity and innocence through demonic seduction. So the Church is wise in placing this mystery at the threshold of the season of repentance—first of all so that we may more explicitly recognize our exile from Paradise, and secondly so that by the grace of our Redeemer we can make our way back. In the liturgy Adam cries out that he is fallen, but he also cries out: in your mercy, call me back! “I am fallen, call me back.” This is the theme song of our procession into Lent.

At Matins on the three Sundays preceding Lent, we also sing the mournful hymn, “By the Rivers of Babylon” (Ps 136/137), the song of the exiles who had been taken far from Jerusalem—which was for them a kind of Paradise, for it was God’s dwelling place, since his temple was there. The psalmist laments his inability to worship the Lord in the land of exile, and he misses his homeland so much that he places a curse on himself should he for a moment forget that all his joys are there. This is our lament as well, though we are not mourning exile from an earthly city but from Heaven itself. There is the source of our joy, and we must at all costs return.

But the return is difficult, since we’ve been hamstrung by sin and, thus disabled, we may despair of being restored to joy and to life with God. We sing in the psalm: “Blessed is he who repays you for what you have done to us!” The psalmist is addressing his captors, but we address the evil one. Look at us! See what he has done to us! We’ve been cast out of Paradise, alienated from God, forced to live by the sweat of our brow, our minds darkened and our souls burdened; we live in ignorance and interior disorder, and we are more inclined to sin than to righteousness. We find it extremely difficult to live by the word of God since we’ve been so perversely twisted as to choose our own selfish desires over the commandments that lead to life. Yet this is not all the devil’s fault; we ourselves have added guilt to guilt by the choices we have freely made. We entered this world at a disadvantage because of original sin, and we have made things worse by our personal sins. We are not only exiles from Paradise but, as the psalmist says elsewhere, we lie in a prison whence there is no escape. Why, then, is the refrain to that hymn of exile, “Alleluia”?

It is because there is a way out of that prison; there is a way back to Paradise, but only one: forgiveness. We may not be able to escape the harsh limitations of the human condition, but we can go home again. We are in exile because of our sin; therefore return from exile is accomplished only through forgiveness of sin. God justly cast us forth from Paradise, as St Basil says in his liturgy, so it is God’s forgiveness alone that can bring us back. But it wasn’t easy for Him to forgive us—not because He didn’t love us enough, or because our sins were so many and so grievous that He doubted whether it was worth it at all. No, it wasn’t easy because of the price He chose to pay: the bloody sacrifice of his only-begotten Son made man to save us and reconcile us with Himself. Only through Christ’s death and resurrection are our sins forgiven and are we welcome to return to Paradise. Jesus made it clear on the night before his Passion, when He said: “This is my body broken for you, this is my blood shed for you—for the forgiveness of sins.” Therefore He could say to the good thief on the Cross, while his precious blood was still flowing out of his body: “This day you will be with Me in Paradise.” That repentant sinner was the first to be released from exile, the first to make his way home again.

So now we know the way. Jesus Himself said “I am the Way,” but his way is the way of the Cross, the way of humble and sacrificial love, the way of forgiveness of sins. It might seem now that it will be easy to return to Paradise: just believe in Jesus and accept the forgiveness of your sins, and board that Heaven-bound train. Not so fast. There’s a condition. Let us first look at the opening verses of the Gospel reading.

“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive yours.” If we want to be released from our sins through divine forgiveness, we have to release those who have offended or hurt us by a like forgiveness. There are no exceptions, qualifications, or loopholes offered here. If you forgive, you will be forgiven; if you don’t, you won’t. End of story.

Therefore it is no light matter whether or not we forgive others. Our salvation hangs in the balance. Our ticket to Paradise is purchased not only with God’s forgiveness of our sins, but also with our forgiveness of those who have sinned against us. We don’t say this because it fits some theological system; we say it because that’s what Jesus said! If we’re not forgiven, we’re not saved, period. And if we don’t forgive, we are not forgiven. Inspect the logic and come to the only possible conclusion! In a sense, God is giving us the opportunity and the high privilege to be like Him: “Be merciful, as your heavenly Father is merciful.” That is how we prove the sincerity of our repentance and our gratitude for being forgiven. Scripture says it repeatedly: Forgive, as you have been forgiven.

And our forgiveness has to be genuine. The usual expression for complete forgiveness is “forgive and forget,” though that’s not quite accurate. We can’t literally forget, if our brains are still functioning normally. But we can act as if we’ve forgotten. Perhaps we should say: forgive and let go. This is even stronger, because we haven’t forgotten; we have simply chosen, for the sake of Christ, to let go of it. I have heard some people say they have forgiven others, only to discover even years later that the issue was still very fresh in their minds and they were ready to bring it up all over again. So their “forgiveness” was in words only and hence was not true forgiveness—which means God could not yet forgive them. St John Climacus regards “remembrance of wrongs” as among the most odious of sins. Let us examine ourselves: if we don’t let go of offenses or hurts or slights against us, if we have a grudge against anyone, we are not yet forgiven by God who, in answer to our own prayers, will only forgive us as we forgive others. Let us not wait until judgment day to discover that we are not forgiven by God because we have refused to forgive others.

So in the Byzantine tradition Lent begins not only with this immediate preparation day called Forgiveness Sunday, but also with a special rite of forgiveness at the end of Vespers on Sunday evening. In our tradition Lent begins in the middle of Vespers, at the Great Prokimen—a psalm verse that usually precedes the reading—when the vestments are changed from bright ones to dark ones. This prokimen is appropriate for the beginning of Lent: “Turn not your face away from your servant, for I am in distress; hear me speedily, listen to my soul and deliver me” (Ps. 68/69).

If we don’t begin Lent in a spirit of forgiveness, we cannot expect to receive forgiveness from the Lord. And whether or not we receive God’s forgiveness is literally a matter of eternal life or death. So let us first recognize—humbly, realistically, soberly—that we are fallen, damaged, exiled from our true happiness. Then let us rejoice with thanksgiving that a way out, a way home, has been provided for us by the loving kindness of God and the awesome sacrifice of Christ. And finally let us realize that our return to Paradise depends on our being merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful, forgiving as we have been forgiven. For Heaven is the home, not of the proud, the grudge-holders, the unrepentant, or the self-righteous, but of repentant sinners who are both forgiven and forgiving.

The Spirit, the Water, and the Blood

Who is it that testifies about our redemption, about the eternal significance of the death of Jesus? “It is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the Truth” (1Jn 5:6). Who is it that reveals to us the meaning of the ineffable mysteries flowing down through the ages from the pierced side of Christ? “The Spirit will take from what is Mine and make it known to you” (Jn 16:15). And who is it that declares our divine adoption? “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Rom 8:16).

The Holy Spirit has spoken through the Prophets and the Apostles, as recorded in the Sacred Scriptures. He has guided the pen of an eyewitness and disciple of the Word, who testifies to what he has seen and heard and touched (1Jn 1:1; Jn 19:34-35). In a mystical prefiguring of Pentecost, the Spirit was released with the last breath of Christ, (a literal translation of Jn 19:30 concludes with, “he handed over the spirit”). And so the Spirit mixes for the Church the wine of the New Covenant as He reveals the outpouring of the Water and the Blood. This is the Water that testifies to Jesus with the Spirit and the Blood (1Jn 5:7-8); this is the Blood which speaks more graciously than that of Abel (Heb 12:24).

Now Scripture is rich in symbolism and often has many layers of meaning. So I can’t here sufficiently explain, in the various passages cited above, the symbols, the realities, and their interrelations and inner unity. But I would like at least to reflect a bit on God the Spirit, in the context of the mystery of the Water and the Blood.

The Holy Spirit is the One who leads Jesus’ disciples into the whole truth, little by little, since we cannot grasp all at once everything Jesus has to say to us (Jn 16:12-13). But we will be initiated into the mysteries of God in the measure we thirst for the living water of divine grace, which is God’s gift to those who ask it of Jesus (Jn 4:10). Our first initiation is in the waters of Baptism, our rebirth (or heavenly begetting) in water and the Spirit, without which we cannot enter the Kingdom of God (Jn 3:5). Being baptized into Christ, we have received in our souls a spring of living water, the grace of God which He wills to well up within us unto eternal life (Jn 4:14).

In the realm of nature, St James explains, fresh water and salt water cannot come from the same spring (Jas 3:11). He means that, in the realm of the Spirit, good and evil should not come from the same heart, from the same mouth, because good and evil are opposed by nature. Similarly, St Paul rhetorically asks the Corinthians, “What does righteousness have in common with wickedness? What agreement is there between Christ and Belial?” (2Cor 6:14-15).

Now according to the Apostle John, the Spirit is received from and through Christ (7:37-39). Blood and water also came forth from that same source, that same Heart. Water, Blood, and Spirit proceed from the same “spring” because “these three testify [to the truth of God's revelation in Christ]: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three are in agreement” (1Jn 5:7-8). There is nothing in common between God and the devil, but there is agreement among the Spirit, the Water and the Blood. What is their common testimony? “This is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1Jn 5:11-12). Quite clear, is it not?

Perhaps there is still a question. What do we do in order to “have the Son of God” and thus eternal life? As mentioned above, we start with the water, the water of Baptism, through which we are cleansed of sin and become clothed with Christ. Then we receive the Spirit in the sacrament of Chrismation, filling us with the Gift of Himself as well as spiritual gifts as He wills. Thus we are sealed as children of God in Christ.

There remains the Blood. The new life in the Spirit, granted through our mystical and sacramental immersion in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, has to be nurtured and sustained unto full Christian maturity. Jesus has the answer: “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (Jn 6:53-54). Is this not again quite clear?

So the Spirit, the Water and the Blood testify also to us of the sacramental life of the Church, that it is indispensable if we desire eternal life. All this comes from God who is Love, God who desires mercy. Jesus poured out divine love as blood, divine mercy as the river of the water of life, the inexhaustible twin streams of healing and salvation. He also breathed the divine Spirit who created the Church, the children of the living God.

Let us understand that the Spirit is inseparable from the water and the blood, the life of the Church from the life of the soul, the cross from the resurrection, love from sacrifice, faith from works. The Good News is that all these agree. Sin alone sounds the sour note in this spiritual symphony. But grace and mercy are offered to us moment by moment. Seek the Lord while He can still be found. Eternal life is ours for the asking. So the Spirit and the Bride say, “Come!” Come to the Water, come to the Blood, and let the Ocean of Mercy receive your soul.

The Eleventh Hour

A Gospel parable that prodigal children find consoling and that “elder sons” find rather irritating is that of the workers in the vineyard (Mt. 20: 1-16). I’m sure that you just looked it up and read it (or know it by heart), so I won’t go into all the details here.

It is actually quite a beautiful story about how God constantly seeks after us, calling us to his Kingdom (or, in this case, his vineyard), meeting us where we are at different times and stages of our lives, even coming for us at the “eleventh hour,” after we have been “idle all day.”

I have to vent my spleen just a bit over a footnote in a certain edition of the Bible concerning this parable, so typical of the drivel that is offered these days, seemingly oblivious that the text they are commenting on is actually the word of God. It says: “The point of this parable is the willingness of the owner to exceed conventional practices, and his freedom to do so within the limits of agreements.” I can imagine Jesus scratching his head and saying: “It is? I thought it was about the Kingdom of Heaven—because I began it by saying: ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is like…’—and of the Father’s generosity in accepting all who will come at his invitation.” Jesus really should brush up on his study of modern scholars. But it gets worse. “The first sentence [of v.15] is not a statement of economic theory except as it claims the right to enter into differing contracts.” Thanks for telling us it’s not about economic theory; we all had immediately assumed that it was. But their “except” shows that they in fact do think it’s at least partly about economic theory. Christ in his divinity transcends frustration, but if He didn’t, I think He’d be frustrated over all these lame interpretations of his sacred words. I don’t transcend frustration, and so I am!

There are two levels of interpretation for this parable, actually three if we apply it to ourselves. The first has to do with Jews and Gentiles. The Jews are the chosen people; they are the ones who were called first, “early in the morning.” God worked with them over a long period of history, in which some were faithful and some were not. Some repented of their unfaithfulness and entered into his favor. So throughout their history, God continued to call them to labor in his vineyard, to serve Him as his own beloved servants.

Then comes the eleventh hour. (The day was divided in periods roughly based on the times of sunrise and sunset. The workday more or less corresponded to this range, the first hour being 6 AM and the twelfth hour being 6 PM. The night was divided into various “watches.”) So the eleventh hour is 5 PM, an hour before quitting time, that is, before the “end times.” The early Christians always referred to their time as the last time, the last days, etc, because the advent of Christ inaugurated the messianic age which would conclude in a short time (they thought) with the return of the Lord. This “end time” was the time of the call of the Gentiles. They were not the chosen people for the whole time of Israel’s history. They were only called at the “eleventh hour,” when Jesus told his disciples to preach the Gospel to all nations, just before He ascended to Heaven.

As St Paul makes clear, especially in Romans, the Gentiles are suddenly on an equal footing with the Jews. They are saved by grace, just as the Jews or anyone else is saved. These latecomers “receive the same wage” (in terms of this parable) as the ones who were called first and labored longer. We know from the Acts of the Apostles that there was some begrudging of this grace offered the Gentiles among some Jewish converts, who wanted them to go the whole route of circumcision and obedience to the Law of Moses before they could be saved. But the Master says to them as to the workers in the vineyard: “I choose to give to these last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”

That is probably the original intent of the parable. But it can also be interpreted in light of the parable of the prodigal son and other teachings of the Lord in which repentant sinners are placed (at least) on the same level as the law-abiding Pharisees. The Pharisees, like the elder brother of the prodigal son, were called early and bore the burden and heat of the day by many years of obedience to the law. Others, who led sinful lives, repented at the “eleventh hour” and were received with joy by God, who did not demand the same labors of them, only a contrite heart and a determination to be faithful henceforth. The Pharisees, like the elder son, had nothing but scorn for these last-minute salvaged souls and were indignant that such repentant riff-raff would be granted equal status and reward.

It may be the same for us as well. Each of us may fit into a different category, or perhaps different categories in different stages of life. After a rather dissipated adolescence, I entered the monastery at the ripe old age of 24, thanking God that He had received me at the eleventh hour, after I had wasted my whole life. Now that I’ve been here nearly 25 years, I might be tempted to think that I’m one who has borne the burden and heat of the day, laboring long in God’s service while others (like wanna-be monks of retirement age submitting their applications) are trying to sneak in at the end, having spent the majority of their time living it up in the world while I was fasting and praying.

But that is precisely the attitude we all have to avoid. We think it unjust if someone gets a break that we never got, if someone is allowed a short-cut to the finish line while we had to run the whole race. So we think we should receive more, but God says to us: “I choose to give to this last one as I give to you.” Our only joy should be in the will of God, thanking Him for his generosity not only to us but to all.

We ought to realize this as well: no matter how long we have labored in God’s service, in a certain sense we are all coming in at the eleventh hour. For our salvation is pure mercy and not a calculated recompense for a job well done. What we “earn” is Hell, for we cannot by our own labors atone for a single sin. All is gift, so all must be gratitude. The Lord does call us to work in his vineyard, and work we must—lest we do get what we deserve. But no amount of labor can put us in a position of demanding anything from God. Here is his “economic theory”: those who do the will of God and believe in the One He sent shall be saved. Let us not try to claim the reward of the first as we look down our noses at those who come last. For Jesus ends his parable by saying: “So the last will be first, and the first last.”

Like This Child

In several places in the Gospels, Jesus places conditions upon entering the Kingdom of Heaven. For example, our righteousness must exceed that of pious legalists if we are to be saved (Mt. 5:20). One of these conditions is somewhat difficult to define, and hence seemingly ambiguous as to its practice, so we may rightly wonder if we are in fact heading toward the Kingdom. It is this one: “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18:3). Never.

What are we to make of this? Become like children? Ignorant, immature, disobedient, and petulant? Runny-nosed, dirty-kneed, noisy, and accident-prone? No, we are mostly all that already. Jesus explains it in the next verse: “Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Now humility is probably not the first virtue we would think to apply to children. But children, in that time and culture, were practically non-entities, at least legally, and socially as well. They had no standing until they passed to the stage at which they were formally accepted as full members of the worshipping community. So to be like a child is to be of no account, self-effacing, small in the eyes of all.

(You may have noticed that I didn’t say children are cute, endearing, playful, and affectionate, but that’s only because those are not the criteria for being “like” them, as far as salvation is concerned. Can you imaging Jesus saying that we have to be cute as children in order to be saved? There would be nothing but a few echoes in the empty halls of Heaven!)

True to his usual style, Jesus favored those of no account, the humble and the humbled. He offered the children as examples of what one must be in order to be saved. He identified with them, gave severe warnings to anyone who would dare scandalize or lead them astray, and insisted that no one look down on them, for “in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father” (18:5-11). The disciples were men of their time and had the common disdain for the presence of children in adult company. They rebuked the parents who were bringing children to the Master (Mt 19:13-14), who in turn rebuked the disciples. Jesus welcomed the children, saying that the Kingdom belonged to such as them.

We have to look at these passages as something more than quaint or sentimental affections for the little ones. For the Lord said we would never enter Heaven unless we became like one. He assumed that we are not already like them because He said we have to “turn,” that is, convert, and become like a child. We have to humble ourselves and become small in everyone’s estimation, even our own.

There is an important application of humble childlikeness. It is interesting to notice that the whole first half of chapter 18 of Matthew is about the little ones, and the whole second half is about forgiveness. It seems that the evangelist is trying to tell us that humbling ourselves in order to enter the Kingdom entails learning how to forgive—seventy times seven times.

In our pride we expect to receive forgiveness, but if we are to humble ourselves we had better be ready to offer forgiveness. The whole story about the merciless official (18:23-35) can be summed up in this line: “I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” If we reflect even for a little while on all that the Lord has forgiven us, it should not be difficult to see how much less we have to forgive others.

Perhaps we’ve now come to the reason why those who are not “like this child” will never enter Heaven. We know that we cannot be saved if our sins are not forgiven, and the Lord teaches us to ask the Father to forgive us as we forgive others, declaring that if we don’t forgive others, the Father won’t forgive us (Mt. 6:14-15). If, then, we can only learn to forgive by first humbling ourselves, we have to become like children in order to receive the Father’s promised mercy. Otherwise, we will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus always knows what He’s talking about, doesn’t He! And everything He says is somehow directed toward the salvation of our souls. Let us turn, then, and become more humble so we can become more forgiving so we can be forgiven so we can enter the Kingdom of Heaven—for to such as these it belongs.

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