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.

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