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.