Vespers of Forgiveness Sunday
God longs to receive us as His children into His eternal Kingdom, and for this reason the Church is filled during this period with great grace, which is offered to all people who thirst for a taste of the Resurrection by following her programme. Lent is a journey. In the Gospel of St Matthew, God says of His Only-Begotten Son: ‘Out of Egypt have I called my Son’. Then Christ fled to Egypt to escape the envy of His enemies, and when the danger had passed, the angel of God called Him back to Palestine. God calls us all ‘out of Egypt’. In the ascetic tradition, ‘Egypt’ symbolises the place of darkness, the slavery of passions, sin, carelessness and desolation in which man lives after his fall. God calls us all to make an exodus, as the Israelites of old made an exodus from the land of Egypt to the land of Canaan, the Promised Land.
But where is God calling us? The first stage is a geographical exodus from the place of sin and the passions, while the second is spiritual; it consists in eradicating the law of sin from our hearts. The path to divine adoption is therefore a journey from the Egypt of the passions to the place of His eternal and glorious Presence, where the Lord reigns in the ‘land of the living’, that is, of the perfected spirits of all the saints and the angels. Christ Himself is the land of the living, and He calls us all to inherit it and live eternally with Him. During the Holy Fast, the Church calls us precisely to this struggle, to come out of the foreign land, the confusion and darkness of this world in which we live, and to return to Christ, risen from the dead, to enter His Bridal chamber and receive a living experience of the Resurrection.
Each Sunday in the period preceding Lent gives us a constant principle with which to walk towards the Lord in humility. We learned from Zacchaeus, for example, that the desire to see the Face of Christ vouchsafes man to receive the Lord as an inhabitant in his heart, just as Zacchaeus received the Lord’s visitation in his house. On the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, we learned the difference between the true righteousness of humility, which God accepts, and the false righteousness of pride and condemnation, which He abhors. On the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, we learned that true repentance is to want to return to the House of the Father with a humble spirit and without claiming any rights. All the teachings we receive from these Sundays before Lent are teachings of humility, so that our striving during the Fast may be fruitful and reach its desired haven, which is the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus. We labour in order to acquire the living experience of His Resurrection, which is the pledge and foreshadowing of our own resurrection in the world to come.
Today’s Sunday has a double meaning. On the one hand, the hymns we heard at Vespers and the Orthros remind us that we are fallen, and this gives us the humility necessary to fulfil God’s commandments. Lent, like our whole life, is a journey from Egypt, not to the earthly Jerusalem, but to the Upper Jerusalem, that is, to the Presence of Christ. Today the Church urges us to have the determination of the Israelites of old, who never forgot that they were ‘strangers and sojourners’ and who sang: ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’. The whole earth was ‘strange’ to them, foreign, for they could not forget Mother Zion. Although the ancient Israelites were nomads, they knew the laws of this life; they had such a heart that they could converse with God, take hold of the word of God and utter the word of God. When they found themselves in the exile of Babylon, that is, when they were expelled from the Paradise of God, from the city of God, Jerusalem, they understood that they needed to have the determination to give their first thought to Jerusalem in whatsoever they remembered.
With this determination they would swear by the Name of God that if they forgot Jerusalem, their right hand would be forgotten and their tongue would cleave to the roof of their mouth: ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy’. Such self-denial, such determination they had, to do everything in order to find ‘an habitation for the mighty God of Jacob’. Thus, we too, my brethren, in all the practices that the Church offers us during Lent, above all fasting and prayer, we must keep one determination: to remain in constant contact with the energy of God, which will gradually remove all the layers of sin that have accumulated on our hearts in the Egypt of this world.
The struggle during this period is so great that it cannot be accomplished without man giving his heart. This is why the Gospel reading this Sunday exhorts us to forgive all our fellow men and to ask forgiveness from all our fellow men. We need great humility in order to undertake the great struggle that awaits us in Great Lent, to offer to God tithes from our life so that the whole of it may be blessed. Without forgiveness, the heart remains closed; it erects a wall between man and his fellows, which then becomes a wall between man and God. It is impossible to make this journey of return to God and to please Him if we do not have a free heart, surrendered to His word, surrendered to His will. We need a big heart and we begin to find it when we accept to forgive all those who have wounded us, all those who have wronged us, and to ask forgiveness from all. If not in great things, at least in minor ones, we are all guilty, often without realising it.
Without forgiving and being forgiven, it is impossible to find our deep heart. God requires that when we believe, we believe with our heart; when we forgive, we forgive with our heart; when we pray, we pray with our heart so that we can keep in touch with His Spirit. If our heart is free, it will surely be able to offer repentance pleasing to God, expressed in tears of repentance. When man weeps before God for his sins, he has only one thought in his heart, the thought of God, and he longs for reconciliation with God.
God calls us to the feast of His love. Our Elder Sophrony used to say that he looked forward to every Great Lent as a feast of God. What is our feast? To live in the presence of God and to rejoice in His grace. And just as the Israelites had a determination and prayed before God to remember Jerusalem above all things until God granted them to return, so we must have a determination in our lives to fulfil the two great commandments of God above all things. Often we cannot love our fellow men, my brethren, because we have not loved God. And when our love grows cold and our heart is dead to love for our neighbour, we cannot find contact with the creative energy of God.
In his book On Prayer, Elder Sophrony has a chapter entitled ‘Prayer as an Infinite Creation’. Prayer is an infinite creation because it keeps us in touch with the energy of God Who created the universe in the beginning. This energy opens up for us new creative horizons that will lead to our regeneration. With all this in mind, let us begin Holy Lent by thanking God for all He has done for us and asking Him to help us find the place of His Presence. The renewal that God offers during this period is indeed great and the grace is abundant. For this reason, great struggle and great humility are required on our part, so that we too may not fail to celebrate the eternal Passover.