The Sunday of Forgiveness

Each year, as the Orthodox Church stands at the very threshold of Great Lent, we hear these words from Jesus's Sermon on the Mount:

If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

-- Matthew 6:14-21

The Sunday of Forgiveness takes its name from the first verse in this passage. And therefore, at the conclusion of Vespers on this day, the Church prescribes a unique ritual: everyone in the church, from the oldest priest to the youngest child, bows down before everyone else -- one at a time -- and asks forgiveness of the other. "Forgive me," implores the one; "God forgives," responds the other, embracing and exchanging two or three kisses of peace -- and then they reverse parts, so that everyone has both asked forgiveness of, and forgiven everyone else, everyone has bowed down in front of everyone else, everyone has embraced everyone else. And all the while, the hymns (canon) of Pascha are being quietly chanted in the background. So does the Orthodox Church enter the season of Great Lent.

So the obvious question is, what if I haven't done anything (bad) to the other person? What am I asking their forgiveness for? And why are they asking forgiveness of me?

This is a close cousin to the other obvious question, why do I need to go to confession if I don't have anything to confess?

It turns out these questions share a common answer.

Think back to last week's lesson. Recall that the last judgment itself is based on six simple questions:

1. Did we give food to the hungry?
2. Did we give drink to the thirsty?
3. Did we take in the stranger?
4. Did we clothe the naked?
5. Did we visit the sick?
6. Did we come to the prisoner?

And note that all of these questions regard, not what evil things we did, but what good things we failed to do. If we examine our lives and our hearts, which the disciplines of Lent allow and encourage us to do, not many of us stand guiltless in this regard.

And then look again at last week's reading, and recognize that "inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me", and "inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me." (Matthew 25:40, 45) What we do, or fail to do, for each other, we do or fail to do for God Himself. We sin against God in sinning against each other.

And the converse is equally true. Because we share one common human nature, and in the Church, as we form together the Body of Christ (as St. Paul writes in Romans 12:5, "we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another"), what we do, or fail to do, for God, we do or fail to do for each other. We sin against each other in sinning against God. The victimless crime where "no one got hurt", the private sin in which "no harm was done", is simply a fantasy, an illusion. I could be alone on a desert island and sin there in my solitude -- and I would be sinning against all of you, and in need not only of God's forgiveness, but of yours. And the converse holds true, which is why we offer forgiveness on this day even to those we are meeting for the first time.

And so on this day, as a token of what I should be doing every day, from my heart, I ask your forgiveness for everything I have done that I should not have done, and for the much longer list of things I should have done that I failed to do. Whether we know each other or not. Whether or not we've ever met. And from my heart, I share with you God's forgiveness and assure you of my own, in a virtual embrace and kiss of peace. Perhaps the first time this has ever been done by blog. :)

And in our minds and hearts, may we hear the words of the Paschal verses:

This is the day of Resurrection; let us be illumined by the Feast, let us embrace each other! Let us call "brother" even those who hate us, and forgive all by the Resurrection. And so let us cry: "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!"

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