Preface: I prepared this homily for the Sunday of Forgiveness, also known as Cheesefare Sunday, the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent for Orthodox and most Greek-Catholic Christians. I delivered the homily during the Divine Liturgy at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles. Note that today is the first day of Lent known as Clean Monday. The Byzantine tradition does not observe Ash Wednesday. Instead, we begin Lent with the office of Vespers on Sunday evening. In many churches, this office concludes with a rite of forgiveness, which probably originated in early medieval Sabaitic monastic practice, as witnessed by contemporaneous hagiographical sources. This rite is celebrated with much variation across the Byzantine tradition, so I am describing the version I know best, which was influenced by the liturgical tradition of Valaam monastery. The presider stands before the assembly and asks forgiveness of all. He performs a prostration before the whole assembly. Then, a circle is formed within the Church, and each person asks forgiveness of the other, each performing a prostration and exchanging the kiss of peace. The choir chants Lenten hymns and often sings the hymns appointed for Pascha Sunday as well, bringing the telos of Lent to its very beginning. The Gospel reading for Forgiveness Sunday is Matthew 6:14-21.
Why Lent? To Become Like God
Once upon a time, in the beginning, God created life. God poured out his love and created humanity to enjoy the abundance of the divine life. God’s love for humanity was so great that he granted us freedom, including the freedom to reject God. Our rejection of God included our proclivity to hurt one another; to steal, exploit, perform violence, and even murder our brother and sister. Our rejection of God revoked our privilege to enjoy in the fullness of this life he gave us from the very beginning, even though he maintained a covenant with us to the bitter end. God’s love for us was so great that he kept coming to us even when our forefathers worshipped the golden calf, or when Solomon worshipped foreign gods after dedicating the temple to God, or when Jezebel killed the prophets and the people of Israel worshipped Baal. God kept coming to us, over and over again, forgiving our sins, even when our own forefathers and mothers killed God’s only begotten son on a cross, mocking him, spitting and cursing him, even though he had done no evil upon the earth. The Bible introduces an image of a God who loves us and comes to us over and over and over again, despite our infidelity. He is the giver, the creator of all who gave us life even invited us to share in his own life; he is also the forgiver, the one who releases us from our infidelities and invites us to joyfully share in the abundance of his life. No one can stop, change, or replace God; he will pursue us as many times as needed so that we will eventually decide, once and for all, to stop cutting ourselves off from the joyful abundance he gives us freely, because God is the giver and the forgiver.
So here we are in 2016, standing at the precipice of divine life once again. We’re shocked by a world where Christians are relentlessly removed from their homes and exterminated in the name of religious ideology; we shake our heads at the seemingly never-ending hatred exchanged between Christians, Catholics and Orthodox trading insults and calling one another schismatic and heretic; we weep with lament and sorrow when we hear the latest story of domestic violence, of vulnerable young people seizing weapons and murdering their own families. We fail to understand why the vicious cycle of humans destroying humanity persists, and only on some select occasions do we see the light of God shining brightly in the saints of our lives, the rare heroic religious leader who has the courage to try to make friends with his enemy, the emaciated nun who creates a religious order of sisters who are the only ones willing to feed the poor and receive their ministry, our own Orthodox ascetics who welcome us without reservation, give us every penny they have, and bow before us with humility to ask us for our forgiveness, even though they have done no evil upon the earth. We see these bright lights and ask God, Lord, why have you raised so few saints, and why do you take them away from us? And the Lord answers us: “I am appointing you to make friends with your enemy, to feed the poor and receive their healing ministry, to welcome the sinner and ask the most wretched one among you for prayers and forgiveness.” But we fail to hear the voice of the Lord through the noise, and in so doing, we miss the whole point of Lent: God is calling you, and me, and Fr. John, and Metropolitan Gerasimos, and Patriarch Bartholomew, and everyone to be a giver and a forgiver. That is the point of Lent: to become a giver and a forgiver, for when any one of us gives and forgives, we are on the path to becoming like God, even if we do not know it.
We are blessed that our Orthodox Church provides us with a rich selection of Gospel readings on these Sundays before Lent. On the Sunday of the Canaanite woman, we see the image of the outsider who is unworthy having the courage to approach God and receiving healing and wholeness for her daughter from the giver of all; on the Sunday of Zacchaeus, we see the image of the giver of all going to a tax collector and bringing salvation to him; on the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, we see the sinner perform an act of courageous and honest self-examination, confess his sin, and ask God for forgiveness; on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, we see an image of God who forgives the one who wasted his inheritance, and restores him completely to the fold, unconditionally; on the Sunday of the Last Judgment, we hear our Lord’s warning that we too are called to be givers and forgivers, those who take care not only of the righteous, but also of the wicked as a way of honoring the God who gave them life; and today, we receive the commandment of the Lord – the commandment! – that we are obliged to forgive the sins of those who have trespassed against us.
Having heard this commandment of Jesus, we also begin the process of rehearsing it – we ask God to forgive us and to help us recognize our brothers and sisters when we say the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian throughout the entirety of the forty days of lent. It is customary for us on this Sunday of Lent to ask God to forgive us of our sins and to ask forgiveness of others, too, even if they have not sinned against us. When we receive God’s forgivenesss, we are restored as full participants in God’s Holy Communion (or Holy Community), no matter our age or gender, our race or education. And finally, the point of practicing forgiveness, of asking for it and giving it away freely, is not to make this season holy, but to receive the divine grace that makes us holy and makes us bear God’s ambassadors in this world. We are not to become givers and forgivers for Lent only, but for the rest of our lives, permanently.
Today, brothers and sisters, God is inviting us to become his shining lights, the givers and forgivers who have the courage the make friends out of enemies, to feed the poor and receive their riches in return, and to welcome the stranger and the sinner, even asking for their prayers. If we say yes to this invitation, we will become God’s co-workers who break the vicious cycle of humans exploiting and killing one another for personal gain. And our giving will be motivated by a true love for God, one which gives us the ability to see his divine image in the others of our neighborhoods and communities. Today, let us respond to this holy invitation with a courageous yes; let us embrace one another joyfully; and let us become God’s witnesses, to remind the world that we are all called to share in the abundant life of the Father, with his only-begotten Son, and his life-giving Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.