Forgiveness for All the Sundays to Come

Archpriest Stephen Freeman | 20 February 2018

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word;  (John 17:20-21)

The Elder Sophrony, together with St. Silouan, wrote about the “whole Adam.” By this, they meant all the human beings who have ever existed and those yet to come. For Silouan and Sophrony, this was something known in the present tense, a “hypostatic” knowledge of the fundamental unity of the human race. Sophrony described it as a necessary component in the Christian life of prayer. We have not been taught to pray, “My Father,” but “Our.”

This primal unity is completely present in Christ. His death on the Cross is not His alone – He dies the death of every single human being – bearing the sins of all. The insight of the saints tells us that this same reality must be ours as well. Christ has not done something for us in our absence. The Cross He endured is the same Cross He invites us to take up. And that Cross is also a universal Cross (the Cross of the whole Adam). We do not go there only for our own death, but for the death of everyone (and thus the resurrection of all).

The privatization of our religious faith has obscured this fundamental reality. We hear the command of Christ as directed solely to ourselves as a private matter. But the nature of that Cross includes its universal aspect. The Cross cannot bear my sins if it does not bear the sins of all. It is one of the primary meanings of Christ’s title, the “Second Adam.” For He is not a mere repeat of the First, but the recapitulation of all, just as the First Adam was the head of all. (Romans 5:18-19)

I am often aware of the burden of sin that we inherit (ancestral sin). Most of the problems that infect the world are not of this generations’ making (as is always true). We do not enter the world as a blank slate. Our DNA, our cultural inheritance, the vast sum of what will be our existence is given to us in a deck that has already been stacked. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann once said, the spiritual life consists in “how we deal with what we’ve been dealt.” And it is even more complex than that. We are sitting at a table in which every hand in play has this same givenness. We are all playing in a game that we might not have chosen for ourselves.

I am also growing ever more aware of those who will come after me. As a grandfather, I observe the inevitable inheritance within my own family, to say nothing of the world they will inherit. When I think of the generations to come my mind is also drawn to the vast multitude of those whose lives have been destroyed in the silent violence of our modern world. This is a bitter planet and one that gives too little thought to such things.

But when we pray as the whole Adam, then we must give thought to all of these things. Is it any wonder that the Church teaches us to cry out, “Lord, have mercy!” over and over again? I think of the advice given to Raskolnikov, the axe-murderer in Crime and Punishment. After confessing his crime to Sonya the prostitute we read:

“Well, what to do now, tell me!” he said, suddenly raising his head and looking at her, his face hideously distorted by despair.

“What to do!” she exclaimed, suddenly jumping up from her place, and her eyes, still full of tears, suddenly flashed. “Stand up!” (She seized him by the shoulder; he rose, looking at her almost in amazement.) “Go now, this minute, stand in the crossroads, bow down, and first kiss the earth you’ve defiled, then bow to the whole world, on all four sides, and say aloud to everyone: ‘I have killed!’ Then God will send you life again. Will you go? Will you go?” she kept asking him, all trembling as if in a fit, seizing both his hands, squeezing them tightly in her own, and looking at him with fiery eyes.

He was amazed and even struck by her sudden ecstasy. “So it’s hard labor, is it, Sonya? I must go and denounce myself?” he asked gloomily.

“Accept suffering and redeem yourself by it, that’s what you must do.”

We take a burden far greater than Raskolnikov’s into Great Lent. Bow down, kiss the earth you have defiled, then bow to the whole world, on all four sides, and say aloud: “Forgive me!”

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