In her enduring wisdom and love for mankind, the Church provides us with a period of preparation before we enter Great Lent. We have passed through the Sundays of Zacchaeus, the Publican and the Pharisee, the Last Judgment, and now finally with today – the Sunday which commemorates the expulsion of Adam from Paradise.
In each of these preparatory Sundays, forgiveness is at the heart of the Gospel message. In his great zeal to meet the Lord, Zacchaeus confessed his sins and repented by giving back four-fold his ill-gotten gains. The publican asks for forgiveness through his heartfelt “have mercy upon me, a sinner.” The Sunday of the Last Judgment reminds us that Christ will judge us according to the extent that we were merciful and forgiving of others. Finally, Forgiveness Sunday recalls Adam’s sin and more importantly, his unwillingness to ask for forgiveness. Reflecting upon this ancestral sin, Abba Dorotheos writes:
Again, after his fall, God gave him an occasion to repent and to receive mercy, but he kept his stiff neck held high. He came to him and said ‘”Adam, Where are you?'”instead of saying “What glory you have left and what dishonor you have arrived at?” After that, He asked him “Why did you sin? Why did you transgress the commandment?'” By asking these questions, He wanted to give him the opportunity to say, “Forgive me.” However, he did not ask for forgiveness. There was no humility, there was no repentance, but indeed the opposite. (Practical Teaching on the Christian Life)
The ability to ask for forgiveness and to forgive others is at the heart of the spiritual life. There can be no spiritual growth without these two components. In Saint Matthew’s Gospel, the Lord tells His disciples, “For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you” (Matthew 7:2).
Great Lent is a period of grace given to us to demonstrate in concrete actions and words our forgiveness of others who have wronged us. Our father among the saints, the righteous John of Kronstadt, is quoted as saying:
Imagine, picture the multitude of your sins and imagine how tolerant of them is the Master of your life, while you are unwilling to forgive your neighbor even the smallest offense. Moan and bewail your foolishness, and that obstruction within you will vanish like smoke, you will think more clearly, your heart will grow calm, and through this you will learn goodness, as if not you yourself had heard the reproaches and indignities, but some other person entirely, or a shadow of yourself. (Lessons on a Life of Grace)
Pride is at the root of our unwillingness to forgive. We may protest by saying that our unwillingness to forgive is justified in some way but the appeal to justice is a two-edged sword. As Saint Paul writes to the Romans, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). It is much more profitable spiritually for us to appeal to mercy. If we are able to overlook the sins of others and show mercy, mercy will be shown to us as well.
Just as pride is the root of hard-heartedness, humility is the key to forgiveness. Abba Anthony said, “I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world, and I said groaning, ‘What can get through from such snares?’ Then I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Humility.”‘
Our first task during Great Lent and every day of our lives is found in the Gospel: “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).
If we seek the Lord’s forgiveness, we must forgive our brothers and sisters from our heart. This is the task and the opportunity of Great Lent. A blessed fast to you all.