Tomorrow we enter the holy days of Great Lent, and the Church calls us to ask forgiveness of one another with repentance and humility in our hearts. We will enter a holy place and time. In the time of the Law, God’s people travelled every year to the Holy City of Jerusalem and entered the Temple to offer a cleansing sacrifice. In the weeks leading up to Great Lent, we hear wondrous words chanted in church: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning” (Ps. 137). It is now time for us to remember the Heavenly Jerusalem, our Fatherland. It is now time for us to direct our path to the Holy City and to enter the Temple of the Spirit to offer a living sacrifice, the fruit of repentance.
The fast is our path to God. The fast is not a healthy diet that ancient farmers followed, nor is it a socio-economic necessity for primitive people, whose food supply is diminished by springtime. The fast is a sacrament of our earthly life. The fast is the leaving-behind of all earthly things: our oxen, our fields, our secular relations (Luke 14:18-20), and the realization of our spiritual reality: we are but “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Heb. 11:13), and our true calling is not for that which is corruptible and temporal, but to that which is Divine and eternal. The fast is the memory of our lack of self-control, of when we traded our relationship with God for a bowl of lentils (Gen. 25:29-34), having imagined that in it we could find what must be found in God alone (cf. Gen. 3:6).
Not satisfied with the generous fruit of the Garden of Eden, Adam had to till the desert of his soul through the sweat of his brow, irrigating it with repentant tears, yet only receiving weeds and thorns for his labor (Gen. 3:17-18). Having lost the sweetness of Paradise, Adam had to taste the bitterness of the fast in order to return to his Father’s house- now not only as the image of God, but also His likeness. The fast of not a punishment for a crime, but a salvific medicine that helps cure the illness of sin and rid one of dependency on passions.
The seventy day period of the Lenten Triodion from the Week of the Publican and Pharisee to Great Saturday reminds us of the seventy years that Israel spent in Babylonian captivity (Jer. 25:11). Since they had forgotten God and bowed down to strange idols, the Hebrew people brought repentance and tears to irrigate the desert of their souls while on the banks of the rivers of Babylon (Ps. 137:1), remembering the glory of Jerusalem as Adam had once remembered the sweetness of lost Paradise.
The forty days of Great Lent from Forgiveness Sunday to the Passion Week should remind us of the forty-year-long journey of the sons of Israel through the wilderness before they reached the Promised Land (Num. 32:13). In the same way, we must cross the barren wilderness of our withered souls on the way to Holy Pascha—our promise received from God. And just like ancient Israel in the wilderness (Ex. 16:35), we must learn to put our trust not in ourselves but completely in God, Who nourishes us with His Gifts. We must tear ourselves away from the excessive care for our bodies and from the all-consuming attachment to our storehouses (Exod. 16:3), and dare go to the dead desert where all human efforts are powerless, and where the only food is God’s bread from heaven (Exod. 16:4) and the only drink is God’s water from a stone (Exod. 17:6).
Lent is our path to God, our sacrifice; and like any sacrifice it must be brought by clean hands and with a humble and contrite heart (Ps. 51:17). The Savior, teaching the Jews who brought their sacrifices in accordance with the Law of Moses, said that a man who brought his sacrifice to the Holy Altar but did not reconcile with his brother, must leave his sacrifice, go and reconcile with his brother, and only then return and approach the sacrament (Matt. 5:22-24). How much more must we who approach New Testament Sacraments heed the words of Christ! Today, for the last time before Great Lent begins, the Holy Church calls on her children to approach the sacrament, having first asked forgiveness and reconciled with each other. She urges us to prefigure the joyous Paschal greeting with the repentant greeting of Forgiveness Sunday.
It is possible to offer an acceptable sacrifice to God only with a pure heart, and only through humble forgiveness one can be truly repentant. Without forgiveness, one can only cold-heartedly recite a list of sins found in the prayer book. Because only he who can forgive can also accept forgiveness from his brother and from God.
Forgiveness is not the same as finding excuses for the actions of another. Making up excuses for the actions of another person is not forgiveness, but judgment, thinly veiled with a search for “mitigating circumstances.” Such a man looks for excuses for his own sins as well; he is sure of his “righteousness” and is not able to accept God’s forgiveness and healing: I was not taught the right things, I was not raised the right way, he started it first, it’s her fault… It is the fault of my parents, teachers, neighbors, the government—everyone’s but mine. And there is nothing for which I need to ask forgiveness, because if I sinned in anything, it is because I could not do it any other way… Such are the thoughts of a spiritually ill person.
Forgiveness is a humble realization of the fact that according to our sins we deserve the worst punishment and death itself, while He, Whom we tirelessly crucify with our sins, “has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41). The medicine that treats our sinful wounds and ills may be bitter and therapy may be unpleasant, but let us in humility thank God for His salvific care for us. Our heavenly Father is not forsaking us, dying in the depths of our passions, but offering us salvation, calling us to repentance, and awaiting our conversion. Let us accept His sacred healing with thanksgiving, let us forgive each other with humility, ask forgiveness in repentance, and act with love and kindness toward one another.
The Rite of Forgiveness
The Cross and the icons of our Savior and the Theotokos are brought out and placed on the stands on the ambo. The Rector makes prostrations and venerates the Cross and the icons. Then he turns to the people and asks for their forgiveness, saying: “Bless me, holy fathers and brothers, and forgive me, a sinner, the sins that I have committed this day and in all the days of my life, whether in word, deed, or thought, and with all my senses.” Having said this, he bows to the ground before the people. Everyone responds to him with bowing to the ground and says: “God will forgive you, venerable father. Forgive us, sinners, and bless.” The priest replies: “With His Grace, may God forgive us and have mercy on us.” Then the Rector takes the Cross. All the clergy in order and by their ranks venerate the icons, kiss the Cross and each other, and ask forgiveness. Following them come the lay people, venerating the Cross and the icons held by the clergy, and kissing each other, asking forgiveness of the clergy and of each other.