In the Sunday Epistle: Romans 13:11-14,14:1-4 Saint Paul makes creative use of night/day, winter/spring imagery. “Brethren, salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is gone; day is at hand.”
That’s the truth. Time is passing. We don’t have forever to wake up and shape up.
How much time any of us have left on earth we don’t know. I knew an older couple who had a spat, as husbands and wives are said to do, and she stamped out. She came back to make up, and he was dead. She never got over it. So whatever you need to do, do it now. (At age 80, I give frequent thought to that. Not frequent enough.)
Also the darkness of winter is fading.
Even if here in the Upper Midwest we’re still knee deep in snow, the light is increasing. Spring is at hand. At Orthros next Monday on the first day of Great Lent, we will sing,”The Lenten spring has come!”
Just so, the world’s dark winter is passing – even if contemporary events give little hint of it. The springtime of the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, even now here ready to be grasped, the light of Christ, the Light of Pascha “which shall never be overtaken by night”. The time will come when “thy will” shall “be done on earth as it is in heaven”. “Amen. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”
So Paul says: Put aside all the junk you’re ashamed to have seen in the light – reveling, drunkenness, debauchery, quarreling, jealousy. Turn to the good. Come into the Light while you have time.
More on Fasting
He then writes, “Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats.” Some Orthodox keep a strict fast, some not so much. None of your business.
In the Gospel Matthew 6:14-21 Christ says this: When you fast, do it “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.”…for those who fast to impress others already have their reward.The purpose of the Fast is for you to work on you. That’s it. During Lent, tend to your own eating.
Some General Thoughts about Fasting
1 Why do we “train” ourselves in self-discipline by means of food? Because food is convenient, always at hand – every day three times a day, plus snacks. Therefore we use something easy to access, and common to everyone so we can do it together. Fasting and feasting with our Orthodox brothers and sisters all over the world binds us together and gives us support. Brilliant!
2 The purpose of fasting is not to make us suffer, but simply to teach us self-control. That is why Lenten “fasting” desserts are permitted. Ooh… Lenten chocolate cake There are many delicious vegan recipes on-line and in Orthodox recipe books. I look forward to Lenten food. Well, until late in Lent when I begin to get desperate for a cheeseburger… but it’s worth the wait.
3 How do Orthodox apply our lesser fasting rules? Inconsistently. I once heard two women whose families came from different Greek villages arguing whether all oil is verboten during Lent. One said,”Yes! In my village nobody used any oil.” The other said, “No! In my village, people never even gave up olive oil! In fact we had milk during Lent.” What’s the correct interpretation of the rules? There isn’t one, so long as we adhere to a discipline. If a new convert asks about such matters, the proper answer is, “Go and feed the poor during Lent. Then we’ll talk about it.”
4 What will fasting do for you? Don’t expect quick results, but over the years it will help get your big ego out of the way. Fasting will help you gain self-control, especially over desires for self-will and immediate self-gratification. Fasting will unite you with Christ who sacrificed himself for you, and with the many hungry people in the world, and with 250 million Orthodox Christians in every land with whom you are keeping the Fast. Strict fasting may produce a spiritual lightness before Lent is over – not to mention physical lightness. Goodbye, five or ten pounds! if you behave yourself. Fasting adds variety: eating the same things every day is boring. You’ll learn that less is more: ordinary food tastes better after you have been fasting. And if you have kept the Lenten Fast, the Paschal Feast is wonderful.
5 This is extremely important: Fasting from food without fasting from sin leaves us worse off. A Pre-Lenten Matins hymn warns that fasting without love, humility and mercy makes us just “like the demons who never eat at all”! So as you fast, work on overcoming a particular sin or failing, and if you fail (as you may well) go to Confession and try again. But if you’re not going to work on your sins during Lent, forget the fasting.
In today’s Gospel Christ says: “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”
This explains the popular title for this Sunday. Sunday evening (or in some churches, for practical reasons, soon after Divine Liturgy) Forgiveness Vespers leads us into Great Lent in a beautiful way. It is like any other Vespers service, till at the end Lenten prayers begin, then all come forward, and one by one we bow to each other (as to the Lord, for truly Christ lives in each of us) and embrace and ask each other’s forgiveness: “Forgive me, a sinner.” “Forgive me, a sinner.” – while quietly the choir sings the first music of Pascha, announcing where Lent will take us.
Western Ash Wednesday is moving but individualistic and sombre, as people receive ashes on their foreheads and hear: “Remember that dust you are and to dust you shalt return.” That’s the truth, of course. It’s an effective beginning to Lent.
But our Orthodox entrance into Lent is communal, filled with love and joy. It’s sweet – an even better way to begin Lent, I think.
This Sunday, before you go into Lent, if there is anyone you have not apologized to, apologize. If you can’t do it in person, call or e-mail or text or write. If the person is dead, ask the angels to convey the message. Say “Forgive me”. Don’t assume the other person knows. Say “Forgive me”. If you are at odds with someone, even if you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong, say, “If I’ve offended you, forgive me.” For the truth is if you’re “on the outs” with someone, likely you were part of the problem, even if you didn’t intend it, even if you don’t know it, even if you’re too proud to admit the possibility.
My experience is that most hurts are unintentional. People are preoccupied with their own problems, and we just get in the way at the wrong time. Or people mis-speak or mis-act and never notice it. I’ve done a lot of counseling. I’ve done a lot of living. And I’m convinced that most of the time (not always, but most of the time) the people who hurt us did not mean to. In fact it may well be that the other person thinks you were the one in the wrong. And maybe you were. Maybe you hurt them and didn’t notice it. And the fact is if you have not tried to make up you are in wrong, precisely because you haven’t been brave enough to try to make up. Or because you haven’t made it clear that you will forgive. I’m also convinced that often people don’t say they’re sorry, not because they’re not sorry but because they’re afraid if they say it they’ll be rejected and get hurt, afraid you’ll beat ’em over the head with it. So be tough on yourself. Say you’re sorry. That’s how you should be with yourself.
But be gentle with others. Make it easy for them to apologize. Let them know you will forgive. Take any sign of wanting to make peace on their part as an apology. That will make up for the thousand times God has been easy on you when you never told him you were sorry, but he kept pouring out his blessings on you nevertheless. That will make up for the many times you’ve offended others, and they let it pass without telling you. God has gone easy on you; they have gone easy on you. So you go easy on others. Forgive. I mean, what do we think we are, better than God? Jesus died to forgive you. you. God forgives and you won’t?
Christ goes on: “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Is that clear enough? It’s hardly a secret. We pray it every day: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” “Lord, if I forgive, please forgive me. If I refuse to forgive please do not forgive me. Lord, if I hold a grudge, please hold a grudge against me. Lord, if I’m angry at someone, please be angry with me.” We hear this again and again in the Scriptures. The parable of the wicked servant who was forgiven a huge debt by his master, but who refused to forgive his fellow servant a small debt, and the master was angry and had him… well, “eliminated”. And so, Jesus added, “will my heavenly Father do to you if you do not forgive your brothers from your heart”. Matthew 18 Again, is that clear enough?
So this Sunday, if there is anyone you have not forgiven, forgive. The way you forgive need not be a formal “I forgive you.” In fact in many cases that would sound patronizing. “That’s ok” or “no problem” will do. It’s even sufficient that you just give a sign that you want to make up.
But what if the other person is not sorry? Maybe he’s done you wrong and could not care less. In that case, don’t waste your breath on the him. But forgive him anyway. Forgive in your heart. Put it down. Not for his sake, but for yours, the sake of your immortal soul. Because the danger in not forgiving, in spending your life angry at people, is what it will do to you. It will give that unrepentant rat power over you forever to corrode your inner life, your peace of mind. He will make you miserable, keep you from real praying. You’ll be mouthing prayers but thinking not about God and his love but about that bum and what he did to you. It will corrupt your soul. If you don’t give it up, in the end it will destroy your soul. The unforgiving heart is a foretaste of the misery of hell, and if you don’t forgive, finally it will turn into the real thing.
A final point: Forgiveness is a process. In Confessions, I almost always ask people if they there is anyone they have not forgiven. Sometimes they say, “I thought I did, but I guess I haven’t because the hurt keeps coming back.” I answer: Well, if you haven’t hired a hit man, then you must have forgiven him at the most basic level. So keep forgiving. C.S. Lewis wrote that when Christ said to forgive our brothers seventy times seven times, that meant for every sin. Put it down again and again and again, and eventually the hurt will go away.
Two stories about Forgiveness:
1 One Sunday during the Great Entrance at Liturgy Saint John the Merciful, Patriarch of Alexandria, remembered a priest in the city who was angry at him, and they had not made up. And he then remembered the words of our Lord: “If you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gifts before the altar and go: first make peace with your brother, and then come and lay your gifts on the altar.” Matthew 5:23-24 So Patriarch John apparently left the poor choir singing (!), sent for his brother priest, made peace, and only then did he come back and place the Holy Gifts on the altar.
2 A desert monk had led a less than exemplary life. Nevertheless as he lay on his death bed was happy as a clam, not worried at all. His fellow monks asked: With the kind of life you’ve led, why aren’t you afraid of dying? He answered: Because I have forgiven everyone who ever offended me, so I know God will have to forgive me! And he died in peace.
Let’s bring it home: If you hesitate to come to Forgiveness Vespers because someone you refuse to forgive might be there, your immortal soul is in danger. Die like this, get hit by a truck on the way home, and God only knows where you’ll wind up. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive.
The Church’s Final Advice before we go into Lent
From the Gospel: “Do not lay up for yourself treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourself treasures in heaven where moth and rust do not destroy, where thieves do not break in and steal.”
The purpose of Lent, as we’ve said, is to get our priorities straight again, re-centered on what’s really important, so that when the Fast is over we will do a better job of living, and be happier, more joyful people. So Christ here tells us precisely what is most important – and it’s only common sense: Focus on what will endure beyond our few years on earth.
There are three things and three only that I can take with me into eternity, and my beloved new Honda isn’t one of them. They are: 1 God. 2 People. 3 You. That’s why the Great Commandments are “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
During Lent seek God and his will. Come always to Sunday Liturgy. Pray each morning and evening. Read the Bible. Come to our special Lenten services.
And give more time to people – your family, friends, neighbors, those you work with. (You may have to turn off the TV and put down your smartphone occasionally. Sorry.) Don’t forget the needy. Give more to charity.
How can you love yourself better during Lent? Christ and Paul just told you. Apologize, forgive, be at peace with God and people. For we find our true selves in God, in people. “And you will have treasure in Heaven.” Not only in Heaven. For in the process we will find that, even in this life, God and people are our real treasures.
So are you ready? God bless you and give you a holy, happy Lent.
Next Week: The Triumph of Orthodoxy
Week after Next: Theology of the Image