This is the second in a series of posts that focuses on the Sundays of Great Lent (and Holy Week and Pascha). Each week we will share a little about that week’s focus, including related quotes from Church fathers and/or scriptures that can be helpful to our spiritual growth. We will share each blog early, to give you time to read it before that particular Sunday arrives. It is our hope that, by taking a few minutes to study these Sundays before the day arrives, we will be better prepared to partake in all that the Church has to offer us through this beautiful season of the year.
The Sunday immediately before Great Lent begins is usually referred to in the Orthodox Church as “Forgiveness Sunday.” Forgiveness Sunday has two major themes: the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden, and Forgiveness. We will take a short look at each of these themes, here.
It is important that this day features the expulsion of Adam and Eve, who in the beginning walked and talked with God in Paradise. This sort of relationship with God is what we wish to restore in our own life, and Lent is a time when the Church encourages us to do so with vigor. So it makes sense that She provides us with a reminder of what has been lost, and how it was lost, just before we begin Great Lent. This reminder also causes us to ponder the reality of Hades – where everyone went after their death, after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise. Because we are blessed to live in a time when we are able to know Christ, we also think of Him, who by His death trampled the doors of Hades, and rescued Adam and Eve, and all of us from Hades’ grasp, forever. So, even right here, just before Great Lent begins, we already have a spoiler alert. We know where this is going, and we want to be part of it!
Forgiveness Sunday’s Gospel reading is found in Matthew 6: 14-21 (NKJV)
“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 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 openly.
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
This Gospel reading is, in a sense, a good map for our Lenten journey. It begins with forgiveness. In order to restore our relationship to God, we need to be forgiven the multitude of our sins. This Gospel reading reminds us that if we want forgiveness from God, we need to also forgive others. The reading continues by telling us how to fast: not by showing off, but simply and quietly, genuinely. And it finishes with an admonishment for our focus: it should not be on earthly things, but on the heavenly. Great Lent is the perfect time to re-orient our focus to heavenly things. The Gospel reading’s last sentence summarizes the whole passage: where our treasure is is also where our heart is found.
Let’s take another look at the Gospel reading, this time through the lens of that last sentence. If we treasure forgiveness from God, our heart will be full of forgiveness for our fellow humans. During Great Lent, we are offered the opportunity to serve others willingly. We can more effectively serve if we are forgiving, not holding grudges. Forgiving others and serving them restores our relationship with them, and opens our hearts to receive forgiveness from God.
If we treasure relationship with God, our heart will be full of joyful, non-pretentious fasting. During Lent we are invited to eat less and pray more, giving Him our attention instead of seeking the attention of others or looking to food for satisfaction. Working to control our physical body’s desires and spending more time and energy in prayer restores our relationship to God.
And if we truly treasure God’s Heavenly Kingdom, the stuff of earth will matter not to us. During Great Lent, we are encouraged to do a better job of giving alms. Almsgiving lays up for us treasures in Heaven, while also blessing us with the opportunity to extend love to our fellow humans, and in doing so, to Christ Himself. Letting go of earthly things and earthly cares restores our ability to care for what is important to God: His creatures, His creation, and His Kingdom.
The Church steps right into the beginning of this Gospel passage with Her practice of offering Forgiveness Vespers to begin Great Lent. We’re not sure exactly when this beautiful service began to be offered. We do know that Forgiveness Vespers has been practiced since at least 520 AD, for it is mentioned in the story of the Life of St. Mary of Egypt. So Orthodox Christians have been beginning Great Lent by forgiving each other for a very long time.
According to Forgiveness Sunday’s Gospel reading, forgiving each other is a natural way to begin Great Lent.
Please forgive me, a sinner. And may God forgive us all and restore us to right relationship with Him.
Here are some quotes from the Church Fathers and a few links that you may find helpful as you continue to ponder Forgiveness Sunday.
“Do we forgive our neighbours their trespasses? God also forgives us in His mercy. Do we refuse to forgive? God, too, will refuse to forgive us. As we treat our neighbours, so also does God treat us. The forgiveness or non-forgiveness, then, of your sins—and hence also your salvation or destruction—depend on you yourself, man. For without forgiveness of sins there is no salvation. You can see for yourself how terrible it is.” ~ St Philotheos of Sinai
“No one is as good and kind as the Lord is; but He does not forgive one who does not repent.” ~ St Mark the Ascetic
“Forgiveness is better than revenge.” ~ St Tikhon of Zadonsk
“No human being gets off the hook. No human being can blame anyone else… we are born into a world already… rebellious… We have to be taken back… to Paradise, and we believe that that’s what Jesus has done for us. And that’s what we are celebrating during Lent and Holy week and especially the Holy Pascha. We are celebrating the fact that God sends His Son to be the real, final, last Adam Who does not sin… and He forgives us…” Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory shares about Adam and Eve’s expulsion here:
“…Forgiveness is life itself. Because when we do not forgive, we murder. We kill the person that we do not forgive, and we kill ourself in the process of not forgiving. So forgiveness is the heart of the matter. And that’s why the Great Lenten season in the Orthodox Church begins with the Sunday of Forgiveness.” Hear the rest of Fr. Thomas Hopko’s words on Forgiveness Sunday here: https://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/hopko/forgiveness_sunday_2_asking_for_forgiveness
Consider having a family forgiveness time, whether or not you attend Forgiveness Vespers. Read one mom’s blog about their family’s experience with this here: http://illumination-learning.com/main/2015/02/22/our-family-forgiveness-night-tradition/
The first four questions at this page could be part of a great family discussion about Forgiveness Sunday. (And don’t worry, there are answers there, too, so your family can compare yours to the ones listed and see if there’s anything more you can learn about this last Sunday before Great Lent!) http://www.orthodox.net/questions/forgiveness_sunday_1.html