Sunday, February 26

Forgiveness Sunday; or, The Inconvenience of Lent

Matthew 6:12; 13-14

"And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors."

"For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."

About seven weeks ago, I felt ready for Lent. I really felt ready! At that time, I was chatting with one of my favorite "cradle" Orthodox people, asking him if he was ready. I remember saying to him, "I'm just so READY for Lent, so that I can go ahead and get OVER myself!!" Having always had Lent in his life, he gently let me know that he never really enjoys Lent. It's hard, plain and simple. 

During the weeks preceding Lent in the Orthodox church, we have four Sundays where we concentrate on certain Scriptures to prepare us. (You can read about them in more detail here.) First, there is the Sunday of the publican and the Pharisee. It is a call to true repentance. Second, there is the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. We concentrate on the lavishness of the Father's love when we turn to Him. The third Sunday is the Sunday of the Last Judgement, where we are reminded that whatever we did to the least of these, we did to Him. Matthew 25 is a fearsome and inspiring chapter, is it not? 

Today, the fourth Sunday, is Forgiveness Sunday. Tonight, we will go to Forgiveness Vespers. The key verses for this week are Matthew 6:13-14. And therein lies the rub. The difference between me seven weeks ago and me now is that I am sadder and angrier. I have unforgiveness in my heart. There are people who have caused chaos in my life. There are people who do not see the good things I am trying to do, and inhibit my moving in that direction. There are people who have kicked me when I am down, just out of what seems to be sheer meanness. 

I've spent time lately being sad and mad... and I feel like the dude in Dodgeball: "NOBODY makes me bleed my own blood! NOBODY!!" In truth, I wish that these people could feel some of the hurt and discomfort they've made me feel. I am horrified to find that I actually wish them ill. I justify that to myself by saying that I'm just so sick of people being ridiculous and hurtful.

My favorite principal ever and I were talking about life one time, and she said, "Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting the OTHER person to die." 

That thought took me aback. Even more sobering is the thought that to other people, I am probably the chaos-inducing mean person. I am the one who does not see the good that others are trying to do. As there are people who are stumbling blocks for me, I am probably that to others. I need forgiveness.

All that pales in comparison to the verses in Matthew 6; that if I do not forgive, I cannot be forgiven. If I do not forgive, I effectively cut myself from all that is good, true, and beautiful... God. I truly will die if I live in unforgiveness, because I will have dis-united myself from Him who is Life. 

I can't tell you how much I don't want to go to Forgiveness Vespers tonight.

But I will go. And I will be grateful. What I am so grateful for is this: I don't have to, I can't wait to FEEL ready for Lent. I can't take my heart back to the more peaceful state it was in seven weeks ago. Yet my feelings on the subject just don't matter, and for that I am so incredibly relieved. I am glad that the Liturgical Calendar does not make concessions for if I feel ready to get over myself. In truth, I should be getting over myself daily, as a living sacrifice. 

Twice this week, two men I respect greatly have told the same story. (One of them is my non-Lent-enjoying friend.) I always sit up and pay attention when that happens. It's never a coincidence. It is in this story that I see that the point is not merely "getting over myself" or "self-forgetfulness," but to be filled with Him. In this story, a student is asking his teacher (St. Seraphim of Sarov) how to know that he is filled with the Spirit of God. During this conversation, St. Seraphim and the questioner ARE in the Spirit of God, and this conversation ensues:

"How do you feel now?" Father Seraphim asked me.
"Extraordinarily well," I said.
"But in what way? How exactly do you feel well?"
I answered: "I feel such calmness and peace in my soul that no words can express it."
"This, Friend of God," said Father Seraphim, "is that peace of which the Lord said to His disciples: My peace I give unto you; not as the world gives, give I unto you (Jn. 14:21). If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you (Jn. 15:19). But be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (Jn. 16:33). And to those people whom this world hates but who are chosen by the Lord, the Lord gives that peace which you now feel within you, the peace which, in the words of the Apostle, passes all understanding (Phil. 4:7). The Apostle describes it in this way, because it is impossible to express in words the spiritual well-being which it produces in those into whose hearts the Lord God has infused it. Christ the Saviour calls it a peace which comes from His own generosity and is not of this world, for no temporary earthly prosperity can give it to the human heart; it is granted from on high by the Lord God Himself, and that is why it is called the peace of God. What else do you feel?" Father Seraphim asked me.
"An extraordinary sweetness," I replied.
And he continued: "This is that sweetness of which it is said in Holy Scripture: They will be inebriated with the fatness of Thy house; and Thou shalt make them drink of the torrent of Thy delight (Ps. 35:8) And now this sweetness is flooding our hearts and coursing through our veins with unutterable delight. From this sweetness our hearts melt as it were, and both of us are filled with such happiness as tongue cannot tell. What else do you feel?"
"An extraordinary joy in all my heart."

Saint Seraphim goes on to explain that when the Spirit of God comes, "the human soul overflows with unspeakable joy, for the Spirit of God fills with joy whatever He touches." 

So tonight, I will forgive in order to make room for Him. During Lent, that's what we do. We endeavor to be self-forgetful, in order to be filled. I cannot pretend that forgiveness is a one-shot proposition. But I can begin to align my heart in such a way that the aim is forgiveness, to have the poison sucked out of me, to fill the space with Life. And I am so grateful that the timing of Life does not depend upon me. 

Ready or not, here it comes... tonight. 

And p.s. ...when I am older and wiser, I will know that what I need to be forgiven is so much greater than that which I have to forgive. I hope to achieve that wisdom sooner rather than later. Please forgive me for the ways in which I hurt, offend, or fail you. 

Peace of Christ to you.

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