And so, brothers and sisters, we have now come to the threshold of Great Lent... The Church has called out to us over these past weeks, placing before us the images of Zacchaeus, the Publican and the Pharisee, the Prodigal Son, and dread day of our Judgment. Each of these preparatory Sundays have called us to come to our senses and to see the spiritual reality of our condition, of our need for repentance, of our need for the love and the mercy of God.
And now, today, before we begin the journey of the Great Fast, we have the Sunday of Forgiveness. Once again our Holy Mother Church calls out to us to put first things first. Before we can begin our journey of repentance and healing, we must set aside our resentments, our judgments of one another, we must knock down those walls we build between our self and others that allow us the delusion of thinking we’re isolated and separate. We must realize the part that we play in the disease of this world.
We must ask forgiveness not just of those whom we may have offended by our selfishness – though this is also a requirement and is often the most difficult reconciliation because of our foolish resentment and pride that create such barriers between us.
But in addition to asking forgiveness of those whom we have directly offended, we must also beg forgiveness of one another for our part in tipping those scales of good and evil. Every sinful thought, word, and deed we commit tips those scales in the direction of evil. God help us to stop contributing to that storehouse of evil that spills out in destruction across the world!
We must instead realize and understand that every good and pious thought, word, and deed tips that scale of good and evil toward the good. Every prayer, every sigh, every tear, every selfless gesture of courtesy and kindness contributes to the good and has ripples across the world!
We must wake up and understand that what we do, what we say, and what we think matters! Apostle Paul calls to us today… ‘now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand.’
Today, on Forgiveness Sunday, we are given a special opportunity to awaken from our spiritual drowsiness and blindness. We are called to begin our Lenten journey with our eyes open to the awareness of the presence of God and our connection to our brother.
At the conclusion of today’s Vespers service we observe the ‘rite of forgiveness’, when each member of the congregation approaches the other and says ‘Forgive me.’ The person being asked should respond ‘God forgives.’ And they exchange the kiss of peace, kissing each other three times on the right cheek, the left, and the right.
Our gift of sorrow and repentance to God must be preceded by reconciliation and forgiveness with our brother.
It is appropriate that we ask forgiveness of all… not just those whom we may have personally offended. As our Orthodox conscience tells us – all for one and one for all are guilty and participate in the impact of sin and selfishness.
Dostoevsky, in his book The Brothers Karamazov, tells of the monks who were based off of the Elders of Optina Monastery… they would even ask forgiveness of the birds! Now perhaps this is a bit poetic, but it is spiritually true and perceptive. We add to the evil in this world by every sinful inclination. And, conversely, we uphold and elevate the world by every prayer, every sigh to God, every kind word, thought, and gesture.
Let us ask forgiveness of one another for our role in adding to the darkness or the light showing forth in our world.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, as we approach the cross this morning let us take that first step in awakening ourselves from our slumber. Let us ask each other for forgiveness. Let us be reconciled to one another so that we may bring our Lenten offering of prayer and fasting to God and for the salvation of our souls.
If I have offended any one of you in word or deed, or by my neglect or busyness or my shortcomings, if I have disappointed you, or hurt you in any way, please forgive me.