The Sunday of Forgiveness
We have finally come to the last day before we begin our journey to Pascha. Today is known as Forgiveness Sunday which is the last preparatory Sunday before we begin fasting. These past weeks the Church has established 4 preparatory Sundays which should get us in the right mindset to begin Great Lent. The Church teaches that during lent, we should keep a strict fast, increase our prayer, come to a stronger repentance and to show charity to those around us. The Gospel readings on each of these prior Sundays, point to one of the 4 things that we should be focusing on this lent.
The first preparatory Sunday was the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, which we can say the one of the themes was prayer. This Gospel reading teaches us how we should be praying to God, that we should pray with humility as the Publican did, and not prideful as the Pharisee did. The second preparatory Sunday focused on the parable of the Prodigal Son, whose theme would be characterized as repentance. We see that the Son who had sinned greatly came to himself and asked forgiveness of his father. However, the older brother did not accept his brother's forgiveness. We should always forgive those who have wronged us, especially today as we ask mutual forgiveness of one another. As the Gospel reading today says: "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" (Matthew 6:14-15). The third preparatory Sunday spoke of the dread judgement of Christ. What we can see is that the people were judged based on what good deeds (or lack of) they did to their neighbour. All the charity that they showed to those who were in need was also received by Christ.
Finally, we come to today, which at first glance we think that the theme is forgiveness, which is true. However there is another theme that we see the Gospel speak about, and that is namely fasting and how to fast. The Gospel reading from today says: "when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly." (Matthew 6:17-18). It's interesting because this seems very opposite to how people are today. Most people are actually embarrassed to tell others they are fasting, because it is different than what normal people do.
What we absolutely need to avoid is to cheat on fasting because we are afraid of what our peers will say. I remember hearing a priest once say: maybe it would be good to tell people that we are fasting, not hide it from them like the Gospel says, because that way this would bring a witness to our faith. Let us make sure we take the whole fast seriously, and not just the first and last week. We should absolutely try as best as we can to abstain from all fine foods, social media, movies, video games, and even spousal relations. Remember this is not a time of punishment, but rather a time for us to draw closer to God. We abstain from these things not because they are bad (they are not), but because they distract us from our ultimate goal which is salvation. So we use this time as a means to put them away in order for us to remember what is important. And if we do those things, God will "reward us openly" as the Gospel said.
So as we begin our journey to Pascha, bring to mind how Great Lent was in years past. Let us try this Great lent to do more than what we did last year. Let us increase our prayer and try to come as often as we can to Church (given the current limited attendance we have of course). Let us make sure our fasting is done with strong fervor. Let us always have forgiveness for one another in our hearts and let us make sure we always show hospitality to those around us. Our faith is an experience, and only when we truly do these things will we experience the presence of God once we reach our destination, which is Pascha.
In closing, a quote from Archbishop Averky of Syracuse: "A life of fasting, properly understood as general self-limitation and abstinence, to the annual practice of which the Church always calls us with the Great Lent, is really that bearing of the cross and self-crucifixion which is required of us by our calling as Christians. And anyone who stubbornly resists this, wanting to live a carefree, happy, and free life, is concerned for sensual pleasures and avoids sorrow and suffering, that person is not a Christian. Bearing one's cross is the natural way of every true Christian, without which there is no Christianity"