The Sunday of Forgiveness.

On one elementary level it seems relatively easy to forgive. All we have to do is apologise and of course we are forgiven – let us draw a line and move on – but only if you can forgive me.

On another not quite so superficial level it may be easier to forgive the action rather than the whom; “I am sorry I said or did that” rather than “I really need to be forgiven for doing what I did to you and I want to become stronger in Christ so that this sin is not repeated”.

On yet another level it may be the most difficult thing in the world for us to expect forgiveness – true and total forgiveness – from someone we desperately need that forgiveness. We really are talking about sin; after all we have said and done, and gone out of our way to make difficulties, talk behind peoples backs, ridicule, cheat, steal from, plagiarise, mentally or physically or sexually damage. How is it possible for someone to forgive the enormity of what we have done and will we ever feel as if the line really is drawn and we can both move on? How might it be possible for us to expect forgiveness from others?

This may be possible if we are both Orthodox. What happens if we intentionally harm someone outwith the Christian faith? Oh! Yes, people do exist outside of Orthodoxy and we can be as cruel to them as we can to our own “family”. We are, after all, pretty good at excluding the heterodox from most other things. Can they be expected to forgive us? What happens when someone outside of Orthodoxy accuses me of something and I know that I am innocent but the lies affect my whole life? Can I forgive that devilish perpetrator? Can God forgive me? Yes! Through confession and repentance and reconciliation.

Well…………forgive we must but we can not do it alone. We have perfect examples in the Lives of the Saints. Lives so blessed and enriched through the toil of repentance that we can only wonder, sometimes, whether we really are following in their footsteps. There is some confusion about the Saints. “While attaining the likeness of God they never ceased to be who they were. The greatest misconception about sanctity or sainthood is that to be holy we must give up our personalities and somehow adopt a puritanical and po-faced charisma. People tend to think that in order to emulate the saints one must become “a sheepish, humourless person, with no idiosyncrasies or personal tastes or interests.” ( Vassilios Papavassiliou: Journey to the Kingdom). If we delve deeper into the lives of the saints we can see that whilst they have much in common they are also very different in character. C.S. Lewis wrote “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints”. In the same tone Metropolitan Kallistos suggests that “it is not holiness, but evil which is dull”.

So let us not go through Lent, having forgiven and been forgiven, as if we are carrying a huge burden. We are preparing to Celebrate the Resurrection of the Saviour and whilst not denying the struggle and defeats along the way with Christ we must place our hope for eternity with the risen Christ rather than dwell excessively on the difficulties.

I remember quite vividly when I was about 7 or 8 going to church one Sunday morning. Where I lived there were two churches within 500 metres of each other, one Anglican and the other Roman Catholic. Although my own family were brought up Anglican we had cousins and their families who were Roman Catholics, (I often got hijacked to attend the Roman Mass which I loved). I remember this incident because it hurt my family; another family of Anglicans were walking behind us and one of them said rather loudly of a group of Roman Catholics heading for Mass “there they go again, they get forgiven one day and just sin all over again the next”. This I recognised deep down as a really nasty thing to say about forgivenss. Now at 8 years of age I didn’t really understand in great depth, but this was a sentiment which was repeated time and time again as ammunition against the Church of Rome or High Anglicanism. How did people know that the Roman Catholics sinned the same thing having been to the priest to say sorry to God? How can the people of this Anglican church know that? Were there no sinners in this church? At the age of 11 I abandoned this particular Anglican church for another a 3 mile walk away because I felt unwanted, awkward and utterly deflated every time I asked a question. My new choice may appear strange, a congregation of 10, old Russian Ikons on the pillars, wonderful incense and we could go to confession and have explained, with love, humour, caring and intelligence church life in Christ and how to live it beyond the Lichgate.

What I am trying to say in a round about way is that we should not let yet another Forgiveness Sunday pass without it having some real change in us. Inner change which alters our life, our behaviour and our perception of life. Surely if our attitude is just to count the days until Easter and try and avoid the fast with as many petty excuses as we can muster then as individuals we can not develop. If we remain the same then we can’t really count ourselves as Christians – let alone Orthodox.

The fast starts on Monday, the day after Forgiveness Sunday. It is a hard and long fast and we can only do our best. We are not monastics and we do not, many of us at any rate, have people around us who prepare the food for us to eat. Not only do we have to plan for the fast in real terms we also need to improve ourselves spiritually. If any of us chooses just to fast without following the texts of some of the services, or reading the Gospels once a week or focusing on the Jesus prayer each day for a set time, then our fast is without purpose and becomes meaningless. Fasting in the real world does not mean giving everything up and examining the ingredients list on packets of biscuits to see if there is a percentage of butter or milk. Fasting in the real world means to do what we can as a joyful discipline which is linked to prayer not a boring task which is very conveniently overshadowed by the ephemera of life. Fasting is also a great leveller; no one knows but ourselves and our God, we shouldn’t advertise the fact that we are fasting even if we are invited to a “bring your own steak barbecue” with family or friends: no excuses, no ostentation, no false piety and no pomposity; just gently doing our best. It levels because given these parameters we need to assume that everyone else is fasting too – but no one should be bragging or showing off; it is not a competition.

Remember that in everything we do we have been awarded free choice and this little story from Old Valaamo illustrates this very well.

“As the monks chant and move slowly toward the altar, the two novices inch their bodies forward on the carpet using only their hands and arms. Their faces stay down. Every five metres they stop and the Igumen – at the Altar – intones his part. This is not just a symbol of respect; it is humility itself. The novices reveal our tru condition when we as humans buckle beneath the burden of our own sins. God draws us toward Him, and we do not strut, but crawl.

Finally, the novices reach the Igumen. He holds the scissors to be used to tonsure the two into the monastic brotherhood. As the novices stand and face the Igumen, we hear the sharp metallic jangle of scissors hitting the cement floor. The Igumen has tossed them purposefully to the ground in front of one of the novices. The novice bends, picks them up, And hands them back to the Igumen. It happens again, the jangle, the bend, the return. And a third time! Each novice participates in this three-part dance. The significance? No one forces the novice to pick up the scissors. A very personal decision to follow God is being made, and made voluntarily, as an act of the will.”(Touching Heaven. John Oliver)

So remember my dear brothers and sisters that if you can’t forgive: how can you expect Christ to forgive you?

If you give to anyone you give to Me…………….therefore……..If you hurt anyone – then surely you hurt Me.

Your Priest begs your forgiveness of you all for any shortfalls through my actions during; togetherness, worship and communication together. If I have judged you, hurt you with idle or repetitive talk, allowed – though your witness of my actions with or towards others – you to form a poorer opinion of the Priesthood, me and the Holy Church. If I have left you feeling abandoned or confused or angry or used or unrecognised for the great efforts you put into our church life or if through my own peculiarities and irritations I have offended you in any way I ask for your forgiveness. If I have disappointed you with idle chatter or gossip or shocked you with any profanity I ask for your forgiveness. In return I promise you that I have prayed hard for you all at least at every liturgy in the proskomedi. I remember each and every one of you as a devout Christian to God and in your confessions to God with me as a witness I remember nothing of the content. I promise you that I have neither murdered; nor wanted to – but I have been angered by work and Church events and sometimes this spills over into life and interrupts the intention of the Gospel with just a small percentatge of the truth being squeezed out of my pitiful excuses.

For these things and all else – forgive me.

Let us all have a very powerful Lent.

Father Christopher.