Orthodox Christians observe Forgiveness Sunday
Orthodox Christians observe Forgiveness Sunday, which precedes Lent.
On this day it is customary to ask forgiveness for all grievances and seek reconciliation with foes.
Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill conducts an evening service with a moving rite of mutual forgiveness.
It will begin at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior at 17 hours.
The rite of forgiveness was conceived in Egyptian monasteries.
There, the monks would each go off, alone, to spend all 40 days of Lent in the desert.
Since some of them never came back, prior to leaving they would ask each other for forgiveness for all grievances, as one would before death.
Lent culminates with Holy Week and Easter, or the Resurrection of the Lord, marked this time on April 24th day.
In the Orthodox Church, the last Sunday before Great Lent—the day on which, at Vespers, Lent is liturgically announced and inaugurated—is called Forgiveness Sunday. On the morning of that Sunday, at the Divine Liturgy, we hear the words of Christ:
‘If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses…’ (Mark 6.14-15)
Then after Vespers—after hearing the announcement of Lent in the Great Prokeimenon: ‘Turn not away Thy face from Thy child for I am afflicted! Hear me speedily! Draw near unto my soul and deliver it!’, after making our entrance into Lenten worship, with its special memories, with the prayer of St Ephraim the Syrian, with its prostrations—we ask forgiveness from each other, we perform the rite of forgiveness and reconciliation. And as we approach each other with words of reconciliation, the choir intones the Paschal hymns, filling the church with the anticipation of Paschal joy.
What is the meaning of this rite? Why is it that the Church wants us to begin Lenten season with forgiveness and reconciliation? These questions are in order because for too many people Lent means primarily, and almost exclusively, a change of diet, the compliance with ecclesiastical regulations concerning fasting. They understand fasting as an end in itself, as a ‘good deed’ required by God and carrying in itself its merit and its reward. But, the Church spares no effort in revealing to us that fasting is but a means, one among many, towards a higher goal: the spiritual renewal of man, his return to God, true repentance and, therefore, true reconciliation. The Church spares no effort in warning us against a hypocritical and pharisaic fasting, against the reduction of religion to mere external obligations. As a Lenten hymn says:
In vain do you rejoice in no eating, O soul!For you abstain from food,But from passions you are not purified.If you persevere in sin, you will perform a useless fast.
Now, forgiveness stands at the very center of Christian faith and of Christian life because Christianity itself is, above all, the religion of forgiveness. God forgives us, and His forgiveness is in Christ, His Son, Whom He sends to us, so that by sharing in His humanity we may share in His love and be truly reconciled with God. Indeed, Christianity has no other content but love. And it is primarily the renewal of that love, a return to it, a growth in it, that we seek in Great Lent, in fasting and prayer, in the entire spirit and the entire effort of that season. Thus, truly forgiveness is both the beginning of, and the proper condition for the Lenten season.
One may ask, however: Why should I perform this rite when I have no ‘enemies’? Why should I ask forgiveness from people who have done nothing to me, and whom I hardly know? To ask these questions, is to misunderstand the Orthodox teaching concerning forgiveness. It is true that open enmity, personal hatred, real animosity may be absent from our life, though if we experience them, it may be easier for us to repent, for these feelings openly contradict Divine commandments. But, the Church reveals to us that there are much subtler ways of offending Divine Love. These are indifference, selfishness, lack of interest in other people, of any real concern for them—in short, that wall which we usually erect around ourselves, thinking that by being ‘polite’ and ‘friendly’ we fulfill God’s commandments. The rite of forgiveness is so important precisely because it makes us realize—be it only for one minute—that our entire relationship to other men is wrong, makes us experience that encounter of one child of God with another, of one person created by God with another, makes us feel that mutual ‘recognition’ which is so terribly lacking in our cold and dehumanized world.
On that unique evening, listening to the joyful Paschal hymns we are called to make a spiritual discovery: to taste of another mode of life and relationship with people, of life whose essence is love. We can discover that always and everywhere Christ, the Divine Love Himself, stands in the midst of us, transforming our mutual alienation into brotherhood. As l advance towards the other, as the other comes to me—we begin to realize that it is Christ Who brings us together by His love for both of us.
And because we make this discovery—and because this discovery is that of the Kingdom of God itself: the Kingdom of Peace and Love, of reconciliation with God and, in Him, with all that exists—we hear the hymns of that Feast, which once a year, ‘opens to us the doors of Paradise’. We know why we shall fast and pray, what we shall seek during the long Lenten pilgrimage. Forgiveness Sunday: the day on which we acquire the power to make our fasting—true fasting; our effort—true effort; our reconciliation with God—true reconciliation
The injunction to forgive one’s neighbours—friends as well as enemies—is an absolute in the Christian Gospel. As the Orthodox Church keeps the beginning of Great Lent with a rite of mutual forgiveness (on the day commemorating the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, but more commonly referred to as ‘Forgiveness Sunday’), we provide here a small sampling of comments from the Fathers of the Church and other patristic-era sources, as well as a few more recent Fathers and Saints, on the nature and need of forgiveness in the Christian life.
St John Chrysostom
As it is not to be imagined that the fornicator and the blasphemer can partake of the sacred Table, so it is impossible that he who has an enemy, and bears malice, can enjoy Holy Communion. […] I forewarn, and testify, and proclaim this with a voice that all may hear! ‘Let no one who has an enemy draw near the sacred Table, or receive the Lord’s Body! Let no one who draws near have an enemy! Do you have an enemy? Do not approach! Do you wish to draw near? Be reconciled, and then draw near, and only then touch the Holy Gifts!’ (Homily 20)
Thou dost not so much desire thy sins to be forgiven, as He desires to forgive thee thy sins. In proof that thou dost not so desire it, consider that thou hast no mind either to practice vigils, or to give thy money freely: but He, that He might forgive our sins, spared not His Only-Begotten and True Son, the partner of His throne.
St Cyril of Jerusalem
‘And forgive us our debts as we also forgive our debtors.’ For we have many sins. For we offend both in word and in thought, and very many things we do worthy of condemnation; and ‘if we say that we have no sin’ (1 John 1.8), we lie, as John says. […] The offenses committed against us are slight and trivial, and easily settled; but those which we have committed against God are great, and need such mercy as is His only. Take heed, therefore, lest for the slight and trivial sins against you, you shut out for yourself forgiveness from God for your very grievous sins. (Catechetical Lectures, 23.16)
For God seeks nothing else from us, save a good purpose. Say not, How are my sins blotted out? I tell thee, By willing, by believing. What can be shorter than this? But if, while thy lips declare thee willing, thy heart be silent, He knoweth the heart, who judgeth thee. Cease from this day from every evil deed. Let not thy tongue speak unseemly words, let thine eye abstain from sin, and from roving after things unprofitable. (Procatechesis)
St Philotheos of Sinai
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 Mark the Ascetic
No one is as good and kind as the Lord is; but He does not forgive one who does not repent.
St Kosmas Aitolos
Even if all spiritual fathers, patriarchs, hierarchs, and all the people forgive you, you are unforgiven if you do not repent in action.
St Tikhon of Zadonsk
Forgiveness is better than revenge.
From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers
Abba Poemen also said this about Abba Isidore that whenever he addressed the brothers in church he said only one thing, 'Forgive your brother, so that you also may be forgiven.'
St John Cassian (the Roman)
Hence, in whatever state a person is, he sometimes finds himself making pure and intense prayers. For even from that first and lowest sort, which has to do with recalling the future judgment, the one who is still subject to the punishment of terror and the fear of judgment is occasionally so struck with compunction that he is filled with no less joy of spirit from the richness of his supplication than the one who, examining the kindnesses of God and going over them in the purity of his heart, dissolves into unspeakable gladness and delight. For, according to the words of the Lord, the one who realizes that more has been forgiven him begins to love more. (The Conferences)
Tertullian of Carthage
Is it better to be damned in secret than to be absolved in public?
St Cyprian of Carthage
In smaller sins, sinners may do penance for a set time and come to public confession according to the rules of discipline. Then they receive the right of communion through the imposition of the hand of the bishop and clergy.
I entreat you, beloved brethren, that each one should confess his own sins while he is still in this world—while his confession can still be received and while the satisfaction and remission made by the priests are still pleasing to the Lord.
Monks Kallistos and Ignatius
It is impossible for a man to be freed from the habit of sin before he hates it, just as it is impossible to receive forgiveness before confessing his trespasses. (Directions to Hesychasts, 28)
St Clement of Alexandria
He, then, who has received the forgiveness of sins ought to sin no more. For in addition to the first and only repentance from sins (that is, from previous sins in the first and heathen life—I mean those in ignorance), there is forthwith proposed to those who have been called, the repentance which cleanses the seat of the soul from transgressions, that faith may be established. And the Lord, knowing the heart, and foreknowing the future, foresaw both the fickleness of man and the craft and subtlety of the devil from the first, from the beginning; how that, envying man for the forgiveness of sins, he would present to the servants of God certain causes of sins; skilfully working mischief, that they might fall together with himself. Accordingly, being very merciful, He has vouchsafed, in the case of those who, though in faith, fall into any transgression, a second repentance, so that should any one be tempted after his calling, overcome by force and fraud, he may receive still a repentance not to be repented of. ‘For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.’ But continual and successive repentings for sins differ nothing from the case of those who have not believed at all, except only in their consciousness that they do sin. And I know not which of the two is worst, whether the case of a man who sins knowingly, or of one who, after having repented of his sins, transgresses again. For in the process of proof sin appears on each side—the sin which in its commission is condemned by the worker of the iniquity, and that of the man who, foreseeing what is about to be done, yet puts his hand to it as a wickedness. And he who perchance gratifies himself in anger and pleasure, gratifies himself in he knows what; and he who, repenting of that in which he gratified himself, by rushing again into pleasure, is near neighbour to him who has sinned wilfully at first. For one, who does again that of which he has repented, and condemning what he does, performs it willingly. (Stromata, Book 2.13)
St Nikolai of Serbia (Velimirovic)
If your heart has been softened either by repentance before God or by learning the boundless love of God towards you, do not be proud with those whose hearts are still hard. Remember how long your heart was hard and incorrigible. Seven brothers were ill in one hospital. One recovered from his illness and got up and rushed to serve his other brothers with brotherly love, to speed their recovery. Be like this brother. Consider all men to be your brothers, and sick brothers at that. And if you come to feel that God has given you better health than others, know that it is given through mercy, so in health you may serve your frailer brothers. (Prologue, 31 March)
Elder Sampson of Russia
The drunkard, the fornicator, the proud—he will receive God’s mercy. But he who does not want to forgive, to excuse, to justify consciously, intentionally […] that person closes himself to eternal life before God, and even more so in the present life. He is turned away and not heard.
St John of Kronstadt
Often during the day I have been a great sinner, and at night, after prayer, I have gone to rest, justified and whiter than snow by the grace of the Holy Spirit, with the deepest peace and joy in my heart! How easy it will be for the Lord to save us too in the evening of our life, at the decline of our days! O save, save, save me, most gracious Lord; receive me in Thy heavenly Kingdom! Everything is possible to Thee! (My Life in Christ, Part 1, p. 27)
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