Forgiveness and the Beginning of Lent

Several decades ago under communism, there was a 70 year old Romanian priest who was thrown into prison because of his faith. Before he was thrown into prison, however, he was tortured and beaten so badly that he was close to death.  As he laid in the prison dying, it so happened that his torturer, the man who had beaten him almost to death, had himself found disfavor with his superiors, was beaten very badly and then thrown into prison.  The witness of this story relates how he was sitting in this prison cell with the half-dead priest on his right side, and the half-dead torturer on his left.  As the hours went by and the torturer came closer to death, he kept crying out from his physical pain, but also loudly lamenting over all the evil which he had committed in his life.  He said that no one could forgive him for the terrible things he had done.

As the priest heard this man’s torment, he called several young men to lift him up, since he himself was too weak to even walk. They carried him over to the man.  The priest sat beside his own torturer, hugged him, caressed his deformed face, and started to tell him about the love and mercy of God.  He told the man that He forgave him, even though the torturer had done such evil to the priest and many others.  He assured him that all the Christians this man tortured had forgiven him and even now loved him.  And then he said, “Imagine, if we love you and forgive you, how much more does God love you and long to hug you and comfort you.”

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The incredible and unbelievable power of divine love, mercy and forgiveness. We see it first and foremost in the example of God Himself becoming man. The perfect and sinless person, Jesus Christ, suffers at the hands of evil men, yet lovingly says while dying on the Cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

The saints of God, like the first martyr Stephen, accepted that grace of God in their lives, and imitated Christ in their own suffering. As people threw stones at St. Stephen, killing him in a most brutal manner, Stephen looked up at heaven and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Divine love and mercy obviously imply our willingness to forgive others, even our worst enemy, and even when they don’t deserve it. In today’s Gospel lesson, we hear Jesus teach his disciples, “If you forgive others 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.”

Love, mercy and forgiveness – these are at the center of our Orthodox Christian faith. And yet, how difficult do we find it to forgive others. Our pride, our anger, our hurt, our fear of rejection, only make up some of the reasons why we justify not forgiving others. How many in this Church today continue to hold a grudge against someone who has hurt them.

Love, mercy and forgiveness. We must open up our hearts to receive these virtues and cultivate their spirit within our lives. As a reminder of this necessity, the Church has established the Sunday before Great Lent begins as the Sunday of Forgiveness. The Church is basically saying to us, “We cannot begin our journey towards Easter, the greatest celebration in the year, if we do not have forgiveness in our hearts. If we allow a grudge, or our anger, or our pride, to remain in our hearts, then we are allowing a barrier to remain between us and God.

Last week we heard that love for God cannot be separated from our concrete love for the other? If we are angry at someone, or if we aren’t on speaking terms with someone, then today is the day the Church reminds us to forgive! We cannot be serious and authentic in our Lenten journey if we do not have love, mercy and forgiveness in our hearts. Therefore, the Church challenges us to make a phone call, send a letter, or try to contact whoever you are at odds with, and reconcile with them.

To begin our Lenten Journey without asking for forgiveness from God and from one another is like trying to build a house without first building a strong foundation. We all begin fasting tomorrow, but fasting without forgiveness and mercy is a fast of demons. It is a useless, or even dangerous fast, because it is a fast of hypocrites! Such a fast will not help us draw closer to God, and ultimately, that is the goal of Great Lent.

So forgiveness is the starting point for our fast to begin tomorrow. But what else do we need to understand, in order to have a fruitful and blessed Lent. Well, let us also understand exactly why we fast. Why is there such a focus for us to go 40 days without eating meat and dairy products?

The primary aim of fasting is first to make us conscious of God. True fasting involves real hunger and physical exhaustion. It means denying ourselves food during times of want. The Fathers of the Church recommended that we should always rise from the table feeling that we could have eaten more. When our bodies are weak and tired, we remember our human mortality. During these times of sacrifice and struggle, we turn our minds toward God and remind ourselves of our utter dependence on Him. All the blessings of life -- food, drink, and health -- come from Him. He is our provider, our sustainer, and our source of life. Thus, fasting make us aware of our dependence on Him. 

Another purpose of fasting is to help us develop self-discipline in our lives.  The mentality of the world is to satisfy our desires whenever we can. Too often we have allowed our evil habits, our sinful desires, and our deepest passions to control and direct our lives. The Christian life, however, presents a radical reversal of such thinking.  The Church calls us to discipline our minds, bodies and spirits. Until we learn to control all our habits, our actions and our thoughts, and place our whole being under the power of Christ, we can never properly grow in the Christian life. Christ created us to be free beings, slaves of nobody or nothing. Thus, fasting is a tool in helping us develop such self-discipline and regain our freedom.

A third purpose of fasting is to act as a source of illumination in our lives. If fasting is combined with increased prayer and acts of mercy, then Lent becomes a period of divine revelation and discovery. Throughout history, periods of fasting have been times when faithful people have met God. For example, Moses received the Law of God while he fasted for 40 days on Mount Sinai. Elijah heard God’s voice during his times of fasting.  The Apostle Peter had a vision which gave the early church a new direction while he was fasting.  Saint Augustine wrote, "Do you wish your prayer to fly toward God?  Give it two wings - fasting and almsgiving."

Be careful not to look at fasting as something negative, like a personal punishment. Fasting is something positive if the Holy Spirit guides our efforts. Fasting should produce the fruit of the Holy Spirit, which involves most notably the gift of JOY!  This is why we say in one of the hymns today, “There are 40 days in the Fast and let us keep them all with joy.”

Of utmost importance, however, is to practice a holistic fast -- fasting not only from food but especially from our sins. Let us not focus on 40 days without meat or dairy products, but let us focus on 40 days without gossip, without anger, without hatred, without self-righteousness, and without sin. “True fasting is to put away all evil, to control the tongue, to forbear from anger, to abstain from lust, slander, falsehood and perjury.  If we renounce these things, then is our fasting true and acceptable to God.” 

True fasting, to be fruitful, demands something else -- an increase in our prayer life. During Lent, let us come to church more often for the weekday services. This week we will have services on Sunday night, Monday night, Wednesday night, and Friday night. Let us increase our own personal prayer time at home.  Let us begin reading the Bible every day.  Let us go to confession with a priest, and receive Holy Communion frequently.  Let us struggle to grow in our knowledge of the faith, and in our commitment to practice the faith in our everyday life!

Also, let us combine almsgiving with our fast.  The prophet Isaiah tells us that a true fast is to feed the poor, care for the sick, help those in need (Isa 58:6).  Concrete love always needs to be part of a sincere fast!  Fasting should make us more compassionate to those in need.  When we feel hungry, we should think of those poor people who are continuously hungry.  When we don't eat a certain meal, let us save the money from that meal and give it to the poor.  Let our fast unite us with the poor, and through our fast may we help draw them closer to God.

Great Lent is a journey to paradise, and our fast is an instrument to help us get there. Let us begin this journey with love, mercy and forgiveness abiding in our hearts, and then our fast will be the wings needed to lift us into heaven. A most blessed Lenten journey to all!!

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