Joy of All Who Sorrow

Homily for Cheesefare / Forgiveness Sunday

Matthew 6:14-2

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

My dear Father, brothers and sisters!

After all these weeks of preparation, the time of the Great Fast has finally come around and we find ourselves once again on its very threshold. There is always a sense of mixed feelings about this Sunday. At one very earthly and very human level a sense perhaps of quiet disappointment and apprehension even with a hint of resentment at the thought of being deprived of the usual delicious things we love to eat and drink as well as our – or at least my – customary laxity. But on the other hand, at this point of transition into the Great Fast there is also a sense of real expectation and even excitement at the spiritual prospect that this Fast opens up, and even a sense of relief. Over these next few weeks, passions and bad habits which have perhaps overwhelmed us over the past few months might find quietening and even healing. Although this is the Sunday that we remember the Expulsion from Paradise of our ancestors, Adam and Eve, perhaps we have felt this sense of estrangement from God, the loss of real connection and contact with God for some time. Thus the Great Fast, gives us a heightened opportunity within the Church year to really seek to come closer to God, closer to Christ, and inch our way back to paradise. Through our Gospel reading appointed for today, we are not given another parable or a stark prophesy, as we have been over these past four weeks, instead we are given this clear and short passage from St Matthew’s Gospel for us to mediate upon as we begin the Fast. To interpret these words, let us turn to St Chromatius, the 4th C Bishop of Aquileia in Italy.

It might be helpful to start by saying something about the wider context of our reading within St Matthew’s Gospel. Our Gospel reading comes from chapter 6 in the Sermon on the Mount, where our Saviour begins by giving us clear guidance on how we should give alms, and then how we should pray in each case contrasting spiritually true and authentic almsgiving and prayer with the external display and hypocrisy of the Scribes and Pharisees. Immediately before our Gospel begins, in verse 14, Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer as the template for how we should pray to our Heavenly Father. Our Gospel then begins –

For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:

But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Throughout the Lord’s Prayer, our Saviour emphasizes the need for there to be a symmetry between Heaven and Earth and between our neighbour and God. How can we expect pardon and mercy from God for our own sins and offences, if we have not reciprocally enacted mercy and forgiveness towards our neighbour? As St Chromatius says in his Tractate on this passage,

If we hold fast to the sins of those who transgress against us, with an unfaithful spirit and a hardened mind, the Lord makes perfectly clear that we too will not be worthy of receiving pardon for our sins.

Just a couple of weeks ago we were meditating together on that Parable of the Prodigal Son and were given that most beautiful verbal ikon of forgiveness of the Father towards his fallen son. What a profound model of repentance this is for us: a forgiveness which is not reluctant, not begrudging or bitter, but dynamic, overflowing forgiveness, a forgiveness from above. A forgiveness which enacts the forgiveness which it would wish to receive.

In the Church Calendar this Sunday is called the Sunday of Forgiveness, this is because, later on today, after lunch, I hope that many of you will be able to stay for the celebration of the first liturgical service of Great Lent, the Vespers and the beautiful rite of Forgiveness. Directly fulfilling our Saviour’s words in today’s Gospel, we will thus begin our Fast with the ceremony of mutual Forgiveness in spiritual peace with one another. Within any family or community it is easy for niggles, irritations, resentments and ill-feeling to emerge and take root. A fleeting judgmental thought here. A harsh word there. These niggles can quickly become magnified and escalated or can become more long standing, drawn out and entrenched. It is so important that before starting anything spiritual, whether it is the Divine Liturgy or this present Great Fast, that we start in a spirit of peace. Let us waste no time in offering this forgiveness and starting our time of spiritual sacrifice to God this Lent in full and actual peace with one another.

After this vital word about forgiveness, Divine and human, our Lord then turns to fasting.

Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

As He has done throughout this chapter, our Lord again contrasts True spiritual work with the false spiritual activity of the Pharisees, Scribes and hyprocrites. In his homily St Chromatius draws attention to the different fruits of True and False fasting, that although they may involve the same abstention from food, there is a very different spirit at work within them and different expectation of reward.

Since although … the effort involved in the fasting appears identical, yet the fruit is not the same, nor is the repayments of merits the same. For he who fasts for God’s sake is far different from him who purposes to fast for the sake of people, since the compensation of human praise comes to the latter as a wage for his effort, but for the former, in view of the devotion of his humility, the merit of glory is reserved for the future.

We can see that the orientation and horizons of these two types of fasting are actually starkly opposed. The false fasting of the Pharisees is in fact entirely orientated towards itself, seeking its own glorification, affirmation and validation in this world and as much and as soon as possible. Whereas, the true spiritual fasting which the Lord calls for, is not ego-centric, it is not concerned with the amplification of the ego, but rather its destruction. When we fast, truly, we seek to weaken and cut-off our continual sinful need for praise and vain-glory. We are instead starkly reminded of our dependency, our creaturliness, our littleness. When I have immediate and instant access to as much tasty food as I like 24hrs a day, I can be fooled and deceived into thinking that I have much more power, much more control than I actually have. I can forget that it is God Who gives and provides, and I am only His sinful and tiny creature. So how then should I fast? Our Saviour answers –

But thou, 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.

Just as we are told to give alms secretly, and to pray secretly, so we are also instructed to fast in secrecy. Rather than accentuating our suffering, our hunger and fasting, we are rather told to hide it from the world and reveal this only to God. As St Chromatius says –

Thus, if possible, we should conceal by a cheerful countenance the work of religious fasting and the afflictions of body and spirit.

St Chromatius then goes on to consider the spiritual meaning of the Lord’s command to ‘anoint thine head, and wash thy face’.

In the anointing of the head we recognize mercy being signified. Hence to show mercy to a neighbour is to anoint the head.

Indeed, in ancient Hellenic culture, there is a deep association between oil (Gk word “elaion”) and mercy (Gk word “eleos”). Anointing with oil was also a common balm for wounds. Thus anointing the head with oil, means to enrich our hearts and minds with mercy towards our neighbour which in turn will bring down God’s Mercy upon us.

Likewise, St Chromatius interprets Christ’s injunction ‘to wash the face’ –

Means to display a clear conscience and the face of our heart that is cleansed of every filth of sins and of the squalor of transgressions.

When we wash our faces in the morning, each day of the Fast, we can also pray that God would wash away the filth from our sinful hearts.

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

That final, pithy line of our Gospel reading is one that we should come back to again and again throughout the Fast. Where are our hearts? From where do we seek reward? Do we seek just worldly recognition and glory for all our piety and good works, or rather do we truly seek only our reward from God in heaven. So many of the saints, especially the Fools for Christ, teach us so powerfully not to be confused where we seek our reward from and where our true home should be. As St Chromatius says –

For if we always lay up treasure in heaven by means of good works, where all our hope and salvation is, where eternal life is laid up for us, though we are still on earth, yet we always have our heart in heaven. But one’s heart cannot be in heaven, who has been taken captive by worldly greed and who prefers to lay up treasure for himself on earth instead.

Dear Father, brothers and sisters, let us take on board this Lent, these powerful and all-wise teachings of our Merciful, long-suffering and Compassionate Saviour. On this day when we commemorate the Exile of our ancient ancestors Adam and Eve from Paradise, let us also acknowledge like the Prodigal and the Elder Son, that it is fundamentally our pride, it is our passions that continues to keep us out of Paradise. It is our enslavement to our selfish egos which causes us to become estranged from our hearts, estranged and exiled from the Joy and Peace which God wishes to give to us. Let us therefore, come to our senses, let us realise our fallenness and seek to return on the long road back to Paradise, back to our Father’s house. To the paradise that lies deep within our hearts, where Christ is mystically present. As we see the daffodils and crocuses peeping up through the frozen earth, let us enter into this Springtime of the Fast, not with gloominess, not with fear nor with apprehension but with quiet hope, expectation and joy. As Metropolitan Kallistos of blessed memory said after quoting the hymn from the Triodion –

The springtime of the Fast has dawned, The flower of repentance has begun to open. O brethren, let us cleanse ourselves from all impurity And sing to the Giver of Light: Glory be to Thee, who alone lovest mankind.  

Lent signifies not winter but spring, not darkness but light, not death but renewed vitality.