Romans 13:11-14:4; Matthew 6:14-21
As we prepare to follow our Lord to His Cross and empty tomb in Great Lent, we must learn to see ourselves in Adam and Eve, who stripped themselves naked of the divine glory and were cast out of Paradise. They entered into an existence so tragically enslaved to the fear of death that their son Cain murdered his brother Abel. The needless bloodshed characteristic of this world of corruption, as seen in Ukraine and so many other places today, roots in our miserable addiction to our self-centered desires. They make it very easy to take offense and seek revenge against our neighbors and very hard to forgive and love them.
During Great Lent, we take steps along the path that leads back to Paradise. As the Lord offered up Himself on the Cross, He said to the penitent thief, “Truly I tell you, you will be with me today in Paradise.” (Lk. 23:43) Hades and the grave could not contain the Savior Who entered fully into death, for He is not merely human but also God. The icon of Christ’s resurrection portrays Him lifting up Adam and Eve from their tombs. The joy of His empty tomb places our current sufferings and those of our neighbors in light of hope for “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”
Our first parents refused to fulfill their calling to become more like God in holiness and instead distorted themselves and the entire creation. We participate in the Savior’s restoration of the human person in the divine image and likeness when we receive the garment of light. Baptized into His death, we rise up with Him into the new life of holiness for which He created us. Upon being baptized and then filled with the Holy Spirit in chrismation, we receive the Eucharist as participants in the Heavenly Banquet.
Christ covers our nakedness and restores us to the dignity of beloved children of the Father who may know the joy of Paradise even now. He enables us to become perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect. Because He is infinitely holy, that is a goal we must never think that we have reached. So much of the corruption of the old Adam remains within us. We do not live each day as those clothed with a robe of light, but prefer the pain and weaknesses of choosing our own will over God’s. We typically prefer to live according to our passions, not according the blessedness of the Kingdom of Heaven.
That is why we all need to begin Great Lent with the awareness that we are very far from uniting ourselves to the New Adam Who has fulfilled our vocation to become like God in holiness. The only way to move closer to Him is to take intentional steps to become more like the One Who has opened up Paradise through His glorious resurrection. As St. Paul taught, we must “put on the armor of light” and “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” That means mindfully offering our energy, time, and attention to what fuels our growth in a life pleasing to God. It means refusing to offer our energy, time, and attention to whatever makes us less like Christ. Lent calls us to invest ourselves so fully in prayer, fasting, generosity, and other spiritual disciplines that we will have nothing left for “the works of darkness.”
Doing so is not the vain hypocrisy of going through the motions of religion in order to gain the praise of others or even of ourselves. In order to return to Paradise, we must conform ourselves to Christ in humility as we forgive others from our hearts. The same Lord Who said from the Cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” tells us that we must forgive others their offenses against us if we want the Father to forgive our sins. (Lk. 23:34) That is because refusing to forgive others is a sign that we have refused to accept Christ’s healing. If His merciful love does not become characteristic of us, then we have not shared in His fulfillment of the human person. Like other spiritual disciplines, forgiveness is a difficult struggle and a process which will open our eyes to how weak we are before our passions. Refusing to follow its path means that we prefer the misery of our slavery to our own desires to the eternal joy for which we were created.
Because it is so hard to forgive, we need spiritual disciplines like fasting to help us gain strength to reorient our hearts for fulfillment in God. Our first parents’ refusal to restrain their desire for food according to God’s command brought corruption to the world. By struggling to abstain from satisfying ourselves with rich food during Lent, we will come to see more clearly how addicted we are to self-centered desire. That should help us grow in patience and empathy for our neighbors, especially those who have treated us according to their passions. Fasting strengthens our ability to forgive by helping us gain humility. Pride makes forgiveness impossible by blinding us to the truth about our souls, but humility fuels forgiveness. In Forgiveness Vespers, we ask for and extend forgiveness to one another personally. Since we are members together of the Body of Christ, we weaken one another whenever we do not pursue the healing of our souls as fully as we can. We do not have to give obvious offense in order to fall short of the high calling to manifest His salvation. We must all acquire the humility to see that pride hinders our love for other people and weakens our union with fellow members of His Body, the Church. As sinners, we all stand in need of one another’s forgiveness.
Generosity with our resources, time, and attention must also characterize our Lenten journey back to Paradise. If we invest everything in hopes of gaining the world’s riches, we will simply worship ourselves. Doing so will lead us to hate anyone we think stands between us and getting what we want. War, murder, and untold misery arise from such spiritual delusion. In order to share in Christ’s mercy, we must extend mercy to others as we share our resources for the good of our neighbors, especially those who suffer today due to the invasion of Ukraine. We must limit our self-centered indulgence in order to bless the living icons of the Savior we encounter every day of our lives. That is a necessary dimension of laying up treasures in heaven as we find the healing of our souls.
Most of us know from experience that the more we wrestle with our passions, the more they will rear their ugly heads. Spiritual disciplines bring our weaknesses to the surface, and anger at others is an appealing distraction from reckoning with our own sins. As St. John Chrysostom asked, “What good is it if we abstain from birds and fishes, but bite and devour our brothers and sisters?” Let us keep our mouths shut whenever we are tempted to criticize or condemn one another this Lent, for that usually arises from a desire to exalt ourselves.
Lent calls us to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” We must do so in order to accept the great dignity of beloved sons and daughters called to return to Paradise through His Passion. If we set out to pray, fast, give, and forgive with integrity, we will learn quickly that much of the corruption of the old Adam is still within us. That should help us see how ridiculous it is not to extend to others the same mercy that we ask from God. If we do not, we will shut ourselves out of Paradise and refuse to accept our restoration through the New Adam’s victory over sin and death. We must humble ourselves and forgive one another if we are to acquire the spiritual strength to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” We must become living icons of Christ’s forgiveness in order to prepare to enter into the joy of Pascha.
The Reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans. (13:11-14:4)
Brethren, salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. As for the man who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over opinions. One believes he may eat anything, while the weak man eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand.
(For Sunday of Forgiveness)
The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (6:14-21)
The Lord said to His Disciples: If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father Who is in secret; and your Father Who sees in secret will reward you. Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.