Lent is the Journey Back to Paradise Through the New Adam: Homily for the Sunday of Forgiveness (Cheese Fare) in the Orthodox Church

Romans 13:11-14:4; Matthew 6:14-21

             On the last several Sundays, our gospel readings have challenged us to return home from our self-imposed exile.  Zacchaeus gave more than justice required to the poor and those whom he had exploited from his ill-gotten gains, and was restored as a son of Abraham.  By her persistence and humility, the Canaanite woman received the deliverance of her daughter as a sign that Christ calls all people to return home to Him in faith.  The publican returned to his spiritual home by humbly calling for the Lord’s mercy, even as the Pharisee exiled himself by his pride.  The prodigal son took the long journey home after coming to his senses about the misery of being in exile from the father whom he had abandoned. We recalled last Sunday that the ultimate standard of judgment for entering into our true home of eternal blessedness is whether the Savior’s restoration and fulfillment of the human person in the divine image and likeness has permeated our lives and character.  And today’s gospel reading reminds us to embrace forgiveness, fasting, and almsgiving in ways that direct us back to the Paradise from which Adam and Eve were cast out when they stripped themselves naked of the divine glory and entered into an existence so tragically enslaved to the fear of death that their son Cain murdered his brother Abel.  Within a few generations, their descendant Lamech proclaimed that he would avenge anyone who wronged him seventy-seven fold. (Gen. 4: 24)   We do not have to look very closely at our world, our personal relationships, and our own hearts to see how we all stubbornly persist in exiling ourselves from the eternal blessedness which God wills for us all.

Lent calls us to take steps, no matter how small and faltering they may be, along the path 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 all our wanderings and sorrows 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 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 in baptism as we rise up with Him into the new life of holiness for which He created us. 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. Upon being baptized and then filled with the Holy Spirit in chrismation, we receive the Eucharist as participants in the Heavenly Banquet.  In every celebration of the Divine Liturgy, we return mystically to our true home.

Doing so reveals that our calling is nothing less than to become perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect. Because He is infinitely holy, we must never think that we have reached that goal.  So much of the corruption of the old Adam remains within us, for we do not live daily 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 in ways that direct us back to exile, not to our true home of the blessedness of the Kingdom of Heaven.

That is why we must all approach Lent with a deep awareness of how we far we are from sharing in the New Adam’s completion of our vocation to become like God in holiness.  The only way to escape our self-imposed exile is to take intentional steps to share more fully in the life of 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 investing our energy, time, and attention in conforming our character to His.  It means refusing to invest our energy, time, and attention in whatever makes us less like Christ.  Lent calls us to give ourselves so fully to prayer, fasting, generosity, and other spiritual disciplines that we will have nothing left for “the works of darkness.”

Doing so has nothing to do with going through the motions of religion in order to gain the praise of others or even of ourselves, for such vain hypocrisy will never help us gain the spiritual strength necessary to love and forgive our enemies. 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) Refusing to forgive others is a sign that we have refused to begin the journey home from exile.  If His merciful love is not becoming characteristic of us, then we have not oriented our lives toward Paradise.  Forgiveness is certainly a difficult struggle that will open our eyes to how strong our inclinations are to remain estranged from God and neighbor.  Refusing to follow its path means that we prefer the misery of slavery to our own desires to the eternal joy of the resurrection.

Precisely because it is so hard to forgive as we hope to be forgiven, we need spiritual disciplines like fasting, prayer, and almsgiving to help direct us to our true fulfillment in God.  Our first parents’ self-centered refusal to restrain their desire for food enslaved them to death and corruption.  We have tragically reproduced their spiritual and personal brokenness from generation to generation.  Struggling to abstain from satisfying ourselves with rich food during Lent will help us see more clearly how far we are from Paradise due to our addiction to gratifying our self-centered desires.  It should also help us grow in patience and humility in relation to neighbors who have treated us according to their passions.  Humility fuels forgiveness, but pride makes forgiveness impossible by blinding us to the truth about our souls. 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 refuse to find the healing of our souls.  We do not have to give obvious offense in order to do that, which is why we must all learn to see that pride invariably weakens our ability to share in a communion of love with our neighbors. It is our pride that keeps us in exile from God and one another.

Even as we stand on the threshold of beginning the Lenten journey that leads us back to our true home, we must be prepared for our passions to fight back mightily when we wrestle with them.  Pursuing spiritual disciplines brings our weaknesses to the surface, often leading to anger at others as a way of distracting us 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?”  We must mindfully struggle to keep our mouths shut whenever we are tempted to criticize or condemn one another this Lent.  Whenever we fall prey to our passions, we must ask forgiveness of those we have offended and get back on the path to Paradise with renewed commitment.  No matter how many times we wander from the narrow way, we must return to it.

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 return to Paradise through His Passion.  When we set out to pray, fast, give, and forgive with integrity, we will learn quickly how much we still share in the corruption of the old Adam.  That should help us see how ridiculous it is not to extend to others the same mercy that we ask for ourselves.  If we refuse to do so, we risk shutting ourselves out of Paradise.  In preparation for the struggles of the coming weeks, let us humble ourselves and forgive one another so that we may acquire the spiritual strength to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”  Let us begin our Lenten journey with the joyful hope that “now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.  The night is far spent, the day is at hand.”  May every step of the journey lead us further away from exile and closer to our true home, the Paradise that our Lord has opened to us through His glorious resurrection on the third day.

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