Forgiveness for All the Sundays to Come

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I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word;  (John17:20-21)

The Elder Sophrony, together with St. Silouan, wrote about the “whole Adam.” By this, they meant all the human beings who have ever existed and those yet to come. They were, for them, something known in the present tense, a “hypostatic” (the term Sophrony preferred) knowledge of the fundamental unity of the human race. He described it as a necessary component in the Christian life of prayer. We have not been taught to pray, “My Father,” but “Our.”

This primal unity is completely present in Christ. His death on the Cross is not His alone – He dies the death of every single human being – bearing the sins of all. The insight of the saints tells us that this same reality must be ours as well. Christ has not done something for us in our absence. The Cross He endured is the same Cross He invites us to take up. And that Cross is also a universal Cross (the Cross of the whole Adam). We do not go there only for our own death, but for the death of everyone (and thus the resurrection of all).

The privatization of our religious faith has obscured this fundamental reality. We hear the command of Christ as directed solely to ourselves as a private matter. But the nature of that Cross includes its universal aspect. The Cross cannot bear my sins if it does not bear the sins of all. It is one of the primary meanings of Christ’s title, the “Second Adam.” For He is not a mere repeat of the First, but the recapitulation of all, just as the First Adam was the head of all. (Romans 5:18-19)

I am often aware of the burden of sin that we inherit (ancestral sin). Most of the problems that infect the world are not of this generations’ making (as is always true). We do not enter the world as a blank slate. Our DNA, our cultural inheritance, the vast sum of what will be our existence is given to us in a deck that has already been stacked. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann once said the spiritual life consists in “how we deal with what we’ve been dealt.” And it is even more complex than that. We are sitting at a table in which every hand in play has this same givenness. We are all playing in a game that we might not have chosen for ourselves.

I am also growing ever more aware of those who will come after me. As a grandfather, I observe the inevitable inheritance within my own family, to say nothing of the world they will inherit. When I think of the generations to come my mind is also drawn to the vast multitude of the unborn who have been willfully destroyed. It is blood spilt that staggers our ability to comprehend. Worldwide, the number is between 25-40 million per year. It is nearly the same number of deaths per year as Stalin managed to accrue in a lifetime. This is a bitter planet, and one that does not give much thought to such things.

But when we pray as the whole Adam, then we must give thought to all of these things. Is it any wonder that the Church teaches us to cry out, “Lord, have mercy!” over and over again? I think of the advice given to Raskolnikov, the axe-murderer in Crime and Punishment. After confessing his crime to Sonya the prostitute we read:

“Well, what to do now, tell me!” he said, suddenly raising his head and looking at her, his face hideously distorted by despair.

“What to do!” she exclaimed, suddenly jumping up from her place, and her eyes, still full of tears, suddenly flashed. “Stand up!” (She seized him by the shoulder; he rose, looking at her almost in amazement.) “Go now, this minute, stand in the crossroads, bow down, and first kiss the earth you’ve defiled, then bow to the whole world, on all four sides, and say aloud to everyone: ‘I have killed!’ Then God will send you life again. Will you go? Will you go?” she kept asking him, all trembling as if in a fit, seizing both his hands, squeezing them tightly in her own, and looking at him with fiery eyes.

He was amazed and even struck by her sudden ecstasy. “So it’s hard labor, is it, Sonya? I must go and denounce myself?” he asked gloomily.

“Accept suffering and redeem yourself by it, that’s what you must do.”

We take a burden far greater than Raskolnikov’s into Great Lent. Bow down, kiss the earth you have defiled, then bow to the whole world, on all four sides, and say aloud: “Forgive me!”

20 comments:

  1. Forgive me, Father! But you are making Forgiveness Vespers even more intimidating for me! (I joke–LoL!).

    So wonderfully put; the individualism of our age is no doubt a great sin. Lord, have mercy on us! Help us pray.

  2. Fr Stephen, You say: “This primal unity is completely present in Christ. His death on the Cross is not His alone – He dies the death of every single human being – bearing the sins of all. The insight of the saints tells us that this same reality must be ours as well. Christ has not done something for us in our absence. The Cross He endured is the same Cross He invites us to take up. And that Cross is also a universal Cross (the Cross of the whole Adam). We do not go there only for our own death, but for the death of everyone (and thus the resurrection of all).”

    And, yet, you do not advocate for universalism. How so?

  3. St Paul says this, but it is to those of faith in Colosse:

    Colossians 2:6 As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him: 7 rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving. 8 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. 9 For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. 10 And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power: 11 in whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: 12 buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. 13 And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; 14 blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; 15 and having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it.

    Certainly this is not true for those not of like faith…?

  4. Do these not indicate a particularity in the atonement?
    Isaiah 53:
    4 Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
    5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
    6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

  5. I recently heard an “Orthodox” attempt to limit the scope of the atonement from someone taking issue with a liturgical text that speaks about Christ descending into hell. The person claimed that hell is the wrong translation. Christ descended into hades (equivalent to sheol) but only saved those on the “good side,” those in the “Abraham’s bosom” section of hades. Those condemned to hell are already experiencing a foretaste of hell in hades. Personally, I’m wary of any attempt to say that Christ’s salvation doesn’t (potentially) apply to all, because then the process of being saved becomes a process of trying to find the correct magic formula. Can you comment on this?

    Of course, these arguments don’t come near to engaging with the point of your article, which is something that is very hard to apply to myself. I can try to engage with the shame of those of my sins that I recognize, I can struggle to forgive those who don’t measure up to my standards, but to recognize myself as the worst of sinners and the cause of all the darkness in the world? That requires a completely new set of eyes which can only come from above. Lord, have mercy.

  6. Meg, Karen, Christopher,
    I think that these comments point to what I consider the crux of the matter regarding the apokatastasis (I do not like the term Universalism). I believe it is clearly permitted within the Tradition to hope for a final and complete apokatastasis. I say this because it is so. Too many fathers and great spiritual saints have held to such a hope, without condemnation or censoring, for anyone to claim that such a hope is ruled out for the Orthodox. Such a claim is simply not true.

    Second, I believe that St. Porphyrios points to what is most important about this. And that point is our solidarity and identity with the least and with the worst, through prayer and every spiritual effort. The failure to do this, particularly through some misunderstanding of dogma, simply creates a bad heart that itself becomes a stumbling block to true, daily salvation.

    Granted, as I have stated repeatedly, we must labor in such solidarity and identity, praying for the salvation of all, while yet only laboring in hope. For we do not know. Rather, as Hebrews tells us, “We do not yet see all things under His feet” (note the apokatastasis inherent in that statement). But the writer then says, “But we do see Jesus…”

    You have put all things in subjection under his feet.” For in that He put all in subjection under him, He left nothing that is not put under him. But now we do not yet see all things put under him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.(Heb 2:8-9)

    And so we labor. This is not and should not be an abstracted question. It is rightly a question that is directed to our daily spiritual labor. We labor in hope. We hope for all because we have not set ourselves above any. But we do not have our hope in ourselves. We hope in Christ.

    I want to be clear. This for me, is a definitive statement of true spiritual labor as an Orthodox Christian. It says as much as we should say and refrains from what we cannot say. I do not see any need to debate it, only the need to understand it and live it.

  7. Father, is this not full reconciliation for us?
    Romans 5:
    1 Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ:
    2 by whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God…
    6 For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.
    7 For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die.
    8 But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
    9 Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.
    10 For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.
    11 And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.

  8. Hugh,
    Are you meaning that this should be interpreted as only applying to some? That Christ did not die for all? So Christ only died for some sinners? Or He only died for the sinners who choose to accept Him? So, it’s a conditional atonement? What are you asking?

    Christ died for all. Everyone, “while we (any human being) were yet sinners.” I can read this passage to any non-believer and apply it to them. This same passage in Romans specifically speaks of Adam and all humanity and Christ as the Second Adam. There is no such thing as a limited atonement except in the mind of a few Calvinists who are in heresy.

    Note: “For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (Rom 5:10)

    This means, BEFORE WE WERE CHRISTIANS, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son…

    That is simply and clearly the meaning of the text.

  9. Thank you, Father. I love the title, “Forgiveness for All the Sundays to Come”!

    I merely mean in the passages cited to affirm that the pronouns, we, us, our, ye, you, your are we who believe in Christ, united to him by/ in the new birth.

    P.S. Am right now enjoying your video, “Life in Christ: A Fount of Joy” from Lent last year in SF. The next time you’re again out here, I hope to again have the privilege to hear & see. All blessings this Great Lent!

  10. Hugh,
    Here’s a passage the makes this quite clear:
    Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. (2Co 5:18-19)

    The object of reconciliation is the world – the whole world, not just “us” in a limited sense. That is how St. Paul understands it and how the reconciliation in Romans 5 must be seen as well.

  11. Father,

    I posted on the other thread before I read this one just now. I count at least three “apokatastasis” being discussed, and I am pretty sure two of those have children. So even on a basic level there is not agreement even of terms. I appreciate your pointing to the ascetical nature and import of all this, but you have still chosen a particular apokatastasis to cling to. I have chosen another. Does it matter? I am not sure, but I see the possibility that the difference(s) might go all the way down, and so one or both of us labor in vain. Does it matter, or will Christ cover this failing as well – surely He will, for as you say He is our only hope…

  12. Father, amen and amen to your comment from 8:42 AM.

    And in anticipation of this Sunday to you and all readers here, forgive me, my brothers and sisters!

  13. Hello Father. I went through Forgiveness Vespers last night for the first time and it was an exceptional experience. I had expected something more serious and grave but the spirit of love within the parish was on full display. For some reason I honestly had not expected that! It reminded me that forgiveness is always grounded in love and joy is the result when we renew a relationship that might once have been considered dead. Glory be to God! Praise Him!

  14. Byron,

    I think that, if approached in the right state of heart and mind, this is one of the most beautiful services in the Orthodox Church. Glory to God for giving you such a wonderful first experience.

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