Forgiveness for All the Sundays to Come


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” knowledge of the fundamental unity of the human race. Sophrony 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 spilled that staggers our ability to comprehend. Worldwide, the number is between 25-40 million per year. 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!”


  1. Thank you, Father. This is a beautiful reflection, and one I will have to read a few times, just to let it sink in!

  2. How can we not come to this point of humility and shame. When I think of the
    many evil things I have done and the people my actions have hurt I am crushed by the immense burden. I know the only way of healing is to forgive others and to confess my guilt. The difficult path that leads to Salvation is a life of hard labor, whether I am convicted or forgiven. Lord have mercy is the only prayer I can truly pray

  3. Thank you, Fr. Stephen! This is a complete blessing to read, meditate upon and to encourage me toward Forgiveness Vespers this Sunday! Glory to God for All Things!

  4. Yes. I think too of the part when the tradesman apologizes, with a metania, for accusing him of murder. Raskolnikov responds, “God will forgive.” Perhaps the whole book is a kind of Forgiveness Vespers. Perhaps Sonya is the Church. Thank God for her.

  5. When I think of the countless who have been aborted, I need to remember that the support of the deplorable practice – the so-called women’s right to choose – exists in a cultural context in which I take part; fundamental beliefs about human beings don’t arise in a vacuum. Lord have mercy on us all.

  6. Blessings Father,
    This post on forgiveness follows well from the previous post and discussions on our struggle to understand the purpose of suffering. It seems that the answer to the age old question of evil lies hidden in the answer to the question ‘why the Cross?’, for with out that, there is no sufficient answer.
    “Accept suffering and redeem yourself by it, that’s what you must do.”

  7. The story of reminds me of the book I read as a Protestant over 20 years ago that started me towards Orthodoxy, ‘Escape from Christendom” by Robert Burnell.

    There is a point in the book where he is in the Desert of Forgiveness;

    “”This is the Wilderness of Forgiveness,” she (an angel) explains to the traveler. “People often expect God’s forgiveness to be like a beautiful park with fountains and rivers and green grass. They cannot understand why it should be a desert. Yet one has to learn that God’s forgiveness is everything–everything! And this is possible only in a desert, where a Christian comes to see nothing, appreciate nothing, hope in nothing but the cross of Jesus.” She quotes several passages from Galatians to the traveler:

    But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God…

    I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose.

    “Do you think the apostle Paul traveled this Wilderness?” Asks the traveler.

    “Yes, he did. For years Paul had worked very hard in the City of Religion, to be a religious man. Still he found no peace for his spirit. Then Paul met Jesus; and from the start, Jesus meant one thing to Paul: forgiveness. He was overwhelmed with it. The forgiveness of the cross was the theme of his life from then on. But Paul’s first experience of the Kingdom of God as a reality in his life was right in this wilderness.”

    “So I’m walking where the apostles walked.” The traveler’s voice is full of awe.

    “Remember when Peter lowered the net at the command of Jesus and brought it up loaded with fish? His immediate response was, ‘Leave me Lord, I’m a sinner!’ Jesus answered, ‘Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.’ Implied in Jesus’ answer was, ‘I will take care of your sin.’ And when they brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed Jesus–followed Him here into this Wilderness of Forgiveness in pursuit of a cross. After Jesus had died for Peter’s sins and risen for his justification and was about to fill Peter with the Holy Spirit, He said to this man who ha denied Him three times, ‘Simon, son of Jonas, Do you love me?… Feed My sheep.’ And with this thrice-repeated question and command, Peter’s life was healed with the forgiveness of his Lord.”

    “For years,” the traveler tells her, “I’ve been trying to get beyond theoretical, doctrinal forgiveness, most probably what is taught in Christian City, in order to know forgiveness itself. I’ve wanted to be immersed, baptized, LOST, in it. I have longed to hear Jesus say to me personally, ‘Take heart, brother your sins are forgiven.’ I’ve wanted to have the blood of the cross flow into my heart and purify it.”

    “You have come to the right place. Before you reach the other side of this Wilderness, you will experience the relief of having that load of guilt, which still, in fact, weighs you down like a rock, rolled away. You will begin to walk before God without shame. Just as you were once obsessed with the need to build yourself up, you will soon be obsessed with the forgiveness of God.”

    “Obsessed with the forgiveness of God?”

    “You will become so obsessed with God’s mercy that you will be free, for the first time in your life, of other peoples opinions.”

    “Ha! Not me.” His response is immediate.

    “The woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears was obsessed with His forgiveness to the point where she was heedless of the jeers and opinions of others. Or the cleaned leper–he joyfully fell at Jesus’ feet giving thanks for more than the cleansing of his body; he had received the inner healing of forgiveness. When Zachaeus climbed a tree to see Jesus, he was watching his own forgiveness walking toward him down the road. So obsessed was he with the forgiveness which visited his life that day the chains of covetousness broke from his heart. You have come to the place where it will happen to you.”

    The traveler resumes his journey, his mysterious companion walking silently by his side for an hour or two then suddenly disappearing.

    “What joy I feel!” The traveler exclaims aloud. “This must be what the disciples felt as they returned to Jerusalem after the ascension of Jesus.”

    “In the cross-shaped light, the traveler makes out the figure of another woman rising over the crest of the next dune and walking slowly down the slope toward him. He appears to recognize her. From his expression I gather that this person has wronged him. Her eyes are fixed on the traveler as she comes up to him.

    “Will you forgive me?” She asks.

    The traveler stops still. The woman draws closer, asking a second time, “Will you forgive me?” They are face to face when she asks for the third time, “Will you forgive me?” The traveler’s mysterious companion is again at his side, quietly instructing him, “This Wilderness of Forgiveness is not only a place for receiving forgiveness, but also for giving it. This woman is but the first of a procession of people from your past whom you have never really forgiven. The supernatural forbearance which has flooded your being all day is being challenged by the bitterness buried in your soul for all these years. You have to make a choice. The sterile, shallow, lip service forgiveness of your past life is powerless even to be polite to this woman. But the forgiveness of God which has been flowing in to the point of becoming an obsession can flow out now if you will allow it to.”

    The traveler reaches out, takes the woman by the hand, looks into her eyes and replies, “Of course I forgive you!”

    She weeps. And just as she forms the words, “Thank you,” she is gone.

    Then the man who called the traveler a fool in the restaurant back in Christian City comes running and panting toward him. Mopping his face with his handkerchief, the troubled man begins to beg forgiveness.

    “Of course, of course,” the traveler replies heartily. “It’s nothing. Don’t think another thing about it.”

    “Please don’t take this matter so lightly. I NEED your forgiveness. Will you REALLY forgive me, from the bottom of your heart?”

    “But I already have,” returns the traveler. His companion illuminates the situation for him: “He needs your FORGIVENESS. Not courtesy, but active, genuine forgiveness. He needs your LOVE.”

    “My friend, you are forgiven,” the traveler tells him earnestly with respect in his voice.

    With visible relief the man sighs, “Thank you!” And disappears into the desert air. His companion reminds him of the verse in Matthew 18 which reads:

    Then Peter came up and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times, but seventy times seven.””

  8. RE: “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).” – I wasn’t aware that we inherit original sin. I know we suffer the consequences of original sin, e.g. death, but I thought living with the guilt and burden of original sin was a RC idea. Did I get this wrong?

  9. Gail,
    Part of the confusion may stem from the fact that some Early Fathers used the term Original Sin meaning Ancestral Sin as we mean today. We do not inherit guilt as the Lord says quite plainly in Ezekiel 18:17 that a righteous son does not die for the sins of his father. When the Western Church began to use Saint Augustine’s writings to create the Doctrine of Original Sin, we changed to using Ancestral Sin as the predominant term.
    We do not inherit guilt but the effects of sin are far reaching. What sin I have committed in this life will affect the lives of my great children, people who I will never meet in this life.
    Concurrently, sins of other affect people, sometimes centuries after the fact. Here in Columbia, SC, they had to shut down all the riverside recreation sites because they discovered that 100 years ago, a company was dumping burned coal waste in the river and it left a significant deposit of very toxic waste on the river bottom. The great flood here in Oct 2015 disturbed the river bottom and people were getting sick from the toxins. We are not guilty of the sin, but we suffer its effects.

  10. Father thank you… i am blessed and graced to being baptized on Holy Saturday April 15,2017. Holy Fire in Jerusalem been humbled throughout my years upon earth. My soul yearns to receive the Holy Sacrement.Im called to seeve Him on the deepest level. I was raised Catholic attending St George Orthodox in AZ with Father Jeffrey
    .i will continue to walk in faith for as ling as God permits me to do so.God Bless.

  11. When the physical pain, the psychological trauma of the world becomes yours, you spin that pain with love, prayer, understanding and unconditional forgiveness. And the gift of forgiveness is transformed in thankfulness.
    Lord have mercy on us! Lord, give us the gift of forgiveness!

    Pray for us, Fr. Stephen, and thank you for the balm of your words!

  12. Over the past few years I have really struggled when I find myself in a conversation which shifts from fellowship to gossip. I have wanted to be avoid being complicit and it has put a strain on relationships because my feeling of being trapped is visible to others

    I have been reflecting and wondering: it seems that as Christians we voluntarily make ourselves complicit in all sins, that this is what Christ did.

    Pilate was the one who tried to wash his hands, to say that the sin was not his own.

    Around Thanksgiving my parish priest talked about not reacting and not judging our families

    I am very grateful for the quote from St. Isaac the Syrian that was posted several months ago, about weeping for our sins being better than returning a thousand people to the worship of God

  13. Nicole,
    Appreciate you sharing your thoughts. I wonder, what does “…my feeling of being trapped is visible to others.” look like? The picture I get is as one trapped, hoping for a way out. An uncomfortable appearance that is hard to hide; people notice. If so, I can relate.
    My first instinct is to have minimal contact with the ones I felt uncomfortable with. But that doesn’t really solve the problem, does it? For one thing, I am left with myself who sins just like they do.
    Yes, we, as Christians, should make ourselves complicit in all sins. The key though is coming to realize the extent of our own sinful condition and how this impacts the world itself. What’s hard is not understanding this, but understanding it, and being helpless to change it ourselves. (we can do nothing without Him)
    One of the saints said, in order to have some understanding of the extent our sinfulness, try, just for one day, to write down on paper all your thoughts (never mind your words and deeds!) . After such an exercise, we wouldn’t have any need to think about what to repent of…and may even weep for our sins.
    It is no doubt best for me to heed to the words of your parish priest…and St. Isaac. (And to do that above mentioned exercise!)
    Thanks, Nicole.

  14. Hi Paula, your description of what it looks like is accurate. My sister has rightly said that it is like I ‘go cold’ on everyone. My mom has repeatedly commented on the expression I get on my face in those moments.

    Fr. Stephen’s essay on The Shire from Lord of the Rings and the joyful mix of work and fellowship in the shire really got me thinking about my mistakes. I had reached a phase where I felt like everyone should just be quiet and face God but really in a zombie like way. I was quite wrong. The icon of The Hospitality of Abraham was really helpful in correcting me these past months. They are facing each other and their is a spot at the table for us. It is ok for us to face each other, clumseyness and all.

    My parish priest also gave the most beautiful teaching as well on the subject. When we say ‘Christ is in our midst’ during Liturgy where exactly is He? Our Lord is in the people around us.

    A visiting priest once taught us that the friction between humans is like the friction that helps prepare clay and rocks to be paint for icons. That is also something I have been reflecting on.

    My priest also says the parish is like our gym, we learn things here and we get stronger here and take then out into the world. He was speaking about social interaction and this has calmed me down and help me freak out less when I or the person I am speaking with is suddenly less than graceful in interacting. It is a safe space and I can learn from it and move on and keep an open heart and hopeful attitude within the conversation (instead of fleeing) or after (insteading of kicking myself or ‘chewing on the cud’ of a challenging experience which the enemy of mankind encourages us to do)

  15. Hi Nichole,
    You explain things well. It’s seems that when we struggle with ‘attitude problems’, when we sincerely seek for answers, over time, we get them. Things ‘speak’ to us, an essay, a parish priest, an icon…we pray…
    The comment about the friction needed to prepare the clay, that’s good! Some friction is inevitable, as long as in the end it’s fit for it’s purpose. Sounds like relationships to me!
    Keep pressing forward Nichole, as you are. God blesses, in our efforts.

  16. Thank you for your insight Fr. I well remember reading this book. An insightful and enlightening writing. Yes, “Lord Have Mercy”. so many things of this world sadden this handmaiden of God. These words left me weeping. We are all unworthy.

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