In the Western Tradition, Great Lent begins on a Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. In the East, Great Lent begins on a Monday. The Sunday immediately before Great Lent begins is called Forgiveness Sunday. The Synaxarion for the day–that is, the reading from Matins that explains the liturgical meaning of each day–explains the meaning of this day as follows:
It is the Sunday of Forgiveness, known also as Cheese Fare Sunday. Today’s lesson from the
Holy Gospel [Matt. 6:14-21] teaches us about forgiveness and fasting, and how both are crucial to our own
return to Paradise. The divine Fathers also set on this day the anniversary of the exile of Adam and Eve from the
Paradise of bliss, at the entrance of Great Lent, to show us by deed as well as word
how great is the benefit that accrues to man from fasting and repenting; and, on the contrary, how great the harm that comes from destructive gluttony and from disobedience to the divine
commandments. The sin of gluttony resulted in Adam and Eve’s banishment from Paradise,
because they disobeyed God by eating from the tree which He had forbidden them. The Church
reminds us of this event to encourage us to return to that ancient glory and primeval happiness by
means of fasting and obedience to God and His commandments.
On Cheese Fare Sunday, at Vespers, the Orthodox Church has a tradition of actually and personally asking for and offering forgiveness to everyone. At the end of Vespers, each person present bows before each other person and both asks for forgiveness and gives forgiveness, and assures the other that God forgives: “God forgives and I forgive.”
Keeping in mind the gluttony that cast Adam and Eve from the Garden, each Christian enters the season of the Fast with humility, knowing that the serpent still whispers and that what is forbidden still seems “good for food…pleasant to the eyes, and…desirable to make one wise.” We humble ourselves in fasting. We fast not because we think we can do what our fore-parents could not do. Rather, we fast as those who have already eaten too much, recognizing our sin and asking God for mercy. We fast as the Prodigal Son, who left the pig food looking for the food of his Father’s house. We fast as the Publican prayed, unworthy to lift our eyes to heaven, but beating our breast and saying, “Have mercy on me O God.”
Today we forgive those who have sinned against us because we know we cannot carry the heavy load of unforgiveness on this journey. We forgive because we want our Heavenly Father to forgive us. We forgive because we are frail and easily mislead. We forgive because that is what Christians do; and we pray, at least for the next forty days, we may begin to live as Christians.
My Brothers and Sisters who may read this, please forgive me, the worst priest.