Sunday of Forgiveness
My beloved, we have arrived at this great and holy period, the period of Great Lent. “The arena of the virtues has been opened”, “the time is now at hand for us to start upon the spiritual contest”, we chanted during Matins. Tomorrow and for the next six weeks we will be fasting and preparing ourselves to commemorate our Lord’s sacrifice for mankind, His Passion and Resurrection.
Every year we do this. Just like all the other feasts and Gospel readings of the Church, we go through the church’s liturgical cycle, the same feasts and readings every year as we struggle to become pious Orthodox Christians. It’s like coming to church on Sundays. We do it because we have become accustomed to it, or (if we are young) our parents make us come, or we do it because we know it’s the right thing to do. And so, it is with Great Lent. Everyone one of us here knows that we should be fasting. Most of us grew up fasting during Great Lent. You are supposed to fast before Pascha, all of us know this.
So, everybody is thinking about the foods we can’t have for the next 7 weeks and the foods we are able to eat. “Fr George, can we have this?”, or “Fr George, I found this great vegan restaurant”. This is what we will be saying during this period.
But why are we really fasting for these next seven weeks? What does it mean to “fast”? If we are to truly understand what it is that we will be doing these next few weeks, we must understand what it means to fast and why we fast.
It is imperative that we understand that God created everything out of nothing. And why? Because He loves us. He created all the heavens and the earth, the universe, all living creatures, all the plants and the seas. Then He created man. And even before He created man, God created the Kingdom of Heaven, “which was created before the foundation of the world”.
God made man to be with Him, to be united to Him, to live with Him in paradise. All of this was made for us. God loved man so much that he put him in paradise. God gave man knowledge. He conversed with him. Man, a created being, was to become like God, through God’s grace. God had a plan. God did not create another God, or a divine being. God’s plan was to raise all of mankind, to nurture him spiritually, so that in time, man would grow to great spiritual heights. How high? Only God knows. We know though that St. Paul was lifted to the third heaven, and Panagia is higher than all the heavens. How great is God’s love for all of us? What great heights did He prepare for all of mankind.
But man, being a spiritual babe, needed to learn how to grow. Man needed to learn to practice all the virtues that God gave him. But most important, man needed to choose to grow with God. God did not force Adam and He doesn’t force anyone of us. God would not have loved us if He forced us to love Him and follow Him.
So, God in His wisdom, gave Adam and Eve, the first people in paradise, a simple commandment. It was to be their first of many spiritual lessons. God would later give man many other commandments. This was a simple commandment, the first, and yet, one commandment that would lead to many other virtues and spiritual heights. A simple commandment that would become the foundation of man’s growth. Fasting.
What made fasting so important, so significant, and necessary for Adam’s spiritual growth? Why is fasting so important for us today? Because it teaches us and helps us learn to control ourselves. Fasting teaches us to make sacrifices. Fasting teaches obedience and humility. Fasting helps extinguish our passions, that burn inside of man. Fasting calms man’s emotions, which bother our spiritual disposition. It is the first stone laid upon our foundation. To build a strong and sound house, you need a strong foundation. For the Orthodox, to build a Christian home and to build the temple of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us from the moment we are baptized, we need a strong spiritual foundation.
It is this foundation, built upon fasting and self-control, that supports all our virtues. Food was given to man so that he can grow and stay healthy. And yet, because we lack self-control, because many times our stomachs control us, we act like man was created to eat or man was created to satisfy his stomach. Why? Because man lost his self-control.
Now many of you are thinking, “Fr George, fasting is not just fasting from food. Why are you making such a big deal about fasting from food?”. Yes, fasting, or Great Lent, is not just abstaining from foods. Yes, we should fast from many things. But the fasting of foods is important because it is the first step. We can’t control ourselves if we can’t control our stomachs. We can’t fast from sin if we cannot fast from food. This simple act of virtue, this simple act of fasting, again-I’ve said it many times today, is the foundation, it is the beginning of our struggle of self-control.
When the devil tempted Adam and Eve, what did he tempt him with? What do the church’s hymns and the Holy Fathers say drove Adam out of paradise? The devil tempted Adam and Eve with food. He made them disobey God by making them eat the fruit from the tree. The devil attacked that first and simple commandment. He attacked the foundation built within Adam, so man can lose his self-control.
Christ, the new Adam, fasted for forty days and then the devil came and tempted Him. What was the devil’s first temptation? What did the devil tempt Christ with? Food. Knowing that Christ, as man, was hungry, he told him to change the stones into bread.
I began the sermon by saying we need to understand what fasting is and why we should fast. I have explained to you that fasting from foods is the first commandment given to man. Fasting from foods is the first step towards a virtuous life. Fasting from foods lays the foundation within us, necessary to live an Orthodox life. But it is the just first step. Our fasting must have meaning, and substance and it must help us from abstaining from other things.
If we just abstain from certain foods, are we really fasting? No, that is called dieting. Many people do that today. We fast from foods because it was the first commandment given to man. We fast from foods because Christ fasted for forty days. We fast from foods because it helps us learn self-control. It is our first step, or action, on fasting from all vices, passions, and sins.
In Matins, we also chanted, “we were banished once, O Lord, from paradise through eating from the tree; but Thou hast led us back again, O my God and Savior, through Thy cross and passion”. Great Lent, these next seven weeks is not just a period of fasting. It is a commemoration of our Lord’s Passion and Crucifixion. We remember our Lord’s sacrifice.
Today, the Church also remembers Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise. It is because of Adam’s lack of self-control, lack of fasting, and disobedience that removed him, and all of mankind, from Paradise. But the new-Adam, Christ our God, leads us back to paradise again through his Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. Even though man could no longer live in paradise, Christ the God-Man opens the doors of paradise once again, so we can enter. He doesn’t force us. We must make a choice to enter.
This is what Great Lent is for all Orthodox Christians. It is a choice we make. The choice we make is to fast from certain foods, obeying the Church’s rules, and practicing self-control. By controlling ourselves, and by abstaining from our passions and sins, we choose to follow Christ. By making certain sacrifices, we acknowledge that we love God and want to follow Him into paradise. Great Lent is not just abstaining from meat and dairy. Great Lent is a spiritual journey. It is the many choices we make these next seven weeks, trying to control our stomachs as a starting point, and continuing to choose to control our passions and emotions. Great Lent is a period of self-control. Great Lent is a time to strengthen our foundation of virtues, with Christ as the cornerstone. Great Lent is an acknowledgement of our weaknesses as man, and the commitment to return to our eternal home, that was made for us before the foundation of the world.
Tonight, we have the service of the Vespers of Compunction, also known as the Vespers of Forgiveness. Todays’ Gospel also was a lesson on forgiveness. So, the church sets this service on the eve of Clean Monday, so we can begin our journey towards our Lord’s Pascha. It is the Church’s custom that every parishioner present, asks forgiveness of each other, so with boldness we may ask God for forgiveness on the day of the Resurrection.
Many of us live far away and it is difficult to attend the service, but I ask all of you, those who are able, to attend, so you can begin Great Lent with the virtue of forgiveness, because for forty-eight days we will ask for God’s mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. However, something all of us can do, whether we come tonight or not, is to really think about what we are about to do these next seven weeks. Let us make a conscious effort, to fast, from all things, understanding what fasting means. Let us recall Adam’s expulsion from paradise, remembering that it was food and disobedience, that got him expelled. Let us make a serious effort, to follow Christ and return to paradise, by prayer, the attending of services, and personal sacrifice. All of us have many passions, some stronger than others, but if we can pick one, and work on it, and abstain from it for these next few weeks, we will have laid another stone in our foundation. This should be our goal. To truly celebrate the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection we need to examine ourselves, make the necessary corrections, repent, and work on our passions. We must remember that God created us because He loves us and wants us to become gods like Him. The devil tricked Adam and told him he can be a god without God. He tries the same trap with us. Do not be fooled.
Let us understand that as humans, we are weak. But, with fasting and the obedience to God’s commandments, we become sons of God, inhabitants of Paradise, and partakers of the Resurrection, Amen.