28 Expulsion of Adam. Forgiveness Sunday - March 9

Romans – 14:4

Matthew 6:14-21

As you follow the daily assigned Scripture readings, you will notice that we read from the Gospel for the last time on Thursday. The assigned readings for the days of the week (M – F) will not be taken from the Gospel again until Holy Week. Henceforth, the daily assigned readings will be from the Old Testament: from Genesis and Exodus, Isaiah and the Proverbs, and Job. You will also have noticed that for the last two weeks, as the Church has been preparing us for Great Lent, we have been following Jesus’ trial and crucifixion; and that in our Gospel reading from this last Thursday, we read about Jesus praying to the Father as he expires on the Cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” This, of course, is the theme of this Sunday morning on the eve of Great Lent as the Church carries us in her arms now across the threshold into the sacred inner chambers of Great Lent.

Is it not significant that this is Jesus’ prayer on the Cross? Does it not teach us that to take up our cross in order to follow Christ is to pray God for the grace of his Holy Spirit in which we are able to pray, as Christ did from the Cross, for the forgiveness of those who trespass against us? I think it tells us why the Christian fasts with a glad countenance: it is because the Christian has experienced the forgiveness of God in the Holy Spirit that liberates us from the anger and hatred that enslaves this world. No longer bound by hatred, he lives in the joy and love of Christ, and in the joy of that love, he is able to forgive as he has been forgiven those who trespass against him.

I think that Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness on the Cross also reveals to us the hidden substance of St Paul’s exhortation to the Romans that we read in this morning’s epistle. To “cast off the works of darkness, and to put on the Lord Jesus Christ, to make no provision for the flesh to fulfill its lusts.” This ascetic work is centered on seeking after the Spirit of forgiveness. This is the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and who raised Christ from the dead. This Spirit of forgiveness is the all consuming fire our God is said to be; it is the fire that tests the genuineness of our faith that is more precious than gold.[1] 

In this light, one thinks back to the question Jesus put to James and John when they asked him, as they were walking the road to Jerusalem and to Jesus’ Passion, if they could sit one on his right hand and the other on his left when he comes into his Kingdom.[2] Jesus turns to James and John and he says: “You do not know what you are asking.” And indeed, they did not. They thought at that time that Jesus was making his way to Jerusalem to overthrow the Roman Empire and to establish an earthly Jewish kingdom as the Jews had once known in the halcyon days of David and Solomon. They didn’t understand until after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection from the dead that Jesus’ Kingdom is “not of this world;” and that the Kingdom he would establish when he entered Jerusalem was the Kingdom of Heaven, which he would establish in the hearts of those who love God not by force of arms or military strength, but by the “foolishness of the Cross.” In other words, the Kingdom of Heaven is established within us as we take up our cross and follow Christ in love to His Cross, crucifying the lustful desires of our flesh and the wisdom of our own opinions with Him on the Cross.

“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” Jesus asks James and John. “Are you able to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” He meant the baptism of his Holy Spirit, the all-consuming fire of divine forgiveness that burns with such humility and compassion that it forgives even one’s enemies.

This question that Jesus puts to James and John is, in effect, the question that is put to us at our baptism: “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” Are you able to pray from the cross that you are called to take up as my disciple the prayer that I will pray on the Cross: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’?” Are you able to “pray for your enemies,” to bless those who curse you, to do good to those who hate you, to forgive those who trespass against you?

When James and John said to the Lord, “Yes, Lord, we are able,” did they mean they were ready to immerse themselves in the blood-lust of battle, to wade into the field of battle and hew down their enemies with sword and club, led by their Messiah, the Lord Jesus, to set up a sovereign Kingdom there in Palestine?

We, knowing better what the Lord means by that question, may not find ourselves able to answer so readily as did James and John; for to forgive your enemies who are crucifying you is much, much harder than to hew them down with sword and club; it is much harder to bless those who curse you, to do good to those who hate you than it is to curse them and hate them in return. Indeed, I dare say it is impossible to us who have fallen into the abyss of self-love; and we only deceive ourselves if we were to answer the Lord as did James and John: “Lord, we are able.” For, in fact, we are not able.

And this, I believe, is precisely the point. We are not able to forgive our enemies apart from the grace of the Holy Spirit, that fire of divine forgiveness with whom we are baptized to the degree that we take up our cross and follow Christ to Golgotha.

James and John did not know what they were saying when they answered the Lord and said, “We are able.” But the Lord knew what He was saying to them when He said: “The cup that I drink, you will drink; and the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” He meant that He would pour out upon them the grace of His Holy Spirit that would raise their minds and hearts beyond the kingdoms of this world to the light and the joy of the Heavenly Kingdom, where moth and rust cannot destroy, and where thieves cannot break in and steal the treasure of the Holy Spirit, the treasure of divine life and divine joy in that divine light that penetrates the darkness and which the darkness cannot overcome.

And what he said to James and John, he says to you and me: “The cup that I drink, you will drink; and the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” You will drink his cup, you will be baptized with his baptism – the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the all-consuming fire of divine forgiveness – as you take up your cross and follow Christ; in other words, to the degree that we renounce ourselves and do what the Church tells us to do.

In these four Sundays bringing us to Great Lent, the Church has been baptizing us in Christ’s Holy Spirit through the prayers of the Lenten Triodion. As you absorb those prayers, and make them your own, you find yourself taking on Zaccheus’ desire to see Jesus, The Publican’s contrition, the Prodigal’s resolve to repent; and finally, through the terrifying vision of the Last Judgment, you discover in yourself a sense of solidarity with all of mankind such that you begin to pray in the humility and the compassion of Christ himself that the Father would have mercy not just on you but on all mankind. As you have entered into the prayers of the Church and made them your own, you should have been tinctured with a living sense of Christ’s compassion, to find in yourself the beginning of a heart-felt desire to pray as Christ did from the Cross: “Father, forgive them for they know what they do.”

This afternoon, the Church will guide us in our first concrete step to make this humility and compassion, which she has birthed in us through her prayers, incarnate by leading us through the rite of forgiveness. In this rite, the Church leads us to approach one another in a spirit of mutual forgiveness and to say to one another: “Forgive me. As God forgives, I forgive you.”

The lectionary reveals another dimension to this ascetic work. Last Thursday, in the Gospel reading for the day, we read that the myrrh-bearing women “observed the tomb and how the Lord’s body was laid. Then they returned and prepared spices and fragrant oils. And they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment.”

Beloved Faithful, the Sabbath on which they rested is the Sabbath of biblical time; it is the Seventh Day of Genesis; the Great and Holy Sabbath. It is the Day on which God rests from his work of creating the world. Genesis is actually a prophetic reference to that moment of the Sixth Hour on Great and Holy Friday when the Word of God completes the creation when he cries out as he is crucified on the Cross, “It is finished!” Great Lent is six weeks long in calendar time; but in biblical time, it is the mystical Sixth Day of Creation. Through the ascetic disciplines of Great Lent, the Church guides us in fulfilling the Lord’s command to take up our Cross and to follow him to his Cross, to crucify the lustful desires of our flesh and the wisdom of our own opinions with Him on the Cross. In this, the Church guides us back to Eden – for these ascetic disciplines of Great Lent are the road by which we return to our heart, which the holy fathers tell us the Garden of Eden represents – and she carries us beyond the veil of calendar time into biblical time, to enter mystically the Sixth Day of creation: Great and Holy Friday on which the Lord of Glory re-creates the world through his death on the Cross. Through the ascetic disciplines of Great Lent we are preparing spices and fragrant oils with the myrrh-bearing women. This afternoon is when we pass over mystically to enter the Sixth Day of creation, when we observe the rite of forgiveness. Through prayer and fasting and obedience to Christ’s holy commandments, we return to our homes – our hearts – to break up the stony ground of our heart, to make them soft, moistened by the tears of compunction, in order that the Lord may sow in the softened soil of our heart a new and right Spirit, the seed of his Holy Spirit, in his holy Resurrection on the Eighth Day, the First Day of the New Creation.

Our readings during the week from the Old Testament and the Gospel readings on Saturday and Sunday will illumine each other, and through their mutual illumination, the Church will be teaching us how to understand what the practice of the Church’s ascetic disciplines will evoke in us. A great spiritual struggle will ensue in our soul between the old man that wants to indulge the lusts of the flesh and the New Man that has been sown in us by our Baptism; the New Man that longs to receive the Baptism of the fire of Christ’s Holy Spirit but is so often betrayed by the old man, like Jesus was betrayed by Judas Iscariot. But, we should find that to the degree we are able to give our heart to the desires of the New Man, a sacred stillness will begin to descend upon us in the depths of our soul, far beneath the agonies of the spiritual struggle. This, I dare say, is the Sabbath rest of the myrrh-bearing woman. It is in that Sabbath rest, into which we are guided through the Church’s ascetic disciplines, that we wait in quiet expectation, in vigilance of soul and mind like the six wise virgins, for the Bridegroom who comes at Midnight, that moment on Pascha night when the old passes away and the new is come in the dawning of the Eighth Day, which is the First Day of the New Creation. We practice the ascetic disciplines of Great Lent according to our strength, so that when the Bridegroom comes on Pascha night, we will be able to enter not just into a Church temple beautifully illumined by candlelight, but into the bridal chamber of our heart to commune with the Beloved Bridegroom in the sacred mystery of the Church’s Spiritual Marriage, and in the joy of his love, bathed in the fire of his Holy Spirit, find ourselves able truly from our heart to forgive all things in the resurrection, and to call brother even those who hate us. Amen. 

[1] I Pt 1:7

[2] Mark