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Forgiveness Vespers

“Earthly life—this brief period—is given to man by the mercy of the Creator in order that man may use it for his salvation, that is, for the restoration of himself from death to life.” This is the saying of St. Ignatius Brianchaninov

The saint goes on to say that our life as a Christian on earth is a “chain of suffering,” that we have to do battle against our body, its passions, and the evil spirits. “Our hope lies in this fight. Our salvation is from God. Having put our reliance on Him, we must bear with patience the time of struggle.” Lent is that time of struggle for our healing.

Just as a sick man must take his medicine to get better, just as a cancer patient must endure surgery and even chemotherapy and all its side affects to save his earthly life, so we too must see this Lent as an opportunity for healing from our sin-sickness and death, our struggle for salvation and eternal life. We are being given a chance for a cure, for a new life: free of our dependency on old habits and unhealthy patters of coping with our sins, other people’s sins, and the suffering associated with living in this fallen world.

But we have to cooperate with the Holy Spirit if we are to be truly free of the passions that drag us down into sin and thru sin to alienation from God, He who is Life itself.

We must do the hard and sometimes painful work of being honest with ourselves about the degree of our sin-sickness. We must expose the dark places of the nous—the eye of our soul—to the light and healing of Christ, the Great Physician of our souls and bodies. Indeed, this honest self-evaluation and discovery is the first step in our healing.

The Fathers tell us that at first our fallen reason reacts negatively to its cure, but as the cure progresses resistance is replaced with peace—the peace of Christ. For this reason, obedience to the will of God and to the Church is necessary for our healing.

We must begin to see the truth about ourselves through God’s eyes. This means that we need to begin to learn to trust in God’s true understanding of our human condition. We must learn to see our self-worth through His eyes, learning to love ourselves and value ourselves, to see the potential in ourselves to become the co-heir with Christ, the child of God, we are called to be. We cannot afford to wallow in our pride, self-pity, and self-hatred if we wish to be cured. For this reason we pray against these negative influences in our lives throughout Lent in the Prayer of St. Ephraim, which we pray this evening for the first time.

We must fight against our spiritual sloth and faintheartedness: A miner, trapped in a mine, picks up pick and shovel to free himself and get to the fresh air outside. Yet, we often in our sloth prefer to sit trapped and enslaved to our patters of sinfulness and sinful dysfunction we have been handed down and perpetuated. Recall the Epistle from today: “Now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed... Therefore, let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light...” (Rom. 13:11-12).

We must employ the tools God gives us through His holy Church to free us: prayer, fasting, vigilance, and living out of our love for our fellow man through our good works and alms.

The Great Fast begins with forgiveness, with humility, with mutual love and the self-awareness and vigilance I have described above.

If we expect God to forgive us daily, time and time again, how can we withhold forgiveness from our brethren and our neighbors? We must strive to love as we have been loved.

If we do not strive to love those around us, those who annoy us, we are wasting our time fasting and perhaps even doing ourselves spiritual damage in the process. For this reason, Bishop Kallistos Ware says, “a fast without mutual love is the fast of demons.” It does us no good to fast and follow the letter of the law if our hearts are hardened against our brothers and sisters.

For this reason, we begin Lent with a service of forgiveness. In it we acknowledge and seek forgiveness not only of our known personal sins against those around us, but we acknowledge and seek forgiveness from our brethren for our daily sins and offenses.

If we humble ourselves we can recognize that our sins affect others, dimming the light of Christ in us, they weaken our witness and strength in the Spirit, they contribute to the darkening influences of the Fall and perpetuate them.

But forgiveness and mutual love, prayer for others, redeems the fallenness of this world and makes Christ’s light and Truth shine with that much brighter authenticity.

In striving for the salvation of those around us through our witness, our prayers, our actions, we end up also finding healing and salvation for ourselves and a cure to our self-pity. “When we come outside of ourselves, whom do we meet, asks St. Theophan? “God and our neighbor,” he responds. And Christ is both God and our neighbor.

Christ says, “Behold, I make all things new.” Lent is a new beginning, a new opportunity to press on and become the man or woman of God He desires you and I to be. This is the season of spiritual healing offered to us by the Church through God’s great mercy and love for us.

If we engage in this struggle with our sins and passions, and our dysfunctional habits, if we open ourselves up to God’s love and mercy and expose the dark places of our souls to His healing light, if we truly seek to combine our fasting with fervent prayer and genuine repentance (metanoia), we will arrive at Pascha transformed people, ready to joyously pronounce the words of resurrection, our victory over sin and death, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” (Troparion of Pascha)

For this reason the Church has us sing the stichera verses for Pascha now as we begin the Great Fast so that we may call to mind our destination and keep it before us.

May God grant us this Lent the strength, humility, and vigilance to contend with our passions and find healing and salvation in Him. Glory to Jesus Christ!