Great Lent is finally here and I couldn’t be more excited and happy. I ate blini and eggs at the Maslenitsa dinner till I could bust and I completed my ritualistic, gluttonous consumption of Blue Bell ice cream this evening. Somehow that makes me ready to face the Great Fast. More importantly, my parish began yesterday afternoon with the Forgiveness Vespers service, personally embracing and giving a kiss of peace to each and every man, woman and child in our parish.
There is something so humbling and spiritually cathartic about having to go from one person to the next in a receiving line and ask the personal forgiveness from your fellow parishioners. The words are simple: “Forgive me brother/sister”. The response is “God forgives”. Two words that contain the whole message of the Gospel. You say these words as you look straight into the eyes of someone you’ve had a tiff with, someone you bad mouthed, a friend you failed, even your own children. And at that moment of personal admission you connect with the one you’ve sinned against in a spirit of real Christian brotherhood. There is no hiding personal animosity from a person you’ve just embraced.
I’ve learned some practical things about the service, such as don’t wear mascara, take your glasses off, only air kiss the kids, and thank the men who’ve taken the extra care to close shave that morning. But what I’ve never learned, no matter how many times I participate in this service, is how not to sin until the beginning of Great Lent the following year. I am obviously a slow learner and a fast sinner and I humbly ask the readers of this blog for their forgiveness if I have offended with my hasty or unkind words, my presumption or my pride. I wish everyone a blessed Lenten journey as we approach the life-giving death and glorious Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour.
His Eminence Metropolitan Jonah has written a very edifying message for the beginning of Great Lent and I post it below for your benefit.
To the Very Reverend and Reverend Clergy, Monastics
and Faithful of the Orthodox Church in America
Dearly Beloved in the Lord:
Christ is in our midst!
Our Church has gone through a tragic and bitter episode in her history. Many souls suffered shipwreck, demoralized by the sins of a few. That is over. But the lingering bitterness and mistrust, resentment and desire for retribution, hang over us. We must heal this, both on an individual as well as corporate level. The only way to do this is repentance, using this season of repentance to make changes in our lives, cleanse our hearts and minds, and embrace the hope that can only be grasped by forgiveness. Unless we forgive others from our hearts, we cannot accept God’s forgiveness for our own sins.
Every time we criticize, judge, condemn or despise another person, no matter how gravely he or she may have sinned, we sin equally ourselves. All our self-righteous indignation is all hypocrisy that blinds us to our own sins. The resentment we allow to fester in our hearts gives us over to corruption and evil. We allow ourselves to gossip, and talk about other people, and forget that we condemn ourselves by doing so. It does not matter what another person has done; that is his or her sin. Why do I need to make his sin my own, by my judgment and criticism, and destroy my own life by resentment of someone else?
If I fast from foods, St John Chrysostom said, how can I devour my brother by gossip and slander? If we don’t eat things that have been slaughtered, why do I murder my brother by character assassination? If I abstain from wine, how can I allow myself to be drunk on my passions of resentment and bitterness? It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but rather what comes out of the mouth and the heart. It is these things, judgment and criticism, which reveal our piety to be a hypocritical sham. All our self-righteousness is as filthy rags before God, and we only condemn ourselves.
The only way of life for us, as Christians, is repentance and forgiveness. We must be “transformed in the renewal of our minds,” (the real meaning of “repentance”) and forgive those who have offended and sinned against us. Only then can we be free from our resentments, and our souls and lives—and our Church—can be healed. In short, we have to change our behavior, our words and our thoughts.
Let our fasting be accompanied by the refusal to indulge in judgment and criticism of others: gossip, slander, suspicion and innuendo, all that is hateful to God. Let us fast from meat, as we fast from the carnality of hatred and resentment of others, which is the source of our passions, pain and addictions. Let us fast from cheese, as we cut out the bitterness that curdles the joy in our lives, the pure milk of love. Let us fast from eggs, so that the seeds of corruption do not hatch in our souls. Let us fast from oil, so that we do not grease our lips to slander and fry our neighbor. Let us fast from wine, that we might remain sober and watchful, to maintain the purity of our souls, minds and hearts.
Let us make this Lent a spiritual fast, so that purified in mind and heart, as well as in body, we might behold the radiant Resurrection of Christ in the reception of the Holy Mysteries at Pascha, but most especially, in the resurrection of our souls. Let corruption be abolished, and let us be loosed from the sins that keep us enslaved. The only place to start is in our own souls, mindful of our sins, and in a spirit of love and compassion towards our neighbor. Only by the purification of our souls, freed from the guilt of sin and pain of resentment, will we be able to feast with Christ at His Messianic Banquet, illumined by His grace, being made partakers of the eternal Joy of His Kingdom.