St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

On Forgiveness Sunday

Sermon preached by Tiffany Conroy on Sunday, March 6, 2011

Our themes today are forgiveness and preparation.  Forgiveness, because it’s Forgiveness Sunday; preparation, because that’s the chosen theme for our Women’s Month sermons.  In addition to today’s Epistle and Gospel readings, we are considering the Mystagogical Catecheses of St Cyril of Jerusalem, which are the written records of a series of sermons he gave to initiate the catechumens in his flock back in the 4th century.  We want to stress that preparation is for everyone, no matter how long one has been part of the Church—we are all still preparing ourselves for the Kingdom of the Father.  Neither should we see the Sacraments for which we are preparing—Baptism, Chrismation, Eucharist, etc.—as ends in themselves.  Rather, the Sacraments set in motion journeys, processes of becoming that, like preparation, will continue on indefinitely. 

The aspect of preparation that I will talk about today is forgiveness.  I want to discuss forgiveness as having three phases—phases that repeat over and over again in our Christian lives. The first step in the process of forgiveness involves forgiving ourselves—accepting that we are human, in other words, and knowing in our hearts that being human is not handicap, but rather that our humanity is the very instrument through with we reach God.  However, there are things inside us that get in the way of seeing ourselves as God created us—God looked upon the world He created and called it “good”; but when He looked upon the first people He created, He called them “very good” because we were made in His image and likeness. Still, there is darkness that we must purge, behaviors and thoughts we must address before we can truly dwell in our fundamental goodness.

In the Apocryphal Gospel of St Thomas, Jesus says: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you; if you do not bring forth what is in you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” In other words, if we leave the hard work undone, we will be undone.  

This endeavor of facing our own failures, errors, and dark places involves accepting that we are merely human beings living in the fallen world, which means we are pretty much guaranteed to mess up.  And yet, being human is also our greatest asset.  It’s not a trick or an accident that one of the Trinity is a human being.  Body, heart and mind are not obstacles in our path to Theosis; rather they form the essential parts of the vehicle in which we move closer to God.  Jesus was not created nor resurrected as an angelic being—He was born, died and was raised again as flesh and blood.  Although Jesus did not sin as we do, he fully experienced and understood the pain we feel that leads us to sin, and He felt the remorse, shame and distance from God that we endure as a result of our imperfections. We do not imitate Christ by pretending we know all the answers or by thinking that we have to be perfect.  Following Christ has to do with being willing to learn and engaging in an ongoing process of perfecting ourselves in cooperation with God’s Grace through the action of the Holy Spirit.

St Cyril of Jerusalem points to Jesus Christ’s humanity in what says to the catechumens—and we are all still catechumens, so this applies to all of us here today!—“What then did each of you stand up and say? ‘I renounce thee Satan’—thou wicked and most cruel tyrant! Meaning, ‘I fear thy might no longer; for that Christ hath overthrown, having partaken with me of flesh and blood, that through these He might by death destroy death that I might not be made subject to bondage for ever.”

Our rejection of Satan begins with accepting our humanity. As long as we are in denial of our humanity, with all its pain, fear, sinfulness and failure, we are trapped, bereft of the freedom to move forward into God’s image and likeness. We must forgive ourselves in order to overcome evil and affirm the power of the Incarnation.  It’s not at all an easy process to face our inner demons. The only way is to experience the pain.

That is perhaps why in today’s passage from the letter to the Romans Paul writes: “The night is advanced, the day is near. Let us put away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

We are doing spiritual battle and we must fight like soldiers armed against very real adversaries.  Our primary enemy in this war wants to make us afraid and will tempt us with ways to avoid feeling our pain—alcohol, drugs, sex, being too busy with work, being distracted by the internet, the phone, etc.  The adversary also deludes us with many ways to pretend we don’t see our own shortcomings. One of those ways, oddly enough, is spending our time analyzing the shortcomings of others.  We criticize them and tell them what to do, or gossip about them when they’re not around, instead of addressing our own need to be self-scrutinized, which, if we did it properly, would leave us very little time or inclination to pick at our neighbors. 

This brings us to the second step in the process of forgiveness, which is to forgive others. The reading from St Matthew’s Gospel puts it very unambiguously: “For if you forgive men their offenses, your heavenly Father will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive your offenses.”

Once we learn to forgive others—“even unto seven times seventy”—then we can be free at last to experience God’s forgiveness, which is the third step in the process.  God’s forgiveness is love in its purest form.  It heals our hearts, makes us kinder to our fellows, and leads us into union with God.  Forgiveness is a form of love—and love is the highest law.  As we heard today in Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Do not be obliged to anyone for anything, except to love each other; he who loves has fulfilled all the rest of the law.”

We can see this three-step process of forgiveness repeated in our preparation for every Liturgy. First, we confess our sins—which means we acknowledge them to ourselves, feeling the emotions that surround them and learning what we can in order to respond better to life’s circumstances.  Secondly, we come to our confessor and share what we have experienced and what we have learned, receiving comfort and guidance from another person. Thirdly, we come to the Liturgy and partake of the Gifts of God in the Eucharist—after we’ve collectively repeated, in shortened form, the acts of confession and absolution.  Then, the Sacrament of Communion “takes away all [our] sins” and is “for the healing of soul and body.”  And these Gifts are none other than the body and blood of Christ, who is a human being, just like we are.

In closing, I want to stress that we have many weapons at our disposal in our spiritual warfare.  Some of these are the marvelous services of Lent and Holy Week.  Lent begins with Forgiveness Vespers, tonight, which is one of the most beautiful and uplifting services in the whole of the Liturgical cycle.  If you have never been or are not in the habit of going, I suggest you show up…and keep on showing up for as many of the Lenten and Holy Week services you can.