St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

On the Sunday of Forgiveness

Sermon preached by Alex Orlovsky on Sunday, February 26, 2012

Dear Brothers and Sisters in ICXC,

Today is the Sunday of Forgiveness, the last Sunday before the start of Lent, the Great Fast. Perhaps you’ve asked or been asked Why should we fast? How do we fast? What does this have to do with Pascha anyways?

First, let me state what I call Rule Number 47 of Orthodoxy: “when in doubt, look for answers in the services of the Church.” When we apply Rule 47 to this weekend, particularly to Vespers last night and the Vespers of Forgiveness tonight, we find prayer and fasting are directed towards repentance, and repentance is the royal road to the Resurrection of Christ. Finally, we shall see that, as with all aspects of Orthodoxy, the Fast is not a spectator sport.

In the last few weeks we went through a miniature Lenten journey. Did you notice that?  On one hand we have The Publican and Pharisee, the Prodigal Son followed by the Sundays of Judgment and of Forgiveness. That is, Repentance, Judgment and Salvation. On the other hand we have: The Fast, Christ’s death on the Cross, His Resurrection.  The liturgical cycle embodies in time the connection between the Great Fast and Repentance. It also reveals that these two are essential preparations for Pascha. Perhaps this is too abstract.

Let’s be very concrete now and apply rule 47 to Vespers last night.  Adam sits outside the gates of Paradise, banished.  Listen to Adam: “I transgressed the commandment of the Master”  “I cast off the robe woven by God”, “I closed the gates by my transgression”,

He laments the loss of Paradise itself! Have you never been sitting in the dirt, beside him, weeping?

What is the way out of this picture of despair, death and darkness?

Hear Adam again: “Master, in compassion, call me back again.”  “Bring me into Paradise”, “open the gates which I closed” and finally “Merciful and compassionate Lord, I am fallen, have mercy on me.”

Christ’s answer:  “I desire not the loss of the creature which I fashioned, but that he should be saved and come to knowledge of the truth; when he comes to me I will not cast him out”.

There it is again: Repentance, Judgment, Salvation.

Surprising as it may seem, last Sunday’s theme, the Last Judgment, also offers hope.

The Last Judgment is inextricably linked with Christ’s coming into the world.  Remember John 3:17? “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” His judgment is salvation!

And Christ Himself said “and this is judgment that light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light”

This is what the Fast means – it is setting aside the darkness so that we may receive the Light.  Tonight the Church sings “through prayer and fasting make me shine with light”.

Fasting is not some later accretion to the authentic tradition. I’d love to see a billboard ad that reads “Fasting. It’s in the Bible.” IC XC himself fasted. Jesus did not say “If you fast”, he said “When you fast”. It’s hard to get more biblical than that.

Through the direct, physical instruction of the fast we see quite clearly how we live our lives: as if we were trapped for all time in a light beer commercial – slaves of our desires. Tonight’s words: we “purify our soul and cleanse our flesh as we fast from food (…and) every passion.” Body and soul, we seek the restoration of the whole person.

The Fast is not an end in itself, nor is it punishment.   It is preparation for the Kingdom of Heaven bursting into the world and into time.

Surely that is why tonight we sing the Pascal canon, why we softly sing of the Resurrection as we forgive each other. Everything in the Fast is directed to Pascha. The Fast means nothing without the Resurrection of IC XC. It is an electric time of expectation.

Strange how my life only seems to make sense during the Great Fast.

Strange how a life that, from the outside, looks like deprivation, is life lived more abundantly

When lived in the light of Pascha, the Resurrection of Christ.

Already the clouds are parting. The goal shimmers before us, but now, tonight, together, we must get to work!  We must act.

Prayer, fasting and repentance are not a matter of scholarly debate, endless analysis, theorem and proof. The Fast must be lived, it must be tasted. We must taste the Fast, so that we may see the Truth. We must Taste and See.

The Great Fast is Taste and See written on the very face of time.

Tonight! Let us sit with Adam and Repent,
Or we will forever be crying at the gates.
Tonight! We forgive of one another and forego Judgment.
Tonight we “put on the armor of light” for our Salvation
so that we “reach the third-day Resurrection or our Lord Jesus Christ”.
Come and See!
Taste!
See!