The Sunday before the beginning of Great Lent is called Forgiveness Sunday, and at the vespers on Sunday evening during which the great Lenten season actually begins—because the day begins in church in the evening, it is like in the Bible, “there was evening and morning, one day,”—so on Forgiveness Sunday in the evening the believers gather and they begin the great Lenten season, and the Psalm verse that is the key line of that service is, “Turn not your face away from your servant for I am afflicted! Hear me speedily, attend to my soul, and deliver it! Turn not your face away from your servant!” And then also at that service, we have the singing of the hymns that tell us that indeed Lent is beginning. So for example, among the hymns you find this one: “Let us begin the season of the fast with joy, let us prepare ourselves for spiritual battle, let us purify our souls and cleanse our flesh, and as we fast from food let us also fast from sinful passion, rejoicing in the virtues of the Holy Spirit. May we persevere in love and so be counted worthy to see the solemn passion of Christ our God, and with great spiritual gladness to behold his holy Pascha. Your grace has shined forth, O Lord, your grace has shined forth and given light to our souls. Behold, now is the accepted time, behold now is the season of repentance. Let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, that having sailed across the great sea of the fast, we may reach the harbor of the third day resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of our souls.” Following the service, each of the worshippers bows before all of the others, asking forgiveness and receiving forgiveness.
It is important that we understand what forgiveness is. The entire gospel, the entire Christian faith is essentially the conviction that God forgives us. That no matter what we do, however stupid, however silly, however ridiculous, however raunchy, however rebellious, God forgives us, God loves us. He relentlessly loves us, and the sign of his love is that he forgives us. He forgives us before we ask, he forgives us before he even created us—he created us, forgiving us. But what does that forgiveness mean? It does not mean that God simply says, “Everything is okay.” It does not mean that we have not done anything wicked and wrong. Indeed, forgiveness has no meaning whatsoever unless there is real wrongdoing. So forgiveness is necessary when there is real sin; if there is no real sin then there is no need for forgiveness, and that is very very important because some people think that to forgive means to say to the other person who has done evil—let us say if I am asked to forgive someone, that sometimes people think that that is, so to speak, letting them off the hook, or saying that, “It is okay what they did,” or, “I will not let it bother me,” or, “It really was nothing.”
Oh no, no no, that is not it at all. Where there is real wickedness, real evil, real harm done, forgiveness comes in and says, “I will not let that wickedness triumph. I will not let wickedness win. I will not break communion, fellowship, relationship, no matter how sinful and weak and ugly they are. No matter how much they may have hurt me, or my children, or my land, or whatever. I will not allow that evil to be victorious.” So forgiveness is the killing of evil, it is the killing of the power of evil, but it is never saying that the evil was not there. No, no, the evil has to be acknowledged, it has to be admitted.
And that is why we ourselves ask for forgiveness, we have to know that we are sinful. When we forgive the other person we have to know that they have really sinned, they have really harmed, they have really done evil. Now sometimes good, decent, American people feel, “Well, all of this is exaggerated. No one has really hurt me that much, I have not really done that much to others.” And sometimes even people in the church will say, “Why should I go around the entire building of the church, bowing down and asking forgiveness from other people that I do not even know? I practically know their name, I do not know who they are, I do not know what they have done, and they have certainly not done, quote on quote, anything to me because I do not even know them.” That is a very superficial view. Sure, it is true that we must admit the actual sins we have committed, we must ask forgiveness of the actual people we have hurt, we must forgive people who have directly, specifically harmed and hurt us in whatever way—that should be obvious and should go without saying. But we must see the deeper truth.
The deeper truth, as the Russian writer Dostoyevsky said and shows in several of his novels, is that we are all guilty in front of everyone and everything. As he put it he said, the smallest, most hidden, secret impurity, rebellion, and sin, in the most secret depth of our soul, pollutes the entire universe. Because we are members of one another, we belong with one another. There is no such thing as isolated individuals; that is simply a falsehood. When we think that, “I can live in my little world, what I do does not affect anybody else,” that is simply not true. As it says in Scripture, the sin of the parent is visited upon the fourth generation of his children. It does not mean that God is holding the sins of the parents against their kids, in fact that is explicitly denied in Holy Scripture, but it does mean that if I sin, and if I do evil, that evil has a life of its own, and then it takes over, and then it pollutes other people, and then it becomes part of their pollution, and then they spread that corruption, and then we have the mess of humanity that we have right now, which is called in the Scripture the sin of the world.
So there is no such thing as a private act. There is no such thing as an act between, I do not know, consenting adults done in private. Everything affects everyone and everything. And the smallest little evil is a sin against absolutely every human being. And that is why we believe in Christ we must fall down on our face before every person and beg their forgiveness. In fact, according to the services and the saints and the Scriptures, we have to bow down before the birds, before trees, before the earth, because we have sinned against all the plants and the animals. We have to ask forgiveness of the air and of the water, because we have corrupted and polluted all things by our evils. We are guilty before everyone and responsible for everyone, and we must acknowledge that; we must feel that in our gut, in the depth of our heart, and weep tears of repentance for what we have done, and also therefore to show that we are penitent, to forgive what all the others have done.
The Lord’s Prayer: we pray forgive us what we owe, as we forgive, and actually it is an errorist Greek in the St. Matthew version, what we have already forgiven others. So theoretically if we have not already forgiven others, we cannot ask God’s forgiveness—we should not dare to do so. And in fact in the Holy Scripture that is read on Forgiveness Sunday in church, it actually says “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your father forgive your trespasses.” And those trespasses, it just means sin. In Luke’s gospel it even just says “sin.” Sometimes that word “trespass” should be translated “debt.” Not debt like you owe money to a bank or something, or you owe your neighbor five bucks, but what we owe, what we ought to be, what we ought to do and have failed to do.
Now the whole of our human life is to receive the forgiveness of God. That is what Lent is all about, to receive and make actual, make real the fact that we are forgiven by God because of the blood of Christ. That he paid all the debts, he has taken all the sins upon himself, he has expiated every wickedness and evil in his own body on the tree of the cross. In his broken body and shed blood, everything is remitted, and everything is forgiven. And since that is the gospel, and we believe in the gospel, then we must do the same, we must do what he did. In fact the Lord says in St. John’s gospel, “The one who believes in me will do greater things than I have done, because I go to the Father.” We are still in this world, but if we are not forgiving, then God does not forgive us. And the most amazing thing about our Lord Jesus is that he never sinned against anybody in any way. He was totally without sin, yet he took the sins upon himself and forgave them all.
And that is what real mercy and love is. Mercy and love is not only not to harm anybody; it is not only to do good to those when we can; it is not only to forgive or to say that we forgive whatever anyone has done to us of an evil and harmful way, but a real lover is a person who forgives the other even before they have sinned, who does not return evil for evil, and who actually repents of the brother’s sin more than the brother himself, and feels the destructive power of it more than the other person himself. This is what it means to be a human being and Christian made in the image and likeness of God.
So forgiveness is the very heart of the matter, forgiveness is love in action, forgiveness is maintaining communion among human beings and among all creatures, forgiveness is to live the life of God himself, the communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. Forgiveness is life itself, because when we do not forgive, we murder. We kill the person that we do not forgive and we kill ourselves in the process of not forgiving. So forgiveness is the heart of the matter, and that is why the great Lenten season in the Orthodox Church begins with the Sunday of Forgiveness.