In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ! [Glory to him forever!]
The days that we have been preparing for for almost a month are at the door. The Great Lenten season is almost upon us. It’s a matter of hours now. The epistle reading puts the spirit of Lent perfectly. “Therefore, let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.” Lent is about casting off the works of darkness and replacing it with the armor of the light of Christ, the light of right living. The totality of our being will participate in this lenten effort if we enter into it. None of it will happen without our assent.
So we want to talk very briefly this morning about this restoration that happens during the lenten season in us. The technical name of this particular day—we normally call this Forgiveness Sunday: the gospel reading talked about forgiveness. We’ll come back this evening; it’s very important that we do that, that we come back at seven o’clock this evening to go through the Forgiveness Vespers and ask forgiveness of one another. It’s probably the most beautiful aspect of how we begin the lenten season. In this lenten effort, if we enter into it, we will talk about restoring that which was lost in us.
As I said, the technical name of today is the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. Today is the day that we contemplate that, that we think about it. What happened? It’s very simple, yes? God gave Adam and Eve one commandment: Do not eat. Do not eat of the [tree] of the [knowledge] of good and evil. Don’t partake of it, don’t want it, don’t look at it, don’t go near it. Do not eat. The “do not eat” is a metaphor for “do not partake of.” So the fasting that we do becomes a restoration to set things aright, to follow that primal commandment again: Do not eat.
We are going to, first of all, restore a right attitude in us. We are restoring a right attitude in us by beginning this lenten season with forgiveness. The gospel reading said it so beautifully. The words of the Lord: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” There is something freeing about the act of forgiveness. Forgiveness allows us to cast off, to throw off the burden of bitterness, the burden of anger.
Unfortunately, when we hold a grudge against someone—no matter what it is, no matter what happened, no matter the circumstance—when we come to God and ask forgiveness of the heinous things that we’ve done, we can be assured of his very real forgiveness, that he doesn’t hold our offenses against us. We leave the confession pure. We leave the confession unburdened of our own guilt. So it is in our relationships with one another, our relationships with our family, with our friends, with our co-workers. If we allow the grudges to fester in us, we know that that becomes a terrible burden on our life. “I don’t talk to that person. I don’t talk to my brother, my sister, my mother, my father, my children, this friend that offended me.”
Forgiveness is simply unconditionally saying, “I don’t care any more. It doesn’t bother me. I’m not holding it against you. We’re done with this. Let’s move on.” It’s really, literally, that simple, and what forgiveness does is it restores a right attitude in us, an attitude of generosity, an attitude of lightness, that we would see in other people not a cause for offense—again, no matter what happened to us—but that we would see in other people what we have been taught in the previous gospel readings, that we would see in them the image of God himself, even, we could say, the poor, those who are in need of mercy from us. This is an opportunity that God gives us to restore a right attitude in us.
Of course, the second thing is—and this is maybe what Lent is known for, but we want to caution: Don’t make it simply about fasting. Lent is not just about fasting. It’s about our entire being, body and soul, mind and spirit—but, because we are body and soul, what we also do is we restore the right relationship between our body and soul. What we can say is that our forefather and foremother got the relationship wrong. When we allow our body to be the master of our soul, when we allow our body, our physical senses, to direct what our mind does, what our spirit does, this is the wrong relationship. It should be flipped around. Our soul, our spiritual values, should be the master of our bodies. Our soul, our mind, our heart should direct what our body does, and therefore fasting becomes an important tool to make that right, because if we can’t master our bodies, we’ll never master our souls.
If we can’t shun, for a time, meat or dairy, then how can we possibly shun the much greater things in this life, the things that matter so much more? And if we think that there’s no relationship between our body and our soul, we are fooling ourselves. Again, the epistle reading said it so beautifully:
Let us walk properly in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill its lusts.
In other words, the body is what leads us toward these thoughts. The body is unfortunately become our master. When we suppress certain physical appetites, like eating meat, like eating dairy, and we say, “I’m going to fight against that”—these are the easy things, actually, in our life—therefore it’s training for the more important things. The spirit of Lent also allows us to restore this right relationship between our body and our soul, if we enter into it.
Finally, the spirit of Lent restores our focus. It helps us contemplate what is really important to me. All of us can look at our lives and say, “I’m just not putting the most important things first in my life.” What Lent does is it gives us more and more opportunity to say, “Okay, maybe since last Pascha we’ve kind of veered off course.” Ask yourself again: What is most important to you? Are you putting God first in your life? And the end of the epistle reading says it so beautifully:
Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, where thieves do not break in and steal, for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
For where your treasure is, where what is important to you, your life will lead you, your actions will lead you. Lent allows us to restore once again: What is our first love? What is our first priority? Where is our heart? If we acknowledge that our heart is not in the right place, it’s all good, because Lent is the opportunity to then go back and put it in the right place. This is the beauty of what we are about to enter into.
We have all of these opportunities during these next 49 days, plus Holy Week, to enter into this reflection, this introspection, this time of restoration, to restore in us those things that are important: a right attitude, the right relationship between our body and our soul, the right focus in our life. I would encourage you, dear brothers and sisters, as we come downstairs and have our last bit of revelry in the feast that we have before us, in this Maslenitsa, this dairy week, butter week, as we finish that up, then we turn our attention this evening inward. We turn our attention to forgiving one another, and then we come back this week, and we hear those beautiful hymns of the Canon of St. Andrew, and we come on Wednesday and we hear the beautiful hymns of the Presanctified Liturgy in the darkness and the silence of the church.
This is the spirit of Lent that we are about to enter into. All of it leads up to experiencing and going through the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, his death, his burial, and then finally, having done all of that, we can face the resurrection of Christ with renewed faith, with a renewed attitude, with a renewed outlook. This is the whole point of Lent. This is where we are going. This is where our journey is taking us. Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, my prayer for you is that you would take this time, that you would strengthen your faith, that you would renew yourselves in Christ during this most magnificent time of the year.
To him who is our life, with the Father and the Spirit be glory, honor, and majesty, always, now and ever, and to ages of ages. Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ. [Glory to him forever.]