There is much about the Christian faith with which most modern people can agree. More precisely, they agree with the parts they find agreeable: a God of love, a Christ of compassion, the promise of a favorable afterlife. If this was the totality of the Christian faith, few would disagree and many would wear the label proudly. Why? Because it costs nothing. Dinner is always better when someone else pays the check. Anyone who takes it seriously knows, however, that with the crown of Christianity comes the cross, and with the cross of Christianity comes the Christ, who utters the most counter-intuitive statement while hanging from it: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And with that statement, uttered by a sinless, innocent, blameless God, we enter the realm not just of the difficult but of the impossible.
Relying on our own strength, forgiveness is impossible. When hurt, the impulse to hurt back; when slighted, the impulse to slight back; when wronged, the impulse to wrong in return is too ingrained in fallen human nature, too ingrained to uprooted by a simple appeal to kindness. The strength we exert to hold onto our hurt is stronger than the strength we exert to let it go.
The heart suspects that forgiveness means that I die in the place of the one who caused me pain. My sense of justice, of fairness, dies in the place of the guilty party. How is that humanly possible? Perhaps that is the point. Genuine forgiveness is not humanly possible, and yet you know the same Gospel I do. No lesser authority than the Son of God said, “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Some of the hymns that we Orthodox sign whenever we celebrate the virgin birth include this line: “Where God so wills, the order of nature is overturned.” According to the order of nature, the virgin birth is an event that is not possible. It is quite possible, however, according to the will of God. But that verse applies to more than the virgin birth. It also applies to the harsh truth of interpersonal conflict. The order of nature is for me to remember the wrongs done against me and to use my pain like a wall or a weapon, and this is an order of nature that, under my own power, I cannot overturn. But, where God so wills, the order of nature is overturned.
Does God will that I forgive? Yes. Then he must be the One to overturn the order of my nature, because I cannot do it alone. That is the first truth of genuine forgiveness. It is a commandment of God accomplished through the strength of God. The second truth is this: God does not overwhelm our freedom, so we must cooperate with him if we are going to forgive others. And that cooperation is chiefly the work of prayer.
St. Silouan of Mt. Athos writes about the relationship between prayer for enemies and one’s own spiritual health. He says simply, “The soul cannot know peace unless she prays for her enemies. If you will pray for your enemies, peace will come to you.” An enemy is anyone with whom we are not at peace because of pain, hurts, misunderstandings, offenses, conflict, grievances, unforgiveness. It can be an immensely helpful thing to write down, in a private place, the names of any with whom we are not at peace, and then commit to praying for those names. You can even do this exercise while brushing your teeth, so that afterwards you can spit! By praying for those with whom we are not at peace, we raise our emotional state into a spiritual state, where the divine act of forgiveness is more likely to occur.
Forgiveness is a commandment of God accomplished through the strength of God, and we cooperate with God by praying for those we need to forgive. Those are some of the basic foundations of biblical forgiveness. But for those Orthodox believers who participate in the rite of forgiveness on Forgiveness Sunday, prior to every Great Lent, the real homily comes later. On the earthly plane, we will face each other and both ask and extend forgiveness. On a spiritual plane, however, we will be facing God, and we will be asking him to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
The season of Great Lent begins with forgiveness perhaps because every journey should begin by feeling light and free. We do not travel the road of Lent as isolated individuals, but as members of a family. Our lenten effort—prayer, fasting, church services—binds us to each other with ever-stronger bonds as the body of Christ—one Lord, one faith, one Church, one goal, one Savior. We begin with forgiveness, for it is then that we are Christlike. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”