Today, the last Sunday before Great Lent begins, the Church focuses on 2 separate, yet related, themes, the first of which is the commemoration of the casting out, or expulsion, of Adam and Eve from Paradise. As we heard in one of the hymns of Great Vespers last night, “Adam sat before Paradise, and, lamenting his nakedness, he wept: Woe is me! By evil deceit was I persuaded and led astray, and now I am in exile from glory....” And then elsewhere in the same Service: “Therefore let us all make haste to accept the season of the Fast and hearken to the teaching of the Gospel, that we may gain Christ’s mercy and receive once more a dwelling place in Paradise.” Holy Scripture tells us that Adam lived in this state of separation from God for 930 years. Although a natural consequence of our separation from the only source of true life, it seems as though the shortening of human life spans in the generations following Adam has been, in reality, an act of mercy on God’s part, reducing the length of time that we human beings have to live apart from Him.
Staretz Silouan of Mt. Athos, in his work, “Adam’s Lament”, says that Adam also wept bitterly because he realized that peace and love would be lost by all generations of mankind coming after him, that suffering would be our lot in life, all because of his sin. That knowledge must certainly have been a difficult burden for Adam to bear. Think about it for a moment – about how painful it must have been for him. It is this sense of despair, over the consequences of our sins, that the Church would have us remember today. By commemorating Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise, we are recognizing that this is our own state of being as well – we have chosen sin over holiness, we have chosen self-love over God’s love, we have chosen exile in this Fallen world over life in Paradise, our true home. And we prove that these are, indeed, the choices that we have made by the way that we live our lives.
So, it is fitting that the Church has given this realization, reminded us of this fact, today, as we stand at the threshold of this time of bright sadness. For Christ, the Savior of the World, has re-opened the doors of Paradise to us, to all who follow Him. And the Church, by revealing to us the beauty of the Kingdom, enables us to make our entire life a pilgrimage back to our heavenly homeland. This time of the Fast is the time we are given to once again resume that pilgrimage, which we forget so quickly in the hectic schedules of our lives.
Great Lent is our liberation from our enslavement to sin, from the prison of this Fallen World. And in today’s Gospel Reading we hear Christ set the conditions for this liberation – fasting and forgiveness. These two things are linked to one another – in the original Greek, the word used in the Scripture to link the verses about forgiveness to those about fasting make it clear that true fasting, as it is pleasing to God, is dependent upon sincere forgiveness.
But to make our fast pleasing to God, as Christ instructs us, we must do it for God’s glory, and not our own. Remember, God does not need us to fast, we need to fast. And fasting from certain foods, while important, is only the outer aspect of a true fast. As Father Alexander Schmemann teaches, a true fast is the refusal to accept the desires and urges of our Fallen nature as being normal, it is the effort to free ourselves from the dictatorship of our flesh over our spirit. This is why the Fathers of the Church teach that fasting involves abstention from certain foods, that’s true, but more importantly fasting also involves our efforts to make meaningful and lasting changes to our interior state – our mind and our soul. We do this through increasing the amount and intensity of our private prayers and of our communal worship; we do this by reminding ourselves, over and over, to be vigilant, to guard our hearts and minds against the intrusion of sin; we do this by going out of our way to give alms, and to be kind to everyone that we meet. And we also do this by abstaining from certain foods – meat and dairy, to both help us to learn self-control and develop our will, as well as to remind us that our true life does not come from the food that we eat, but from God, and God alone. When you fast, the compassion of God outshines physical discomfort: joy overshadows sorrow.
You know, if you read the news, if you look at our world today, it’s very easy to see the triumph of sin, the way that it rules our world – the most prominent place you see it is in our divisions, our hostility, our separation from and our hatred of one another. But the first way that we can break through this wall of sin is by forgiveness – the return to unity, to love. This is why forgiveness is the second theme that the Church offers to us on this day – through forgiveness the Kingdom of God breaks through the wall of sin and into this Fallen world.
Many years ago, a prominent newspaper in London ran a big headline: What is the cause of the problems we face today? And it invited people to write in explaining what they thought this ultimate cause was. As you can guess, most of the letters they received dealt with this person, or that government, or this policy, and offered long explanations and reasons. But one person wrote in and simply said, “I am the cause of the problems we face today.” How many of us can say that we have come to the same place, spiritually, where we also recognize our own guilt, our own hand in the many evils of the world? It’s so easy to look around and judge ourselves against other people – you can always find someone to compare yourself with, and say, “hey, compared to him, I’m not so bad at all. In fact, I’m a pretty good guy, compared to those people.” And in doing so we completely miss the point, we miss why St. Paul, the Apostle himself, could say that he was the first among sinners.
It was Dostoevsky who said, “Each is guilty of everything before everyone.” Not guilty of any particular offense – those are inevitable. But, on a deeper level, when I look objectively at myself, which is not an easy thing to do, I hear the judgment of my own conscience – guilty. I am the one who spends his time trying to please himself; I am the one who puts himself, my own desires and needs, before anyone else. I am the one who forgets God, who forgets Christ and all He has done for me, instead spending my days trying to please myself. Not you, or you, or anyone else, but me. My salvation is not dependent on someone else’s relationship with God, rather, it is dependent on my relationship with God, and in that relationship, it is surely I who am the first among sinners.
Until we come to this realization, brothers and sisters, we cannot truly realize just how great is our need for forgiveness, and we cannot truly appreciate the forgiveness that God offers to us, the depth of His mercy. But the Church, in her wisdom, and guided by the Holy Spirit, knows these things. This is why we begin Great Lent with forgiveness. Because no matter how badly someone has insulted us, or hurt us, or hurt someone that we love, whether knowingly or unknowingly, it is still not as great an offense as the way that we, both unknowingly and knowingly, insult, offend, and hurt God, when we separate ourselves from Him through our sins, particularly those sins of which we are fully aware, yet carry out anyway.
And still, He is always ready to forgive us. But, to be unforgiving toward others is to voluntarily separate ourselves from God’s forgiveness. Because when it comes to forgiveness, your feelings don’t matter. Just your will. Forgiveness doesn’t care who’s right and who’s wrong. Forgiveness doesn’t care how much pain you’ve been caused. Forgiveness doesn’t care how often it is invoked. Brothers and sisters, I pray that all of us make the choice to be forgiving.
After Liturgy today in most Orthodox parishes, we will serve Forgiveness Vespers, and then we will hold the Rite of Forgiveness, when we have to look at each other, each and every one of us, in the eye, and not only ask for forgiveness, but more importantly, be willing to grant it. Do you dare to call yourself a Christian? A disciple of Jesus Christ? Then you had better be ready to forgive, to make the decision to forgive, regardless of the pain, just as our Lord forgave those who nailed Him to the Cross. Just as He has forgiven you, and you, and me. This is how we, as Orthodox Christians, begin the journey of repentance that is Great Lent.
Today we remember Adam’s grief at his separation from God, we experience just a taste of it. Brothers and sisters, I pray that we don’t one day find ourselves in the same place that Adam was – alone and weeping outside of the gates, shut out of God’s Kingdom, because of our own unwillingness to forgive one another. I pray that each and every one of us makes the decision to leave our pride at the door, and be willing to ask for forgiveness, and that we also truly forgive, realizing our great need for both. Because it is only through our beginning this Lenten Season, this time of the Great Fast, in such a manner, that we will eventually find ourselves to be forgiven, and be able to truly participate in the joy of the Resurrection of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.
To Whom is due all glory, honor and worship, together with His Father without beginning and His All Holy, Good, and Life-Creating Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.
Fr. Gregory Czumak
Bel Air, MD