The last of the preparatory Sundays in the Orthodox Church is the Sunday of Forgiveness. This is the Sunday that we call to mind the expulsion of our first parents from paradise and the Icon of this day depicts Adam and Eve sitting outside of the closed doors of paradise weeping for what they have lost. This is a stark reminder to us, as we begin this holy period of Lent, just how important forgiveness is in our lives.
The Gospel for this Sunday is taken from the 6th chapter of St. Matthew and begins with these words, “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.” Jesus is reminding those who are listening that if we hold back forgiveness our Heavenly Father will also withhold forgiveness. As we say in the Our Father, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. These are not just words but a reminder of the necessity of forgiveness.
A few years ago, I received a letter in the mail from a classmate from junior high school asking for forgiveness. During those years, he was kind of a bully not only to me but others in my class. He had fallen on some difficult times and was progressing through the steps of treatment for substance abuse. One of the steps is to make amends with people that you have harmed in the past, so he was reaching out to ask forgiveness. I was moved by this letter, and I wrote him back right away to thank him for writing and to give him my forgiveness. I had all but forgotten what had been done, but it would have been wrong of me to withhold the forgiveness he was seeking.
I have said that forgiveness is necessary for our spiritual life. The granting of forgiveness is less about the person that we are forgiving and more about us and our spiritual lives. When we withhold forgiveness we do more harm to ourselves than we do to the one who has harmed us, in fact by withholding forgiveness we are actually giving the power over to the one who has hurt us. Withholding forgiveness harms our spiritual life and in a way separates us from God.
Holding back forgiveness harms us in a spiritual way by keeping the hurt alive in our minds and our spirits. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting what has happened, but it is the start of the healing process for us. Whether the person accepts the forgiveness or even if they admit they were wrong, we have to forgive.
I was recently asked a question about justice and forgiveness. Spiritually forgiveness one, our part, has nothing to do with justice. The healing process may be tied to the meeting out of justice if that is what the law requires, but forgiveness needs to be given for healing to begin.
Last week, the news brought us a report of twenty-one Christians in Libya being martyred by radical Islam. They were martyred for no other reason than they were Christians. They were all members of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The Church has canonized them as martyrs of the faith and in a statement one of the bishops of the Coptic Church said that he has forgiven those who have done this because he is a Christian and has no other option, and neither do we!
At the start of every Liturgy in the Orthodox Church, we say, “In peace, let us pray to the Lord.” We are seeking peace with God but also with humanity. It has been said that if we come to Liturgy, holding anything against another, we should leave, go make amends and return so that our sacrifice will be pure. If we are not reconciled to our fellow man, we cannot hope to be able to pray without distractions.
We have begun the forty-day period of preparation for the great feast of the Resurrection. This time has been set aside for us to work on our spirituality. This is the time for us to be intentional about getting our spiritual life back on track if we need to but even if we don’t we need to remember that forgiveness is essential and if we have been holding it back we need to give it.