About the Threshold of Lent, and Blessed Forgiveness


        Brothers and sisters!


        After weeks of preparation, we have now reached the curtain separating us from Great Lent.  In a few minutes, we shall glimpse behind the curtain, and tomorrow morning it will be pulled open and we shall stand face to face before the struggle of prayer, fasting, and repentance.  As we begin the struggle, the Holy Church of Christ, our ever-vigilant mother, reminds us:  “Careful, beloved children, for you have wandered from the trail.  Your feet are stuck in the mud, because you have fixed all your attention on things of earth, on worldly interests, on satisfying your passions.  Without fully realizing it, you have gone astray.  Take hold of yourselves and return to the path of salvation.”

        Prayer is the oxygen without which no one can lead a devout life.  However, most people but rarely pray with fervor.  They justify this state of affairs by saying that their disposition for one reason or another does not incline them to such prayer.  But do they ever stop to ask how they might attain such a disposition without compelling themselves to pray with force?  “I don’t feel like praying,” they say; “I’m not in the mood.  The service is too long; I have more pressing or interesting things to do.”  In other words, they do not care to pray; they do not wish to enter into intimate conversation with the One Who made them; they do not want to follow the example given us by the Saviour, Who spent whole nights in prayer, communing with His Heavenly Father.  But prayer is and is called by the saints the art of arts and the science of sciences.  Remember the labor we put into our studies when we were in school, to learn this or that simply in order to pass from one grade to another or to receive a good mark and, eventually, a diploma.  If you are a professional, remember how you applied yourself in the hope of a better career in the more or less distant future…

        With respect to prayer and the spiritual life generally, we must act in the same way.  Nothing worthwhile is attained without serious effort, least of all that which is the most valuable and rewarding of all things; namely, union with the infinite God, the Source of every blessing.

        And what about fasting?  At best, fasting represents for most of us little more than exchanging one menu for another.  This, however, is just one half of fasting, something necessary, but by far the lesser half.  “The devil never eats,” said Saint Basil the Great, “yet he never stops sinning.”  The better half of fasting is abstinence from everything that leads us into sin, everything that fosters the passions.  Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk puts it like this:  “May your mind fast from vain, useless thoughts; may your will fast from evil intentions; may your eyes fast from forbidden sights; may your ears fast from songs that defile and from slanderous whisperings; and may your tongue fast from gossip, judging, lying, crafty deception, cursing, and every vain and corrupt word.”  Besides this, true fasting is love for our neighbor and mercy towards him.  For the well-to-do (and this means almost all of us, by the standards of humanity as a whole), true fasting demands generous almsgiving.

        We should always be at war with our invisible enemies; we must never lay down our arms.  But since in fact we are so often ready to make peace with the evil spirits that seek our destruction, the Holy Spirit inspired the Fathers of the Church to set aside a portion of the year, during which time we are especially urged to combat the adversaries of our salvation.  This is the period of Great Lent, a tenth of the year, a tithe that we offer to God in recompense for our failures during the other nine-tenth.  During this time, the joyful ringing of bells is suppressed and replaced by mournful tolling, the clergy wear dark vestments, plaintive chants supplant festive melodies, more of the service is read and less sung, frequent prostrations are in order, and we repeat the penitential prayer of Saint Ephraim, “O Lord and Master of my life.”  Whose heart would not be softened by this?  Who would not be roused to contrition?  Who would not be moved to sigh from the depths of his soul, “O God, cleanse me, a sinner!”

        And so we see that the Holy Church extends a most helpful hand to us during this period, such that if only we regularly attend the Lenten services (meaning, first and foremost, the special services on weekdays), and focus on what surrounds us in church, our laziness will turn to zeal and our coldheartedness to fervor.  We will begin to yearn for intimate conversation with the Lord, and we will come to wish for more, rather than less time in the house of our Creator.

        Thus, dear brothers and sisters, “Let us radiantly begin the season of the Fast and undertake spiritual struggles,” in the words of the Vespers hymn we shall presently chant.  And how do we begin?  We find the answer in today’s Gospel lection, which says, If ye forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you:  but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.[1]  On the basis of these words, our custom arose of asking forgiveness of one another on this day, which is known not just as Cheesefare Sunday, but as the Sunday of Forgiveness.

        Let us embrace this sacred custom with sincerity, dear Christians, and cast out of our hearts all animosity and resentment towards others:  not just those present here, but every person who may have offended us or whom we may have offended, that the Lord may forgive us as we have forgiven those who trespass against us and that He may strengthen us in all our Lenten struggles.  Amen.


[1] Matt. 6:14-15