The Long Road Home A Sermon for Forgiveness Sunday

Today we stand at the threshold of Great Lent, and prepare ourselves for the struggle of the long journey towards Pascha, the Bright Resurrection of Christ. Again, after another year of sinful falls, defeat by the passions, and entanglement with all the pleasures and distractions of the world, we strive once more, with Christ’s help, to lay for ourselves a good beginning. Because of our human weakness and our feeble hearts which so often seem to change with the wind, it is necessary for us each day, each hour, each minute to strive to make this good beginning, but each year on this day in particular we are given the opportunity to lay a good foundation for the Lenten season of repentance which is about to begin.

In the church hymns for this day we commemorate the expulsion of Adam from Paradise; he is vividly portrayed to us sitting outside the Garden of Eden, weeping for his great sin and for all that he has lost. But these hymns are often sung in the first person; for like Adam, all of us have sinned, all of us have been cast out by God, all of us weep for our lost homeland. But unlike Adam, we weep for what we have never known. We long for the heavenly kingdom, but we ourselves have never been there. We have only known this broken life, full of empty pleasures, of toil, of the innumerable snares of the enemy and the terrible wickedness of men.

It may seem strange to us that this day, commemorating the curse and the exile of all mankind, should also bear the name of Forgiveness Sunday. It may seem hard to us that we must undergo – over and over again – the hard struggle and bitter toil of the Lenten fast in order to reach the joyful Paschal night. It may seem inexplicable to us that we all must spend a lifetime in a world full of such terrible misery, evil, and sin – subjected year after year to the cruelty and callousness of those around us and to the raging passions within our own souls – all in order to reach a paradise that we have probably never even glimpsed. Like the disciples, when we see reality of the wicked world and the wretchedness of our own sinful hearts, we can sometimes only cry out: “Lord, who then can be saved?”

Yet it is precisely in our exile that God has provided us the only possible path to return. It was nothing other than His great mercy and compassion which exiled us from our ancestral paradise into this world of suffering. As Abba Dorotheos teaches, upon seeing mankind’s fall into sin, the Lord said: “man is mad; he does not know how to be happy, unless he experiences evil days he will go away and completely perish.” If the prodigal son had gone into the far country and there experienced great prosperity, peace, and happiness, he would almost certainly never have returned to the Father’s house – nor indeed have even remembered it at all. And what is more, if the Lord had not allowed us to be subjected to physical death as well as to suffering, if we had been born to live eternally in this fallen world experiencing nothing but good times and earthly happiness, then we would likely never have realized the cause of our inner spiritual misery, our lives would have been totally deprived of any real meaning, and we would have spent all eternity in total separation from God.

And so it turns out that even the curse of God is for us only a blessing. As St. Ephraim the Syrian writes, “the staves with which Thou punishest are carved from the wood of Thy loving-kindness.” The Lord does nothing out of vindictiveness, for in Him there is only mercy and compassion.

So let us remember this during the coming fast, and indeed for the rest of our lives: that every temptation, every pain and sorrow, every sickness of body and even every sinful fall is allowed by a loving God in order to turn us toward Him, to remind us that this world is not our home, that without Him our life is only a fleeting shadow and a passing dream. Let us bow our necks and accept with tears of gratitude the blows and chastisements given to us by a loving Father for the sake of our eternal healing and happiness. And then let us lift up our eyes from this broken world and see shining before us the Bright Day of Pascha, and let us never forget that the road upon which God is guiding us is the only one that can lead us home. Amen.

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