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The Way Home
A Sermon on Forgiveness Sunday
My brothers and sisters, we have reached today the threshold of Great Lent; tomorrow the “gates of repentance” will once again be opened to us, in answer to our solemn prayers during the Sunday Matins services of the past month. This Sunday has three names. The first is “Cheesefare Sunday,” since it is the last day on which we will eat dairy until the night of the Lord’s Pascha. It is also called “Forgiveness Sunday,” since tonight we will all gather in church to fulfill the commandment of the Lord which we have just heard in today’s Gospel: “if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” But the third and final name of this Sunday is the “Commemoration of the Expulsion of Adam from Paradise.”
Last Sunday, the “Sunday of the Dread Judgment,” the Holy Church commanded us to meditate on the ultimate things and the end of time, when all of us must at long last come face to face with God. And today, the Church commands us to meditate on the first things and the beginning of time, when our First Parents Adam and Eve fled from before the face of God. Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) believed that to truly understand man’s existence, to truly comprehend how we ought to live our lives in this world, it is first of all necessary “to know the beginning and end of all things.” And as we ourselves prepare to enter into the arena of battle with our own sins and passions, as we begin the struggle to turn away from this fallen world and back toward the Kingdom of God, we must strive to understand how exactly it was that we first lost Paradise, and how our human nature suffered its first fall from grace.
Of course, the story is doubtless well known to all of us. But all too often our familiarity with Scripture actually hinders us from truly understanding it. Perhaps when we hear the priest or deacon begin to read the Gospel lesson, immediately our mind says: “Ah yes, it is this parable that we will hear today,” and then begins to idly think about absolutely anything else. Or perhaps we are able to pay attention, but because we have heard it so many times before we unconsciously assume that we already know all about it, that it is somehow not necessary to pray fervently to God to allow us to hear and understand it more deeply, so that it will truly begin to penetrate the hardness of our hearts. Therefore on this Sunday, let us beseech God to help us worthily receive this final and supremely important lesson which the Holy Church is giving us at the outset of the Great Fast.
So how exactly did Adam and Eve lose Paradise? Yes, they chose obedience to the Devil and disobedience to the Lord, they broke the fast ordained by God and ate of the forbidden fruit, the one thing in all of Creation which was not freely given to them from the beginning. But, my brothers and sisters, let us note well: though from that moment “the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Gen. 3:7), nevertheless they remained yet in Paradise. And though they “hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden” (Gen. 3:8), nevertheless when God called them into His presence He did not immediately cast them out, nor did He even show forth any wrath or fiery indignation! No, He rather came to them as a loving father comes to his injured children, gently calling them by name and asking them how such an injury had befallen them. And it was perhaps only then that the final and complete Fall of Man occurred: for instead of humbly acknowledging their fault and begging for the forgiveness which God would certainly have not withheld, they instead began to justify themselves, even to the point of blaming God Himself for their sin! And so perhaps it is not too bold to say that while it was through disobedience that mankind first fell, it was through self-justification that mankind truly lost Paradise.
And even till this day, self-justification remains just as much a complete and inviolable barrier between a Christian and the Kingdom of God. Even our most grievous sins are no obstacle to our Christianity (as St. Herman of Alaska witnesses); there is no sin which God cannot forgive, there is no possible transgression which can drive God’s ineffable love and mercy away from us. But if we ourselves stubbornly cling to our sin, if we obstinately refuse to allow God to offer us His forgiveness, then He will not force us to receive it in violation of our free will. This is why the Holy Fathers tell us that the only unforgivable sin is the unrepented sin. And what is self-justification, other than the stubborn insistence that we have no need of repentance?
But alas, just as mankind has continued to hide from the face of God ever since that fateful day in Eden, so too we have persisted in placing the blame for our countless troubles, misfortunes, and sorrows absolutely anywhere other than on our own shoulders. Indeed, humanity’s cries of accusation, fault-finding and blame have perhaps never reached such a fever pitch as they have now in our own day. From behind the safety and anonymity of our electronic screens, we eagerly heap scorn, indignation, hatred, vitriol and disgust upon one another in a worldwide frenzy that cannot possibly be called anything other than demonic. We immediately and insistently call to account other people, other parties, and other nations for every real and imagined fault under the sun; moreover, we are convinced that such mercilessness is itself the true path to justice, that somehow it is only through the proper assigning of blame that paradise can return once again to this earth. And in the blindness of such folly, when tragedy strikes or when disaster befalls almost never does it even occur to us to think: “Perhaps I too had a hand in this. Perhaps my own sins have been a cause of this.” And so an untold multitude of the sins and transgressions of mankind remain unrepented and unhealed.
How many countless centuries of unspeakable human misery could have been prevented, had our First Parents Adam and Eve simply accepted responsibility and asked for forgiveness! But I do not by any means say this to lay it all at their feet, for every single one of us has also played our own part in this tragedy; every single one of us has also refused, over and over again, to accept responsibility and to ask for forgiveness.
My brothers and sisters, let it no longer be so among us. Though it is all but certain that, despite our best efforts and intentions, we will still fall into many sins and passions during the season of the Great Fast, let us nevertheless at least resolve one thing during Lent: never to speak a single word of self-justification or blame. Let us begin, here and now, to at long last accept responsibility for ourselves, and to show the same mercy and forbearance to others that we desire God to show to us.
This is a difficult challenge, and perhaps we will fail in this too. But even if we do — even if we fail throughout Great Lent and throughout all our lives, at countless times in countless ways — God has promised us that He will always offer us a way back: and that way is simply to forgive, and to ask forgiveness.
The way back home to Paradise is, as it turns out, precisely the same way by which we left it. We justified ourselves, and we blamed one another, and so we lost Paradise and found ourselves here among the thorns and thistles of this life. But the grace of Christ has taken away the fiery sword that guarded the gates of Eden, and the entrance has been flung open for all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve who wish to finally go back home. And the voice of Christ calls out in today’s Gospel, for all to hear, that all we need to do in order to get there is to forgive, and to ask forgiveness.
So, my beloved brothers and sisters, from the bottom of my heart I beg you to forgive me, a sinner, all my countless sins, offenses, and failures! Through His grace, may God forgive and have mercy on us all. Amen.