In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is in our midst! He is and shall be! Today we finally have the day we’ve been anticipating for several weeks now, the beginning of Great Lent—Forgiveness Sunday. In the Gospel and Epistle lessons, we get the final instructions, so to speak, for our fasting. Forgive one another. And don’t let people know that you’re fasting—clean yourself up and go about your business just like you always do. We’re not supposed to make a big deal out of our Lenten journey to anyone other than ourselves. What I do for Christ is something that only the two of us know about. If I go around bragging, or looking all miserable so people know what I’m doing, then I’m falling into that trap we talked about last week. My eyes aren’t on Christ—I’m just doing it all for myself. “Look how holy I can be…” And then anything I might do will only be for my damnation. So the Father’s use the Gospel to set this guideline in front of us today for our fasting. And they don’t mention rules and regulations—they mention the condition of our hearts. It’s also incredibly important to note that the Fathers, at the very outset of the Fast, draw our minds to forgiveness. And certainly related to forgiveness—our repentance—something we’ll be singing and praying constantly for the next 40 days. One of the desert fathers was asked what it meant to be a Christian, and his response was, “It means to be forgiven.” To forgive and to be forgiven is central to the life of the Christian. We would have no hope without the promise of God forgiving our sins. And life on this earth would be unbearable misery if we didn’t forgive each other. The Fathers highlight forgiveness as we are about to begin the Lenten struggle because we need to understand that without forgiveness there can be no change, no spiritual growth. Lent is all about growing closer to Christ, putting off the old man and being clothed in the new. But in fact, without striving to forgive and asking for forgiveness from God and one another there can be no salvation. The Lord says that mercy will be shown only to the merciful and forgiveness only to the forgiving. Our Gospel reading this morning specifically said—“if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive…neither will your heavenly Father forgive you.” Forgiveness is necessary in our spiritual life, is necessary for our salvation. Most of us have experienced the sweetness of being forgiven, and of forgiving, and it is a kind of paradise. It is a brief taste of heaven to stand within the mercy of forgiveness—a paradise to be in a right relationship with God and one another. To shed all that’s calculating and defensive and guilty and to savor a moment of relief, of honesty and openness. To have a clear conscience, to regain—even if briefly—an almost infant-like innocence and purity. The same reality we should leave Confession with is also present when we forgive. The reality of all being made right—of everything being what it’s supposed to be. It’s no mistake that in addition to the theme of forgiveness, this Sunday also commemorates the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise. The fall of our first parents is the source of our own sense of exile and alienation. Of the division and separation that we experience in our relationships with God and one another. And this brings us to another important aspect of this evening’s service of forgiveness. Not only do we transgress one another by specific sins, but the Fathers teach that every sin of every human being has an effect on the entire cosmos. When I sin, I bring evil into being. And every time I bring evil into creation, the weight of this evil bears down on everything. That’s why the Church says there are no private sins, no individual sins. Even if I sin in secret, because I am united to this creation, my sin has a cosmic effect. Every sin contributes to the fracturing of our creation. To our alienation from our Creator. So when we bow before one another this evening and say, “Forgive me,” not only are we asking to be forgiven for specific sins against individuals. We’re asking each and every person present to forgive me for all that I have contributed to evil in the world. Forgive me for my every sin, because every time I sin, I hurt you. We’re asking forgiveness of everyone in the Temple, symbolically of everyone in the world, we’re asking forgiveness for being sinners. And what a joy it is to hear, time and time again, “May God forgive you.” This forgiveness of sins, according to the teaching of St. Ephraim the Syrian, is not an external exoneration, not a forgetting of the sins, but rather their complete undoing and their annihilation. The effect of the sin is destroyed in forgiveness. In this earthly life, only in rare moments do we have a passing glimpse of the paradise for which we were created and which is our true home. Mutual forgiveness is one of these critical moments. I pray that tonight will be the beginning of a Lenten journey marked by many moments when the veil is lifted and the distance that separates us from paradise is diminished. Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!

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