Forgiveness is a central aspect of the Orthodox Way of Life. As we approach Forgiveness Sunday and the beginning of Lent it is worthwhile to reflect on this important virtue.
Jesus tells us "If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you" (Matt 6:14). God's willingness to forgive us is linked with our willingness to forgive others. He also says, "if you do not forgive men their trespasses neither will your father forgive you" (Matt 6:15).
Saint Seraphim of Sarov writes,
Whatever the offense that had been given, you must never try to avenge it. Instead you must all the more try to forgive the offender with your whole heart, even though your heart itself may try to resist you.... Do not nurture hate or malice in your heart toward anyone that hated you. Let us follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ instead, and strive to love our enemies and to do good in return as much as we possible can.Jesus tells us, "love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you" (Matt 5:44). This is a difficult teaching that Jesus has shown us, but is necessary if we are to be joined with Him in love. To not forgive others, blocks us from Him because our heart is clouded by our grudges.
Why is this imperative so hard to follow? Why are we unwilling to forgive others? Are we not sinners also? Do we not what others to forgive us when we fail to act out of love? Do we not want to be united with God in His love?
Unfortunately we are confused by our intellect. I find myself thinking I am superior to others and able to be the judge of others actions when with a little reflection I find I am the greater sinner. Reflect on Job and God's testimony that he turned away evil. Consider how Joseph did not seek revenge against his brothers. Consider Saint Stephen's actions as he was being stoned. All the saints demonstrated this virtue as they were persecuted. Look at your patron saint and see how he or she was able to forgive others. The saints see the evil working in a person and are able to hate the evil but maintain love for the human being.
On Forgiveness Sunday evening there is a vespers service that marks the beginning of Lent. At the end of this service each participant is asked to forgive the others who are assembled. There is an opportunity for each person to ask for forgiveness and to give forgiveness. It is the proper preparation to begin the period of Great Lent, to begin the fast with a heart filled with love, to start the period of self reflection and repentance in humility.
Let us act on what we recite daily in our prayer to the Father, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Let us all search our hearts for all signs of grudges we are holding onto and give them up to Christ.
Alexander Schmemann writes,
To forgive is to put between me and my "enemy" the radiant forgiveness of God himself. To forgive is to reject the hopeless "dead-ends" of human relations and to refer them to Christ. Forgiveness is truly a "breakthrough" of the Kingdom into this sinful world. (Great Lent, p 28)Be sure to attend the forgiveness service in your parish on the Eve of Forgiveness Sunday.