On the Sunday of Cheese Fare
Sermon Preached by Father Antony Hughes on Sunday, February 22, 2004
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
"What is the good of keeping a fast for forty days without considering the meaning of it?" The answer is that there is no good in it at all. It is better not to keep the fast than to do it thoughtlessly. And what is the meaning of the fast? It is to nurture the good that is in us and put to death that which is not, to increase in ourselves the likeness to God.
"I aspire," writes St. Gregory Nazianzen, "to be purified as gold in the fire." If that is our desire, then we must begin somewhere and there is no better place than with forgiveness. Do we wish to be purified? First we must lay aside all malice towards others. The connection in Matthew's Gospel between forgiveness and fasting is clear. Remember what we read today? The movement between the admonition to forgive so that we might be forgiven and the words, "When you fast…" is seamless and intentional. Immediately after the Lord teaches his disciples to pray, he teaches them how to fast. If we are going to pray we must be ready also to fast. That is why the Church call us all on this eve of the Great Fast to attend a service that centers not only on beautiful hymns about repentance and forgiveness, but on an action in which we can all take part. "Faith without works is dead," writes St. James. Forgiveness without action is not forgiveness.
Giving and receiving forgiveness is an action that purifies and that opens the door for even greater things. The more the soul is filled with God the more He calls it to move further beyond. If we refuse to forgive, it is not that God is unable to forgive us. Forgiveness shines from the Cross for all whether we desire it or not. But if we refuse to forgive, then we cannot know forgiveness for ourselves. We will not recognize what it is when it comes. "In thy light we shall see light," we sing every Sunday because only in God can we know God. So it is with forgiveness. Only by forgiving can we recognize and come to embrace forgiveness and if we are in God, then forgiveness flows from us. It is a movement that goes both ways. For if forgiveness does not flow from us to others, then it is a sign that we have not embraced it for ourselves.
The services of Great Lent are beautiful. The hymns are exquisite and moving. Even though Lent is a time of repentance and spiritual effort the hymns are never dismal and morbid. Shining through them all is the knowledge that nothing can overcome the goodness, light and grace of God, not my sin, not yours, not all the cruelty and corruption in the world. Listen to these words that greet us at the beginning of every Great Lent.
The Lenten spring has come,
The light of repentance,
Brethren, let us cleanse ourselves from all evil, crying
Out to the Giver of Light:
Glory to Thee, O Lover of all.
A young family man called me this week. He and his wife are seriously considering Orthodoxy. They have icons in their home, but frankly could not understand why they should be venerated. One night their little seven year old daughter asked her father about a deisis of Christ and His Mother. "What is in there?" she asked. "The Lord Jesus and the Virgin Mary," he replied. She grabbed the icon and said, "Oh, daddy, they love you so much!" And then to his surprise she kissed it. Then, he said, he understood. "It is all about affection." If you want to know the truth our Faith is entirely about affection, affection from God to us and us to God and one another. If we are in God, then our hearts will expand and our capacity for affection will grow beyond anything we ever dreamed possible.
Sisters and brothers, we have all sinned against one another whether by what we have done and even more by what we have left undone. The life of our community depends upon our willingness to obey the Lord and to lay down our lives for one another. So, we are invited to embrace forgiveness by giving and receiving it as we embark together on a great journey to the Cross and the Empty Tomb. This cannot be done in the privacy of our homes. If it is to be real, then we must touch one another. We must look one another in the face and say, "Forgive me." And if we do not know the person in front of us and feel there is nothing to forgive, then remember, every sin is a sin against all. Every sin we commit is a wound inflicted on the Body of Christ and that Body is made up of every Orthodox Christian and because humanity is one our sins reverberate to every man, woman and child.
We must begin somewhere. Forgiveness is as good a place as any, and if we believe the Gospel, perhaps even the best and most necessary place.