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Cheesefare Sunday

Forgiveness Sunday
By Fr. Alexander Schmemann

The last day before Great Lent has always been popularly known as "Forgiveness Sunday." On that day these words of Christ are read, "If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Mt 6:15). In church that evening, each person asks forgiveness of everyone else in the "rite of forgiveness," so that we enter Lent, the time of cleansing, deepening and sanctifying our life, reconciled with one another.

Conscience is that mysterious depth within our mind that brings remorse and passionate desire for cleansing, rebirth and correction. Remorse, precisely, is the voice of conscience, and it brings us to the first step on the road to cleansing, to the desire to forgive and be forgiven, to this very "forgiveness" Sunday. Why? Why do forgiveness and the thirst for forgiveness enter us so clearly the moment our conscience is aroused, as its foremost demand? The answer is that conscience also reveals to us that the very essence of evil and falsehood is division, that it is guilt before other human beings.

Dostoevsky said through the elder Zosima that "Each is guilty of everything before everyone." At first glance these words seem not only grossly exaggerated, but simply absurd. "How am I guilty before others?," our offended reason, our "outer" mind, asks deflantly. As far as "morality" is concerned, our reason can probably agree that yes, somehow, I am in fact guilty toward someone, but, it adds comfortingly, isn't that just part of life? Let's allow reason to doubt, let's even allow morality to explain and rationalize. But let's also listen to conscience: there, deep, deep within us a quiet voice says so firmly, so insistently, "guilty." What is this guilt about? No, it's not about particular offenses and quarrels, which are, I think, quite unavoidable. It's not about trivial squabbles or petty irritations. No, this guilt which so suddenly and so obviously becomes apparent to me has its source elsewhere: in my own life, so thoroughly permeated with self love. The guilt therefore, is focused on myself; the "other" and "others" have really nothing to do with it, except insofar as they simply become means to an end. Even our love is poisoned from within, mutilated by "selfishness," as if even in love we could possess the loved one for ourselves alone.

It is the conscience, only the conscience, which suddenly reveals to us with ruthless clarity the whole world as the struggle of everyone against everyone else, a struggle which consumes life from beginning to end. Only in feeling this and becoming aware of it can we begin to hear inwardly the truth of Dostoevsky's words, "Each is guilty of everything before everyone." We can begin then to hear as well the truth of other words said before Dostoevsky, by Saint Seraphim of Sarov: "Save yourself, and thousands around you will be saved ... " Save yourself: but this means precisely to save yourself first of all from this primordial slavery to division, from this inner divorce from life and from people, from this conscious or unconscious state of struggle in which we live.

To forgive and be forgiven! This is exactly how we turn from division to unity, from hostility to love, from separation to unification. But to forgive is not simply to ignore shortcomings, as we so often claim, or worse, to altogether dismiss others with the wave of a hand as hopeless and not worth the trouble. Forgiveness does not mean indifference or scorn or cynicism. Only someone who has suddenly realized with all his soul the full horror of love's absence from the world, who has felt the bottomless grief of that loneliness to which man has condemned himself by his self-affirmation and self-love— only they are capable of forgiving and being forgiven.

All of this is expressed, all of this is heard in the Church's prayer of Forgiveness Sunday: "Turn not your face away from your child, for I am afflicted ... " There it is, that bright sadness, which alone enables us to finally understand the root, essence and power of evil: cold hearts, withered love, and the triumph in this world of individual self-affirmation, which can only end in isolation and loneliness. We pray for forgiveness, we thirst to be forgiven ... In the same way that a little child who wrongs his mother longs for the lost paradise of her love, so each of us knows that the destruction of evil begins with this conversion of soul, with this softening of heart, with this thirst for reconciliation. And therefore, no matter how far this seems from our cold, cruel life, in which the binding force of the "collective" tightens rather than tempers each person's loneliness, no matter how foreign this seems to the very spirit of our times, it is only here, in the power of conscience, in the thirst for forgiveness and conversion of soul, that we find the beginning of our spiritual rebirth.

 


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