Wednesday March 10, 2021 / February 25, 2021
St. Tarasius, archbishop of Constantinople (806). New Hieromartyr Alexander, priest, Virgin-Martyr Mstislava (1938). New Hieromartyr Nicholas priest (1945)
Here it is in a nutshell: If you hesitate to come to Forgiveness Vespers this Sunday because someone you are mad at might be there -someone you haven’t made up with, someone you have not apologized to, someone you have not forgiven – if you die like this, get hit by a truck or get shot on the way home (you readers who are not in the United States, please understand), you’ll probably go to Hell. If there is anyone you haven’t forgiven, your salvation is in danger.
Because of this Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 6:14-21), the day is popularly called Forgiveness Sunday. Orthodox in the Slavic tradition normally serve Forgiveness Vespers, as do an increasing number of Greek and Antiochian Orthodox parishes. This is a beautiful way to enter Great Lent. At the end of Vespers, all come forward and one by one ask each other’s forgiveness: “Forgive me a sinner.” “Forgive me a sinner.” as we exchange the peace in the Orthodox way. Western Ash Wednesday is individualistic and a bit forbidding. One by one people receive the ashes and are told, “Remember, O man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” And that’s the truth. It’s good to remember our mortality as we begin Lent. The Orthodox entrance into Lent is communal and sweet, filled with love and forgiveness. I think it is an even better way to begin Lent.
Forgiveness: “If you forgive men their trespasses your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive men their trespasses neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Is that clear enough? And it’s no secret, for every day were pray this terrifying prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Lord, if I refuse to forgive someone, please don’t forgive me. Lord, if I hold a grudge against someone, please hold a grudge against me. We hear this again and again in the New Testament. Take the parable of the wicked servant who was forgiven a huge debt by his master, but who refused to forgive his fellow servant a small debt, The master was angry and had him killed! And, says Jesus, “so will my heavenly Father do to you if you do not forgive your brothers from your heart.” (Matthew 18:35) Again is that clear enough? And it’s true. God has built it into the nature of things that a hard heart can kill our immortal soul, and as we go dead on the inside, Hell can begin even on this side of death.
Also this Sunday before you go into Lent, if there is anyone you have not apologized to, apologize. Say “I’m sorry”. Be tough on yourself: Say it, or write it, or e-mail it, or if the person is departed, ask the angels to convey the message. Even if you think you’ve done nothing wrong, if you are at odds with someone and haven’t tried to make up, say: “If I’ve done anything to offend you, I’m sorry.” For the truth is if there is someone you’re not getting along with, likely you were part of the problem – even if you didn’t intend it, even if you don’t know what it was, even if you’re too proud to consider the possibility. My experience after 53 years as a pastor is that most hurts are unintentional. It’s just that people are preoccupied with their own problems or overcome by them, and we just get in the way at the wrong time. Or people mis-speak or mis-act and never notice it. I’ve done a lot of counseling, I’ve heard a lot of confessions, I’ve done a lot of living, I’ve done a lot of unintentional mis-speaking and mis-acting. And I’m convinced that most of the time people who hurt each other did not mean to. The result is that both sides think that the other was in the wrong.
And the fact is, if you have not tried to make up you are in the wrong for precisely that reason, because you haven’t made it clear that you will forgive. Again, I’m convinced that when people don’t apologize to us, often the reason is because they’re afraid if they say it they’ll be rejected, afraid we’ll beat ’em over the head with it. So make it easy for people to apologize. Be like the father of the prodigal son who, before his son could say a word of apology, rushed out to greet him, so his son would know he would be forgiven. Be like God who has rushed out to greet us in our Lord Jesus Christ, so that before we have said even a word of repentance, we already know we will be forgiven.
What if the person who has hurt you never says he’s sorry? Then if he shows any sign of wanting to make up, any sign of being sorry, accept it as an apology. My father was like that; he just could not bring himself to say those words “I’m sorry”. But he would show it in a multitude of ways. OK, that’s good enough. I wish my dad could have said it, but it was obvious he was sorry, and I wish I had more quickly accepted that as an apology, for I knew he loved me. And if you are easy with others, that will make up for the thousand times God has been easy with you, when you never told him you were sorry. Despite that, he has kept pouring out his blessings on you. Be like him. “Be merciful as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36) Do not be like Queen Elizabeth I. She was once angry with someone and was told, “But your majesty, God has forgiven him.” According to the story she replied “God may forgive him, but I never will!” I hope she got over that. I mean, who do we think we are? holier than God? God forgives but we won’t? Forgive easily, quickly.
But what if the other person doesn’t even show a sign of being sorry? What if he’s done you wrong and you’ve given him every opening, and he could not care less? Forgive him anyway .* I don’t mean you should pretentiously, piously, say “I forgive you”. If he’s not interested in making up, don’t waste your breath on him. But if you can’t forgive openly, at least forgive in your heart- not for his sake, but for yours, for the sake of your immortal soul. Because the great danger in not forgiving people, the great danger of spending your life angry at people and holding grudges, is what it will do to you. It will give that unrepentant rat power over you forever. It will allow him to destroy your inner spirit. It will make you miserable. It will keep you from real prayer. You’ll be mouthing prayers but thinking not about God and his love but about that rotten scoundrel and how nasty he was to you. It will distract you from loving. It will corrupt and corrode your spirit, and in the end, if you don’t give it up, it will destroy your soul. The hard heart, holding a grudge, is a foretaste of the misery of Hell. And if you don’t forgive and let it go, finally it will turn into the Real Thing. Don’t let anyone do that to you
- (P.S. Friday February 15. I’ve made it sound too easy. Forgiving can be extremely hard to do. What if the person to be forgiven has just invaded a school and killed your son or daughter? or your grandson or granddaughter? Khouria Dianna and I are now visiting our family in Minnesota, and our younger grandson was afraid to go to school this morning. Or what if the person to be forgiven is a man who has harassed and abused you or your child? How do you forgive? Trying to understand may help some. The kid who shot up the school in Florida yesterday: his father was gone, his adopted father had died, his mother died last November. He was angry and hurt and a gun nut and had unlimited access to as many weapons and as much ammunition as he wanted. Does that help us to understand? A little? Trying to understand and forgive our politicians who won’t even try to find a solution to our gun violence problem in America is more difficult – for me, as least.)
What exactly does it mean to forgive? It does not mean to forget. That’s impossible to do. For as soon as we remember to forget it, we have remembered it again! When people sin against us, it is like a physical pain. If we keep digging into it, it will never heal. The solution is to take the treatment the doctor prescribes till it just goes away and you don’t notice it any more. Likewise when someone sins against us, it is like a wound to the soul, so we must do what the heavenly Physician prescribes: Every time the remembrance of it rises in your heart or mind, immediately forgive, put it down, and do this again and again till finally the pain goes away. Forgiving is a process. When people come to Confession, almost always I ask, “Is there anyone you have not forgiven or are not prepared to forgive?” Sometimes they say, “I’ve tried to forgive, but I think I must not have, because it keeps coming up again. It still hurts.” Then almost always I quote C.S. Lewis who wrote (I paraphrase) that when Christ told Peter to forgive 7 times 7 times, this meant for every sin. Forgive that sin again and again and again and again and again and again and again, and then keep forgiving till the pain is gone, and you’ll hardly even notice when it went away.
Let me tell you 2 of my favorite stories about forgiveness:
1 One Sunday Saint John the Merciful, Patriarch of Alexandria, right in the middle of Divine Liturgy, remembered that there was a priest in the city who was angry at him, with whom he had not made up. And then he remembered the words of our Lord: “If you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift before the altar and go. First make peace with your brother, and then come and lay your gifts before the altar.” (Matthew 5:23-24) So before the Great Entrance, before he placed the Holy Gifts on the altar, Patriarch John left the procession – I wonder how long the poor choir had to keep singing! – and he sent for his brother priest, made peace and only then did he come back to place the Holy Gifts on the altar.
2 There was a monk who had led a less than exemplary life, but nevertheless as he lay on his deathbed was happy as a clam, not worried at all. His fellow monks said: “With the kind of life you’ve led, why aren’t you afraid of dying? afraid of God’s judgment?” The man answered, “Because I have forgiven everyone who ever hurt me, so I know God will have to forgive me.” And he died a happy man.
ST. Tarasius Patriarch of Constantinople
Saint Tarasius, Patriarch of Constantinople was of illustrious lineage. He was born and raised in Constantinople, where he received a fine education. He was rapidly promoted at the court of the emperor Constantine VI Porphyrogenitos (780-797) and Constantine’s mother, the holy Empress Irene (August 7), and the saint attained the rank of senator.
During these times the Church was agitated by the turmoil of the Iconoclast disturbances. The holy Patriarch Paul (August 30) although he had formerly supported Iconoclasm, later repented and resigned his office. He withdrew to a monastery, where he took the schema. When the holy Empress Irene and her son the emperor came to him, Saint Paul told them that the most worthy successor to him would be Saint Tarasius (who at this time was still a layman).
Tarasius refused for a long time, not considering himself worthy of such high office, but he then gave in to the common accord on the condition, that an Ecumenical Council be convened to address the Iconoclast heresy.
Proceeding through all the clerical ranks in a short while, Saint Tarasius was elevated to the patriarchal throne in the year 784. In the year 787 the Seventh Ecumenical Council was convened in the city of Nicea, with Patriarch Tarasius presiding, and 367 bishops attending. The veneration of holy icons was confirmed at the council. Those bishops who repented of their iconoclasm, were again received by the Church.
Saint Tarasius wisely governed the Church for twenty-two years. He led a strict ascetic life. He spent all his money on God-pleasing ends, feeding and giving comfort to the aged, to the impoverished, to widows and orphans, and on Holy Pascha he set out a meal for them, and he served them himself.
The holy Patriarch fearlessly denounced the emperor Constantine Porphyrigenitos when he slandered his spouse, the empress Maria, the granddaughter of Saint Philaretos the Merciful (December 1), so that he could send Maria to a monastery, thus freeing him to marry his own kinswoman. Saint Tarasius resolutely refused to dissolve the marriage of the emperor, for which the saint fell into disgrace. Soon, however, Constantine was deposed by his own mother, the Empress Irene.
Saint Tarasius died in the year 806. Before his death, devils examined his life from the time of his youth, and they tried to get the saint to admit to sins that he had not committed. “I am innocent of that of which you accuse me,” replied the saint, “and you falsely slander me. You have no power over me at all.”
Mourned by the Church, the saint was buried in a monastery he built on the Bosphorus. Many miracles took place at his tomb.
TO GOD THE CREATOR
The Creator radiant, crowned with light,
Described by no one, expressed by nothing:
He raises the wise builders of the Church,
Zealous defenders and good shepherds.
He permits sufferings, because of our sins,
Even though in essence He is Mercy and Goodness.
Just as He prepares the unworkable earth with bitter frost,
Making it workable and ready for crops,
In the same way He mellows our hearts with bitter sufferings,
But by His tender hand leads all to good.
Through the darkness of sin, He gazes into the light,
And after a designated time He no longer permits the darkness to linger.
He discerns joy through sorrow and tears.
He sees the end of every beginning,
For He began all, desires to complete all.
Who will oppose Him when He commands?
One would say He is weak, for He adroitly conceals Himself:
With a shadow of a deed, He conceals and blocks the view of Himself.
When the shadow passes and the world reaches its end,
And the Church triumphant is lifted to heaven,
Then the Sun of Righteousness, which is never extinguished,
Will cover Himself with the Church, as with porphyry.
A Christian is similar to a betrothed maiden. As a betrothed maiden continually thinks about her betrothed, so the Christian continually thinks about Christ. Even if the betrothed is far away beyond ten hills, it is all the same: the maiden behaves as though he is constantly by her and with her. She thinks about him, sings to him, talks about him, dreams about him and prepares gifts for him. A Christian behaves in the same way toward Christ. As the betrothed maiden knows that she first must leave and distance herself from the home where she was born to meet and totally unite with her betrothed, so the Christian knows that he cannot totally unite with Christ until death separates him from the body, that is, from the material home in which his soul resides and has grown from birth.
Contemplate the Lord Jesus sitting in the boat, teaching the people on the shore (Mark 4:1).
1. How a great multitude of people crowded around to hear Him, so that He had to enter the boat;
2. How He taught them in parables about the sower, the seed and the ground, i.e., by those comparisons and examples which, day in and day out, have been repeated from the beginning of the world and will be repeated until the end;
3. How He does not teach them with the aid of some rare and strange events, but with ordinary ones, which entered into time along with man and will exit time along with him.
on the impossibility of secrets
“For there is nothing hid, which shall not be manifested” (Mark 4:22).
All the secret works of man will be revealed one day. None of man’s works can be hidden. The Jews thought that they could conceal from God the slaying of so many prophets, and that their bloody, villainous deed against Christ could be hidden from God and man. However, that which they thought to hide has become a daily and nightly tale, both in the heavens and on earth for thousands of years.
Judas thought to hide the traitorous agreement he had made against his Lord, but the Lord discerned this agreement and declared it to his face. Jesus said to him, ‘Judas, betrayest thou the Son of Man with a kiss?‘ (Luke 22:48).
The Lord also discerned the hearts of the Pharisees and read their evil thoughts. Wherefore think ye evil in your hearts? (Matthew 9:4). What works, what things, what events in this world can be hidden from Him Who sees and reveals even the most secret thoughts in the hearts of men?
For there is nothing hid, which shall not be manifested. Because of this we need to fear, and because of this we need to rejoice. To fear–for all of our secret evil deeds, evil desires and evil thoughts will be brought out into the open. To rejoice–for all the good that we have performed, desired or thought in secret will be brought out into the open. If it is not brought out into the open before men, it will be brought out before the heavenly angels. The greater the fear for sinners, the greater the joy for the righteous.
O Lord, Lover of mankind, forgive us our sins and do not announce them for our destruction and to the sorrow of Thy holy angels.
To Thee be glory and praise forever. Amen.