This is the final Sunday preparing us for the period of Great Lent: tomorrow begins what are to be the most intense weeks of the year dedicated to reflection, penance, and reconciliation.
I imagine it as if we’ve been checked by a Lifeguard as we stand on a cliff’s edge, about to plunge into the deep sea waters below: goggles?, noseplug?, lifejacket?; repeat swimming directives one more time … (check, check, check …)
As we are about to plunge into Lent, the lessons of the prior weeks reappear today in fresh forms, ensuring that we are equipped with all the safety features available to keep us from drowning.
This Sunday’s Gospel reminds us that we have fallen out with God—as Adam and Eve had in the Garden. Sinfulness obscures our knowledge of God. But our contemplation of our shortcomings, troubles, sorrow, is imbued with the hope and joy of the Resurrection.
Hence, this Sunday of the Expulsion from Paradise, is also known as Forgiveness Sunday. Last Sunday’s parable told us that our interaction with others, even the most destitute, are interactions with Christ. Today we are reminded that God’s forgiveness is manifest in our forgiveness of each other.
Forgiveness, truly forgiving one another is a powerful force against isolation, division, opposition, hatred—in short, the wages of sin. In the words of A. Schmemman: “To forgive is to put between me and my “enemy” the radiant forgiveness of God Himself.”
How fitting that this Sunday of Forgiveness is the day we bless the entrance to our church for the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Mercy, from Biblical texts, means so much more than simply leniency. The term mercy encompasses a loving kindness that is gratuitous, undeserved, generous, life-giving. After, today’s Liturgy we’ll also take part in the Vesper Rite of Forgiveness, asking each other for pardon. We enter into Lent as a community united in our commitment to be Christ in our world, our society, our everyday lives in K-W. The doors of Mercy are a symbol of our desire to take the plunge into the deepness of Love. “Lord have mercy”, we pray. In other words, “Lord, hold us in the comfort and strength of your embrace.”
Most often, Great Lent is associated with fasting. This Sunday is called “Cheesefare” because traditionally this would be the last day for eating any dairy products until Easter Sunday. Last Sunday, “Meatfare” marked the day to stop meat and eggs. The practice of abstinence from foods is intended to help us refocus our attention to our relationship with God. Stepping outside of our comfort zone with something as normal (and essential) as our eating habits is one way of changing our perspective towards our way of being. However, significantly, the readings from our prelenten Sundays repeatedly tell us that we are not to flaunt our fasting, make others uncomfortable with it, nor judge the practice of others. Fasting in our Faith Tradition is not a goal in itself. Fasting has only one goal: to help us focus on Christ so that we reflect His Spirit. As Paul told the Galatians, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (5: 22-23). If fasting doesn’t help us be better people, it has no virtue in itself.
These lessons from the prelenten Sunday Liturgies are fundamental to our very existence as humans beings—as people with a desire to live with meaning and purpose. I cannot imagine a human interaction, be it at home or work, school, or in a crowd, that isn’t informed by the parables of this period: essentially, let’s live in love. On what will we base every action, decision, choice, as we move through each day? Will we care for how we look to others? Or will we care about others?