THE Lord said, "If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
"And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father Who is in secret. And your Father Who sees in secret will reward you openly.
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
We read this Gospel lesson on the last Sunday before the start of the Great Lent. This Sunday is called the Sunday of casting out of Adam and Eve from Paradise and Forgiveness Sunday.
This reading is part of a three-chapter section in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew - chapters 5, 6, and 7. This section is also called the Sermon on the Mount, which begins with the Beatitudes ("Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted..."). This particular excerpt talks about forgiveness, fasting, and heavenly treasures.
It is appropriate to talk about forgiveness, especially on Forgiveness Sunday, but also because Jesus was very adamant about it. And the point is very simple and very clear - mutual forgiveness between people is a precondition of God's forgiveness. If we do not forgive others, then God will not forgive us. Period.
Harsh? You bet! How does it fit in with a "God is love" narrative? Very easy. Love does not equal all-permissiveness. From the very beginning, God laid out His terms if we are to be His people and He is to be our God. And to be frank, those terms are not unachievable. One of these terms is "if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."
It is somewhat hard to fulfill it because it is easier to hold grudges and let anger and/or hatred fester in our hearts, then to make a serious effort of forgiving and loving. The ball is in our court, so to speak - if we don't forgive it's not that God won't forgive us, rather we reject His forgiveness.
Great Lent begins with Forgiveness Vespers, which will be served in our parish right after fellowship and coffee hour. The service is not too long, maybe 30 minutes, at the end of which we do a Rite of Forgiveness, where we ask forgiveness from each other and exchange a kiss of peace (a triple kiss on the cheek).
Why do we ask forgiveness from each other, even when there might be a chance that there will be a person I never met, and hence could not have offended? Because sin, while a person transgression, also has cosmic effects. No sin is completely personal, every individual sin contributes to general sinfulness of humanity. Therefore, we ask forgiveness from each other in general, and especially from those whom we truly offended and hurt.
We enter Great Lent having asked forgiveness, and then spend this period of fasting working on our hearts and brains, trying to teach them to forgive, trying to root out hatred or animosity. The heart and brain are muscles, and just like other muscles in our bodies, they can be trained to behave properly, not only during Great Lent, but for the rest of our life after that.
Pick a virtue to train you muscles (both physical and spiritual) during for this Great Lent. Forgiveness is always a good virtue to train for. Don't reject God's forgiveness.
Your in Christ,