Forgiveness Sunday


Matthew 6:14-15

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Genesis 45:4-15

So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; do not tarry. You shall dwell in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, and your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. There I will provide for you, for there are yet five years of famine to come, so that you and your household, and all that you have, do not come to poverty.’ And now your eyes see, and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see, that it is my mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father of all my honor in Egypt, and of all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them. After that his brothers talked with him.


Alexander Schmemann, “Forgiveness Sunday”

Now, forgiveness stands at the very center of Christian faith and of Christian life because Christianity itself is, above all, the religion of forgiveness. God forgives us, and His forgiveness is in Christ, His Son, Whom He sends to us, so that by sharing in His humanity we may share in His love and be truly reconciled with God. Indeed, Christianity has no other content but love. And it is primarily the renewal of that love, a return to it, a growth in it, that we seek in Great Lent, in fasting and prayer, in the entire spirit and the entire effort of that season. Thus, truly forgiveness is both the beginning of, and the proper condition for the Lenten season.

One may ask, however: Why should I perform this rite when I have no “enemies”? Why should I ask forgiveness from people who have done nothing to me, and whom I hardly know? To ask these questions, is to misunderstand the Orthodox teaching concerning forgiveness. It is true, that open enmity, personal hatred, real animosity may be absent from our life, though if we experience them, it may be easier for us to repent, for these feelings openly contradict Divine commandments. But, the Church reveals to us that there are much subtler ways of offending Divine Love. These are indifference, selfishness, lack of interest in other people, of any real concern for them — in short, that wall which we usually erect around ourselves, thinking that by being “polite” and “friendly” we fulfill God’s commandments. The rite of forgiveness is so important precisely because it makes us realize – be it only for one minute – that our entire relationship to other men is wrong, makes us experience that encounter of one child of God with another, of one person created by God with another, makes us feel that mutual “recognition” which is so terribly lacking in our cold and dehumanized world.


At one and the same time, Forgiveness Sunday and Judgment Sunday stand in stark contrast and harmonious unity. It is necessary that we should all first recognize that we stand under judgment before we can truly appreciate forgiveness. Because we so often live as if we have no sin, as if our “politeness” and “friendliness” satisfied God’s ethical demands, we often pay lip service to our need for forgiveness. We sing about it in our songs and preach about it from our pulpits, but we live our lives like people constantly wronged by everything from our government to the person in front of us in the express line at Wal*mart with twenty-two items. We are so busy feeling aggrieved that we forget to grieve for the sins that we commit against God and against one another.

It would seem that Fr. Schmemann and the Joseph cycle represent two ends of the full continuum of the human capacity both for evil and forgiveness. On the one hand, we have a conspiratorial plot to commit fratricide and a brother’s willingness to do better than to forgive and forget when the tables of power are turned. On the other hand there is the somewhat more frightening tendency that we all have to be self-involved and apathetic just beneath the surface. The difference between them is that we all recognize that the former is wrong and have been taught to forgive when we are wronged and (to a lesser to degree) to seek forgiveness when we have wronged another. What Schmemann points out is the pervasive kind of evil that has become so common place that we do not think to seek forgiveness for it anymore.

We’re under the mistaken impression in our society (and I realize that I am beginning to wax philosophic) that to behave rightly toward one another is to behave in such a way that you wish it would be universally mandated that everyone behaved thus. That moral imperative allows for me to be only insincerely polite to you because all I expect or want is your facile kindness in return. God demands more than our cultural expectations, and if we think critically enough about it, we will recognize that we owe more to one another than the kind of honey glazed apathy that we insulate ourselves with.

To recognize this, the Orthodox observe a rite of forgiveness in which they prostrate themselves before one another or before a priest and each asks forgiveness of the other. It is an important gesture performed with the right intention, as it reminds that in approaching Lent it is not only to God that we owe repentance nor only from Him that we seek forgiveness. Instead, it is to our brothers and sisters, our yokefellows, those who bear the image of God and who are being transformed into the image of the Son. We can rest assured, however, that in a community with the Redeemer as its head our forgiveness from other Christians is no less sure than our forgiveness from God.


O Lord give me strength to refrain from the unkind silence that is born of hardness of heart; the unkind silence that clouds the serenity of understanding and is the enemy of peace.
— Cecil Hunt

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