As we today come to the threshold of the blessed and solemn period of Great Lent, the Sacred Gospel presents us with the following words of the Lord on fasting:
“And whenever ye are fasting, cease being as the hypocrites…who [fast] in such a manner that they might appear to men fasting. Verily I say to you that they have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest…[do so] that thou mightest not appear to men fasting, but to thy Father who is in secret; and thy Father, who seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly”.
We heard the same thing said in yesterday’s Gospel concerning almsgiving and prayer.
Similarly, the Apostle Paul tells us in today’s Epistle reading that:
“Let not the one who eateth despise him who eateth not, and let not the one who eateth not judge him who eateth; for God hath taken him to himself. Who art thou who judgeth another’s servant? To his own Lord he standeth or falleth”.
In other words, our fasting will have no value whatsoever if it is accompanied or motivated by pride and ego, or if it causes us to condemn and judge our neighbour. The demons always fast (spirits don’t eat), sinners help and lend to others (but in expectation of reward), and hypocrites prayer for hours on end (but so as to win the respect and admiration of others). Therefore, if our fasting is not accompanied by love and humility, if it doesn’t have as its goal the freedom from sinful passions, our union with God and our reconciliation with our neighbour, then these blessed tools of salvation (fasting, almsgiving and prayer) will not bring us any benefit.
The primary message of today’s reading, however, is the need for forgiveness, which is presented not merely as a virtue, not only as a prerequisite for fasting, but as one of the spiritual world’s natural laws. “If ye forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if ye forgive not men their transgressions, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions”.
As you might know, the Greek word for forgiveness (sygchōresis) comes from the prefix syn (which means ‘with’) and chōreō (which means ‘to make room’). In other words, it means to share the same space with someone else. This is why we cannot simultaneously speak of true forgiveness without nearness. It is a contradiction to say, “I forgive them, but I don’t wish to see them again”.
The word used in today’s Gospel is not sychōresis, but afesis, which basically means to let go. But the meaning is the same, because to truly let go means that you no longer hold any negative feelings towards the person who wronged you, it means that nothing remains in your heart that takes up the space that should be reserved for the other, nothing that prevents that person from sharing that space. And so, the two words point to the same thing.
And when we exclude our brother in this way, we also exclude God. The Apostle of Love, St John the Evangelist, says in his first epistle: “If anyone should say, ‘I love God’, and be hating his brother, he is a liar”. Therefore, if we do not forgive our brother, nor will we be able to share the same space as the God who created and loves him.
In the person of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, we truly see the union of different elements (the created with the uncreated, the human with the divine), but not of incompatible ones. The absolute love of God for every human person cannot coexist with our resentment, bitterness or hatred towards our brother.
We must make a choice. We must either let go of whatever we have against our brother so as to enter the presence of God, which is what Paradise is, or we hold on to those things but remain outside of that Paradise of God’s presence.
This is the choice the Church sets before us on this day, “when we commemorate the exile of the first-formed man Adam from Paradise”. Our Lord has opened the gates of Paradise for us; indeed, all of Lent seeks to convey this message: that our heart can become a paradise. But we have to let go of those things that take up the space in our hearts that belong to God and to love, so that he can share that space with us. Amen.
Fr Kristian Akselberg