Vespers of Forgiveness: Talk

Forgiveness Sunday

A talk by Archimandrite Zacharias Zacharou
of the Sacred Monastery of St John the Baptist, Essex

Today we are entering Great Lent, which is, first and foremost, a time for the Christian to work upon his heart and engage in divine commerce,[1] that is, to exchange his temporary and futile life for eternal, inconceivable life and the great mercy of God our Saviour. During this period, he resolutely sets forth ‘without the camp’ of this world,[2] looking unto the ‘Author and Finisher’ of our faith, ‘Jesus Christ risen from the dead’.[3] This is the time for him to desire and seek the presence of God and converse with Him, face to Face. It is the time for him to machinate ways to gain increase in the knowledge of God and become a partaker of eternal life. ‘For this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.’[4]

According to Holy Scripture, a man without a heart is not fit for knowledge: ‘For a heartless man cannot purchase wisdom’.[5] Knowledge of God is not intellectual, but ontological. It is not taught in university departments. It presupposes the loving communion of God with man. If man has not found and cultivated his deep heart, he is unfit for the extraordinary event of God coming to abide within him, which is his purpose, as the Apostle Paul repeatedly emphasises: ‘For ye are the temple of the living God.’[6] ‘Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you’[7] ‘…whose house are we.’[8]

As man was formed in the image and likeness of God, he bears in his chest a heart that requires ‘a noetic and divine sensation’. God has fashioned the heart of each man in a unique and unrepeatable way. The heart is ‘the battle-ground of the spiritual struggle, where war is waged with evil.’[9] It is the place where cosmic evil is defeated: the place where ‘the real life in Christ is lived’,[10] where ‘awesome things are accomplished’; it is the ‘mystical bridechamber’,[11] where an ‘event mightier far than every other happening in the annals of the fallen world occurs— God united in one with man.’[12]

When man finds his deep heart and turns it entirely and unconditionally towards God, the Lord sows the incorruptible seed of His Word within it, seals it with His awesome and almighty Name and illumines it with His perpetual and charismatic presence. Then He turns it into a temple of His Divinity, so it may be like a mirror reflecting His form,

a harp resounding with His love, made to bear His Name and serve His will.

If the heart is deprived of the sensation of God, it atrophies; it becomes hard as stone and dies. When it just performs its role as a muscular pump that sends blood to the members of the body, man becomes useless for God and His eternity. With a closed and fossilised heart, man has no hypostasis, no existence, before God. But when his deep heart is quickened and burning with a divine sensation, man becomes useful and precious in the sight of God.[13] The heavens hearken attentively to the voice of a heart that thirsts for the living God.

The best preparation for man’s presentation in prayer before God is found in a disposition of forgiveness. It softens the heart, making it tender and apt to ‘rub against the energy of God’[14] and to be refashioned by it. This is why the immaculate Church asks her children at the beginning of the Lenten Season, a time stirred up by divine grace, to forgive one another so their hearts may awaken and be freed from the grievous shackles of sin and the passions. From then on, they will be able to collaborate with God in their work of regeneration.

Failing that, if man’s heart remains closed, God turns His face away from him. As a result, all the ascetic struggle of prayer and fasting is annulled and cannot lead to the grace and joy of the Resurrection. Ascetic hardship ends up being only an external pharisaic mode of behaviour, without any value in eternity.

In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, there are stories of monks who were negligent in their ascetic duties. However, because they never judged their brothers and kept a forgiving disposition towards all, they found salvation. Saint Makarios the Great of Egypt was considered a god on earth, not because of his ascetic struggle or his miracle-working, but because, as God covers all the earth, so he covered the faults of others and it was as if he did not see what he saw and did not hear what he heard.[15] Often people face some difficulty in the work of fasting because of physical weakness or illness. But if, on the one hand, they watch their thoughts and do not judge, and on the other, they willingly forgive the misdeeds of others, they are freely saved.

Fasting is of great value because it is done in obedience to a precept of the Church and in this way it preserves the unity of the man of faith with the other members of the Body and makes him a partaker of their gifts. Also, the physical weakness that accompanies it creates pain in the heart. If man has the wisdom to transform this pain into spiritual energy for his converse with God, his prayer will take wings. He will find a point of contact with the Comforting Spirit of God, and his heart will be gladdened by His ineffable consolation.

Nevertheless, fasting is not an end in itself. God has no need of fasting and the physical privation of His creature. Instead He has His eyes constantly fixed on the heart, searching out whether the two great commandments of love, towards God and neighbour, are being fulfilled therein. Forgiveness is the first step upon the ladder of the virtues, and its perfection is foreshadowed in Great Lent. Forgiveness makes man ready for the passage ‘from death to life’, for his entrance into the unspeakable joy of the Resurrection and the light of the eternal Kingdom.

The Lord Himself enjoins mutual forgiveness because it is a condition for man’s converse with God face to Face. It is the only way to open the heart to the grace of God. One of the petitions of the Lord’s prayer, the prayer which was taught to us by God Himself, is: ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us.’ Forgiveness is required before any presentation is made in prayer, but even more so before the awesome presentation of the faithful Christian in the Divine Liturgy. When man sincerely forgives all things, then, completely unburdened, he unites in his heart the sanctity of prayer and the word of God with the holiness of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of the Lord.

God searches the hearts of His servants. If a man utters with his lips, ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us,’ but in his heart he harbours displeasure, negative feelings, hostility or resentment, it is as if he is saying to God: ‘Take a look at my heart, it cannot forgive, so why should you forgive me my sins?’

Through the commandment of mutual forgiveness, God condescends to man’s level, and as if He were equal with him, He humbly says that if we forgive, we will be forgiven too; of course, if we forgive from the heart. Is it not foolishness and naïveté to refuse to forgive the small, relative, and finite transgressions of one’s neighbor, if one knows that in so doing one will receive forgiveness for the many and grievous crimes of a whole life, which have offended the blameless love of one’s Creator?

Man’s life is overshadowed by divine benefits, whether he knows it or not. Everything is a loan of His goodness, a gift of mercy, a reward of love, even every breath of air, our daily bread, the fact that another day has dawned. Man has all his being on loan from God

On top of his great debt to divine goodness, however, man also bears the infinite debt created by his betrayal of the Father’s love. From the moment sin entered man’s life, almost all his works are blameworthy, imperfect, sinful; they create more debt to God. Who can claim to be absolved of them? Every impulsive act, every thought that grieves His Spirit, every negligence, is a debt.

The ancestral sin has altered the constitution of man’s existence, polluting his nature from the dawn of humanity. Ever since then, everyone is born ‘in sin’ and haunted by the fear of death. This fear makes man egotistical and selfish. In his struggle for survival, he becomes capable of any crime.

Since Adam’s fall, our ancestral debt has been transmitted like an infectious disease to the whole race of men, yet each one adds his personal sins. One sin common to all is the misuse of the talents entrusted to man by God, ‘according to the strength of each’, to trade with them and gain eternal life. God is just and does not expect everyone to produce the same work. Yet He seeks for them to act in such a way that they may fill the vessel of their heart with His grace.

God’s forgiveness for transgressions that have bitterly provoked His goodness and grieved His Spirit is absolute. It remits the debt of myriads of talents. But the forgiveness given by man, even to those who have wronged him, is relative. It is like forgiving a debt of just a hundred pence. Yet when man forgives his neighbour who has saddened him, God responds by richly pouring out the grace of Heaven, which bears witness within him that he is forgiven and seals that he belongs to the Lord.

Concealed within the commandment of mutual forgiveness is the desire that God has to exchange His life for the life of His creature, and to recompense man with ‘things incorruptible for things corruptible, things eternal for things temporal, and things heavenly for things earthly’. The content of man’s heart is his life, and if he offers the whole content of his heart to God, then He will give him ‘all that is His.’[16]He which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully.’[17] An unequal exchange, but full of such tender love for man! Therefore, the condition of man’s reconciliation with God, the disposition of forgiveness, is far from being a harsh obligation, but is rather a sign of the Lord’s searchless mercy, granting man all the eternal treasures of the heavenly Kingdom.

God also ordains forgiveness, because without it it is impossible for man to restore peace with his ‘most violent’ adversary, his conscience.[18] Especially when someone has made a mistake, he needs to humble himself greatly before God and before his brother, so his heart may be freed from any negative energy and taste the peace of Christ.

Following the paradoxical inverted perspective of the Gospel, the Lord does not merely command that a man should seek forgiveness and reconciliation when he himself is to blame, but also when his neighbour, rightly or wrongly, has felt aggrieved because of him. ‘Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.’[19] Only the humble love that forgives all, that ‘beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things’,[20] gives man the courage to offer his gift at the altar of God. Also, humble love makes his sacrifice acceptable.

It is not enough, after all, for man to just forgive the failings of others. He also has to ask forgiveness for his own sins, both voluntary and involuntary. Nor is it enough for a Christian to find grace in his prayer. He must cooperate with the Lord, becoming an instrument of His Providence, so that grace may be extended to all those with whom he comes into contact. And seeking forgiveness becomes a way of transmitting grace.

Especially when man seeks forgiveness from someone who is grieved with him, even though he has not wronged him, the humility of this gesture can touch the heart of the one who feels negative, and a process of renewal can begin in his life. Then the person who humbled himself and asked for forgiveness becomes God’s co-worker in the regeneration of his brother.

Of course, in seeking and granting forgiveness, the Christian must add a portion of love, which like a spark will ignite the extinguished coals in the heart, so that his prayer may rise as incense before God.

The only-begotten and beloved Son of God offered Himself as a sacrifice and became for man redemption, sanctification and salvation. When man accepts Christ as his mediator,[21] and forgives his brother from the heart, he appropriates the fruit of His incomprehensible sufferings, the remission of his transgressions, reconciliation with the Father, and eternal salvation. On the other hand, when he closes his heart and does not forgive others, it is as if he renders the sacrifice of the Cross void; he annuls Christ’s mediation as ‘the Saviour of all men’.[22]

Mutual forgiveness prepares the heart of man to acquire the grace of God’s forgiveness as its content, so that his brother’s life becomes his own life. Yet also the life of God becomes the content of his heart. And the prayer of absolution opens the heart of the believer and enlarges it, so that he may love both God and men to the end. It prepares the heart for the great event of the King of kings and Lord of lords coming to abide within it. This brings man to the divine measure of the Lord’s commandment: ‘Be ye merciful, as your Father also is merciful.’[23]

By fulfilling the commandment of forgiveness, man has the potential to grow into a perfect hypostasis in the image of the hypostasis of the New Adam, Christ, and encompass all of heaven and earth throughout the ages. In other words, mutual forgiveness not only opens the heart of man but prepares it to become the wondrous dwelling place of God, so that strengthened by the love of Christ, he may bring all mankind before God in his prayer of intercession. The Christian is called to begin with a small effort of asceticism, by forgiving the minor sins of his brother. But the end of this asceticism is the divine measure which man acquires when he is united with the Spirit of God and the state of Christ is imparted to him, for then he inherits the unspeakable gift of divine adoption.

Of a surety, it surpasses fallen human nature to forgive the sins of others. From the perspective of our narrow human minds, forgiveness appears to be weakness and folly. Yet divine justice differs from human justice as light differs from darkness. God’s justice is His humble and blameless love ‘unto the end’, which forgives all things. Christians who desire to resist the world’s patterns, to humble themselves, and forgive one another, draw their strength from the example of the Lord on the cross, who prayed at the hour of His extreme humiliation and kenosis: ‘Father, forgive them they know not what they do.’[24] Indeed, if Christ had not spoken this word, repentance would be impossible for man, as would any reconciliation with God.

During Lent, God honours the members of His Body with the privilege of renewing their lives. This period is meant to be a presentation in prayer before God in repentance and voluntary spiritual mourning. But the Lord gives in return the incorruptible consolation of His Spirit, abundantly, ‘not by measure’,[25] and fills the hearts of His faithful servants with His spotless love, the only love that bestows upon us life and resurrection.

[1] Matt. 22:5.

[2] Heb. 13:13.

[3] Cf. 2 Tim. 2:8.

[4] Cf. John 17:3.

[5] Cf. Prov. 17:16 (LXX).

[6] 2 Cor. 6:16.

[7] 1 Cor. 6:19.

[8] Cf. Heb. 3:6.

[9] Cf. Saint Silouan the Athonite, pp. 10, 45.

[10] Cf. Saint Silouan the Athonite, p. 10.

[11] Ἅγιος Σιλουανὸς Ἀθωνίτης (Saint Silouan the Athonite), p. 12.

[12] On Prayer, p. 103.

[13] Cf. 1 Pet. 3:4.

[14] See Gregory Palamas, Ὑπὲρ τῶν ἱερῶς ἡσυχαζόντων (In Defence of the Holy Hesychasts) 2, 1, 30, ἔκδ. Π. Χρήστου, Γρηγορίου τοῦ Παλαμᾶ Συγγράμματα, vol. 1, Thessaloniki 1988, p. 491.

[15] See The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, trans. Benedicta Ward (London: A. R. Mowbray & Co. Ltd; USA: Cistercian Publications, 1984), MU 32, p. 134; Ἀποφθέγματα τῶν ἁγίων καὶ ὁσίων Πατέρων, Περὶ τοῦ ἀββᾶ Μακαρίου τοῦ Αἰγυπτίου, PG 65, 273D.

[16] Cf. Luke 15:31.

[17] 2 Cor. 9:6.

[18] The Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete, Ode 4.

[19] Matt. 5:23-24.

[20] 1 Cor. 13:7.

[21] Heb. 12:12-4; Cf. 9:15.

[22] 1 Tim. 4:10.

[23] Cf. Luke 6:36.

[24] Luke 23:34.

[25] John 3:34.