Forgiveness Sunday (Cheesefare Sunday)

Forgiveness Sunday (Cheesefare Sunday) February 21, 2009

cheesefareIn a rather interesting statement, Slavoj Žižek shows himself following the Dominicans over the Franciscans when he said, “It is with regard to the them of the Fall that the opposition between Gnosticism and Christianity is most conspicuous. Both share the notion of the Father – for Gnosticism, however, we are dealing with the Fall from the pure spiritual dimension into the inert material world, with the notion that we strive to return to our lost home; while for Christianity, the Fall is not really a Fall at all, but ‘in itself’ its very opposite, the emergence of freedom.”[1] That is, “Salvation consists not in our reversing the direction of the Fall, but in recognizing Salvation in the Fall itself.”[2] Obviously there is a distinction: for the Thomist, it was God’s free love which brings about our salvation. That it would have been necessary for God to redeem us after the fall must be rejected. God “could” have let us remain as we were. Nonetheless, once God planed to redeem humanity through the work of Christ, one could say with Žižek that our fall brings us to a point of greater freedom, for in the incarnation we are not only saved and brought back to the state we were, but we are brought beyond it in theosis. In other words, as the old hymn states, the fall of Adam is clearly a fault, but a “happy fault,” because it is used by God to bring us into a state greater than what we were before the fall. Of course, one could say that our theosis was always intended by God, and that would be true. But we should not discount the fact that at Adam’s fall his redemption was pre-established, and that God, in the creation of humanity, knew what would happen.[3] So theosis can never be seen separate from God’s providential interaction with the actual history of humanity. Salvation is had only through the fall, for without the fall there is nothing to be redeemed; but because of the fall, we find that the human condition has mutated and changed, and the possibilities provided to us are both more and less than what they were before the fall.[4] It is in this light we are to understand the presentation of Forgiveness Sunday – a feast which not only reminds us of the forgiveness of God, but that forgiveness is had only because we have sinned (in and through Adam). We are also reminded that forgiveness is granted to us only if we admit we need it and if we share with others its grace, that is, if we forgive others as God has forgiven us. 

The unity of the two (forgiveness and redemption) is beautifully brought together at the Vespers for Cheesefare Sunday, where we are reminded of the expulsion of Adam from Eden. We find ourselves to be like Adam as he left paradise. We look back to the paradise we have lost, and pray that we may re-attain it through God’s grace. “Most honored Paradise, garden of beauty and delight, dwelling-place made perfect by God, unending gladness and rejoicing, delight of prophets and home of saints: by the harmony of your rustling leaves, beseech the Creator of All that He may open to me the gates I had closed by my sins, and that I may be made worthy once more to partake of the Tree of life and bliss which You had made mine from the beginning” (Vespers Sticheron, Forgiveness Sunday).

We are brought back to the reality of our fallen mode of existence in the simplicity we are expected to follow during the forty day fast.[5] Great Lent is the ultimate reminder of what has become of humanity because of sin. We re-experience the whole pre-history of salvation, requiring us, like our ancestors, to see the empty promises of sin. We give up our great delights, our superfluous luxuries, not merely as a spiritual discipline (although it certainly is that), but also as an act of solidarity with those who are caught up in sin. Christ became one with us sinners; he emptied himself of all glory to be with the fallen, to be like us in all things save sin. His solidarity with us shows us the kind of solidarity we are to have with others, especially those whom we would most like to avoid.

But the unity of humanity in Adam and in the second Adam means we can also find ourselves in solidarity with our ancestors. In the journey through Great Lent, when we replace the Divine Liturgy with the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy, we are, as it were, brought back in time, when the hope of messiah was yet to be fulfilled.[6]  We learn what the experiences of pre-Christian humanity was like, leading us to realize we would have done no better; we must learn to forgive them for the condition of the world they have left for us, just like we hope that our descendents will forgive us for what we leave behind. We end up see how strong a lord sin is over us, and why we need to show mercy if we want mercy to be shown to us to help us away from its tyranny.

Even though we are socialized in the world which includes sin, we must not use that to justify the sins of the present day. Rather, we must understand what this socialization means; we can see how what precedes us influences who we become, but we can also see that we don’t have to be limited by how we are socialized and we can overcome cultural sins. We must come to realize what it that led people to the sins they have done, so we can deconstruct the act and find the error involved. By bringing us into solidarity with pre-Christian humanity, this is made possible. When the bounty we normally enjoy throughout the year is put to the side, we find out how difficult it us for us to put aside our desires for them, even if it is merely for forty days – and we come to Lent with the grace of the resurrection, and so we have been given more than our ancestors did in order to deal with the passions. The luxuries we have might seem to provide us freedom, but nothing shows us our imprisonment to them than seeing what happens when we try to live without them. We are addicted to them, as the pains of withdrawal show. How cantankerous we can become! Self-mastery can never happen as long as our addictions remain. And yet, even now, when we try to accomplish this task, we have many graces given to us by Christ, so we do not have to go at it alone; he makes sure it is possible for us, if we try, to remove the walls of sin from our lives. How, then, are we to understand those who came before us, or those beside us, who have not had the grace of God to help them deal with such difficulties? Forgive them, for they know not what they do. “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt 6:14-15). Jesus will, in our time of judgment, judge us according to the mercy we have shown others; if we have known mercy, so should we show it to others; if we do not, then the judgment we have placed upon others will become our own (Lk 6:37-38), which is as is just, because are the ones who know that the path to mercy is through mercy.[7]

O You who guide men towards wisdom and give them intelligence and understanding, Instructor of the Ignorant and helper of the Poor: strengthen and enlighten my heart, O Lord! O Word of God, grant that I may speak, for behold I will not keep my lips from crying out to You: ‘O Compassionate One, have mercy on me who have fallen!’” (Kontakion of Forgiveness Sunday).

In the time of Great Lent, which we now approach, we are called to understand the human condition, to understand our poverty. “Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the earth” (Luke 6:20). Only after we internalize the fact that we are all among the poor, that we are indeed the first among sinners, and so the poorest of the poor, shall we be free to inherit the redeemed earth. Once we recognize our place among the poor there will be nothing which separates us from them; we will love them as family and help them as we would help anyone else in our family. Lent, because it undermines our complacency, reminds us of the fundamental unity of all humanity before God. Love for the poor is love for Christ because he is one with humanity, one with us, one with the poor. This, along with giving us a way of self-discipline, is what Lent is about. Fasting is a way for us to encounter our inner poverty. Thus, when we fast, the furthest thing from our mind should be to present ourselves as being special or superior because we fast. “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:16-18). We fast (in whatever fashion we do so), not to separate ourselves from everyone else, but to bring ourselves closer to them. The fast is the initial step forward, for it opens up our eyes; it reveals the natural poverty of the human condition, a situation which many, unlike most of us, face involuntarily. Our hearts open up when we see what humanity is like when it is all alone, without help, without aid. But if we see the fast as a struggle to prove ourselves, to prove how strong we can be, to boast upon how self-sufficient we are, then it would be better if we didn’t fast at all.[8]

Lent opens us up beyond the temporary luxuries of the world, beyond the treasures we normally seek, reminding us instead to focus on eternity. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay 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 will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:19 – 21). We are not denying the world, but denying a wrongful imposition upon it. The kingdom of heaven is at hand, and, through the incarnation, it is shown to be in the world and not set apart from it. When we try to store up treasures for ourselves from the things of the world, we only create future heartache as the things are taken away from us by the ravages of time. They never were ours; as long as we try to claim control over them, they ultimately have control over us. Only by giving them up for the sake of the kingdom can we find what we are after, the treasures of heaven, which can be and are shared by all.

Cheesefare Sunday prepares us for Great Lent, reminding us to seek the treasures of heaven through the path of self-sacrifice. One of the greatest difficulties for all is to admit one’s errors, to admit one’s faults. We might not even know them all, but we all know we commit them. Forgiveness Sunday is the time in which we remember them all, and ask, not only God, but all our brothers and sisters to forgive us, so that we can begin the process of purification that Lent offers to us. When Pope John Paul II asked the world for forgiveness for all the sins of the Church, he properly understood this is the only way the Christian message can ever be made known. Humility leads to love. And it is in this spirit, in the message of Forgiveness Sunday, that I humbly ask us that we forgive each other, so we can better follow the will of God.     

Footnotes 

[1] Slavoj Žižek, The Puppet and the Dwarf (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003), 86.
[2] Ibid., 87.
[3] This, of course, is established by the mysterious and difficult to interpret messianic prophecy of Gen. 3:14-15. Whichever form of meaning one wants to get out of it (Mary, Christ, Mary and Christ together), the woman is shown to have a place in the overcoming of the serpent, a pre-condition for human salvation. Balthasar also expresses this point well, emphasizing that we must not assume the fall was necessary, nor that the fall was the cause of the incarnation, but rather, God’s plan for creation included in it his knowledge of the fall so as to work out a way to perfect creation despite what God knew would happen. Jesus is the ultimate guarantee that God’s plan will be accomplished. “God plans the world in an eternal and indivisible instant, envisaging man’s freedom and his fall as well as the redemptive and grace-imparting recapitulation of the universe in Christ; we can never say that evil in the world is the ’cause’ of the Son’s Incarnation. God only allows it ‘for the sake of a greater good,’ a form of his self-giving that would otherwise remain unknown to us. And all of this takes place in perfect freedom; we can never say that God ‘willed’ the fall of mankind so that he could reveal this ultimate form of love in a visible manner.” Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama III: Dramatis Personae: Persons in Christ. trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1992), n.71.

[4] They are more, because the cross has opened up byways which would not have been established if there were no fall; they are less, because many of the goods we could have accomplished if we were without sin will never be ours to do.
[5] Even if we do not follow the letter of the Great Fast, we are to follow the spirit, and strive to take the forty day period as a time of penance – even if we do not fast, we can increase our alms giving, improve our prayer life, and focus on overcoming our passions.
[6] The Byzantine tradition stipulates there will be no Divine Liturgy during the week (save for solemn feasts). Instead, a Vespers Service (with pre-sanctified communion), highlighted by Old Testament readings, is to be used for daily worship.
[7] This is the meaning behind James 3:1 as well. Those who become teachers, because they know better, will be judged accordingly.

[8] Is this not one of the reasons why fasting regulations have changed for Great Lent, so we can focus on the lessons meant for us, instead of focusing on a tool which, when abused, leads us further away from the good?  “When, as a result of visits from some of our brethren or strangers, we are fiercely attacked by thoughts of self-esteem, it is good to relax our normal regime to a certain extent. In this way the demon will be frustrated and driven out, regretting his attempt; moreover, we shall properly fulfill the rule of love, and by relaxing our usual practice we shall keep hidden the mystery of our self-control,” St. Diadochos of Photiki, “On Spiritual Knowledge,” pgs.251 – 96 in The Philokalia The Complete Text. Vol I. trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1983), 267.

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