Forgiveness Sunday

A homily given at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in Lewisburg, PA, on Sunday, March 1, 7529 (March 2, 2021 on the civil calendar).

Today on the doorway of Great Lent we commemorate the Expulsion of Adam from Paradise, and also Forgiveness Sunday. The linking of these commemorations on the ancient Orthodox Church calendar, as a living tradition of spiritual practice, therapy, and worship, is a link of unforgettable beauty in its joyful sorrow. It reminds us that Orthodox Christianity is a faith of the heart and not merely the head, for ours is a faith of getting the mind into the heart.

The Royal Doors

The Gospel reading for today sets this forth, telling us, in part, “if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:…. be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance… But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret… For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Our Lenten journey must be one of fasting not merely from dairy and meat, fish and wine. It is a hidden spiritual practice of looking away from comfort toward the uncomfortable truths and witnessing of our faith, expressed outwardly in love for each other based on truth, our Lord God, Who sustains us.

I recently viewed a short documentary about Ptesti Prison in Romania. Here Communists imprisoned Orthodox Christians, like Father Roman Braga and Father George Calciu. Physical and psychological tortures were combined in an effort to shape them into a Communist personality. Today in America we are subject to a different but also insidious type of behavior modification, efforts to refashion our personalities in the spirit of the Anti-Christ, denying the Incarnation of Christ, in the hours that we spend online and often in educational, professional, and work interactions. More strongly to uphold ourselves as Christians in the face of such psychological manipulation against our souls, this today must be part of our Lenten witness.

We know what we face against our Christian faith today in America. Just in the past month we have had great promotion in media of polyamory, yet another insane sin promoted by the pansexual materialistic anti-Christian culture today. This includes the idea, likely to become a mandated category of social and legal support, that multiple parents of undetermined sex should raise children in the same household, living without moral boundaries. The state of California this coming week will consider adopting school curriculum that in the name of racial equity seeks to target Christianity in K-12 education as oppressive and could promote schoolchildren offering prayers to Aztec gods who historically were part of pagan practices involving human sacrifices. These different forms of madness involve Anthropocenism, a spirit of our age that centers on a human virtual reality, in which materialistic human science and technology as the Anthropocene age claim to take the place of God. It assembles an official anthropology and culture seeking to elide and erase traditional cultural communities, through direct state relationships with children overriding parental faith, as well as a dominant digital environment and economy, controlling human life for supposedly “therapeutic” reasons. But these are all delusions of disembodiedness, a gnostic living in virtual reality that Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the “Soul and Barbed Wire” section of The Gulag Archipelago uncovered as “the permanent lie,” and which Hannah Arendt in her works The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem came to term “the banality of evil.”

Solzhenitsyn and Arendt were writing about the twentieth-cenury precursors to disembodied, digital, and atheistic systems advocating transhumanism today in “soft” totalitarian ways. Such madness and insanity are harbingers of anti-Christ, as the Apostle John warns us against the spirit of anti-Christ that rejects the Incarnation of our Lord God, and would seek to destroy the embodiedness of our lives and faith. Our parish Bible study has been reading the Epistles of the Apostle John in the New Testament, in which he gives us our standard for Forgiveness Sunday today, that God is love, and that the source of our love for Him and for our neighbor is the truth that is our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. We must not shirk from witnessing to that love in truth, from carrying our cross. For to proclaim the Gospel in our lives daily is to witness. We witness for something, for the Resurrection, not merely against things, and to our neighbors and on behalf of the vulnerable.

Now the gateway to Lent stands before us, symbolized in the royal doors of the iconostasis, the gateway to Paradise, through which Communion comes to us today. Behind the iconostasis and above us in this worship space, the copy of the Kursk Root icon of the Mother of God on the wall above the altar witnesses to our journey through Lent to Holy Week and to the Crucifixion and Resurrection of her Son, and to our hopes for building a temple this year. This icon was known as a palladion or protecting standard of the Russian imperial Army. In 1920 it went with the remnants of General Wrangel’s White Army and the group of bishops who became our Synod on the fleet of ships that crossed with many exiles from Crimea to Constantinople. It was present at the founding of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, whose centennial year we are commemorating. It now rests in our cathedral on 93rd Street in New York and indeed humbly rested on one of the stands here we use in worship when it visited our mission in the early days of our founding.

The Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God of the Sign

The icon dates back to the 13th century, and is one of the most ancient of the Russian Church, herself an heir in her roots to Byzantium and the Churches of the Holy Land. The icon comes into our history at the time of the Tatar invasion of Russia, its discovery by a peasant at the root of a tree in the forest by Kursk at that time was a sign of hope for the preservation of the Orthodox Church.  It is linked with the liberation of Russia in the Polish-Lithuanian incursion in 1612, and in the 1812 Fatherland war. Now may this beloved standard go before us in our spiritual battle for freedom in America during this Great Lent.

The icon is of the Annunciation and includes the figure of the Sign of our Lord God within the womb of the Mother of God whose hands are outstretched in prayer, in an ancient depiction of the Theotokos, accepting the Annunciation. We commemorate the Annunciation during Great Lent. It is a reminder of our own rebirth during this time in our journey toward the Resurrection of Christ, even as the icon before us beyond the royal doors today is a reminder of God with us as we march into Lent. Interestingly, the Scriptural account of the expulsion from Paradise, and the traditional name of this Sunday’s commemoration, focuses on Adam’s expulsion, which perhaps can be taken to indicate how the “Second Eve,” the greatest of the saints, the Mother of God, would bear the Savior Who would restore the faithful to Paradise.

Around the Mother of God and the figure of our Lord are prophets of the Old Testament Church who wrote of the birth of Christ—the Holy Prophets King David, Solomon, Daniel, Jeremiah, Elijah, Habakkuk, Judge Gideon, Isaiah, Moses, and above them all the Lord of Hosts. This icon, our standard in marching into our spiritual warfare of Lent, tells us of the cloud of witnesses who are with us, all the prophets saints who intercede for us, led by the Theotokos, to our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. It reminds us of the love of God for us and of all in our great Church family who love us, as we unworthily seek forgiveness today. Let us remember as we go forth into Lent with joyful sorrow, under the standard of our Kursk Root icon, that our God, Who is truth and love in the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ, is with us.

Embarking on the journey of Lent, toward the Pascha of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ


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