Forgiveness Sunday

Archbishop Seraphim : Homily
Forgiveness is not an Option
Forgiveness Sunday
1 March, 2009
Romans 3:11-14:4 ; Matthew 6:14-21

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Today, the Lord is emphasising to us the need to forgive. It is true that this is Forgiveness Sunday, and it is natural that we would hear about this subject from Him in the way that we have just heard. However, the Lord speaks to us about forgiveness not just today as we are formally about to enter Great Lent. He is speaking to us about forgiveness all the time. In the context of the Our Father, our Saviour is saying to us : “‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses, then neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’”. We are saying the Our Father every day, many times.

In this prayer, we are saying to the Lord precisely this over and over and over again : “Forgive us our debts or trespasses as we forgive our debtors or those who trespass against us” (depending on the translation that is being used). It all means the same, anyway. As much as we forgive those who are sinning against us or who are hurting us, we can expect God to forgive us. However, if we do not forgive, then how can we expect God to forgive us ? The way of the Christian is the way of forgiveness. This is the foundation of the Christian way.

For example, how could some martyrs (and there have been many like this) be thanking their executioners, saying witty things while they were being tortured and burned alive such as : “Turn me over now, I am done on this side”. This is exactly what one martyr did say to his executioner. The people who were being killed were blessing those who were killing them. In this context, I always like to speak about Saint Juvenaly, the Alaskan martyr, because Saint Juvenaly had precisely this experience.

Saint Juvenaly, an early missionary-priest-martyr, was one of those zealous missionaries who were competing with each other (we have this in writing) to go to this or that place to bring Christ to the people. Saint Juvenaly went to western Alaska. We were told in earlier times (by some sort of mistake) that he was killed at Lake Iliamna, in Alaska. This was not the case, in fact. If one talks to the descendants of all the peoples there (in what I like to call Yupikia, the place where the Yupik people live in western Alaska), they say, as is confirmed by Father Michael Oleksa, that he did not die at Lake Iliamna. He died on the west coast of Alaska as he was coming in a boat towards the coast. As he and his reader-helper were approaching in the boat, there was a shaman with a group of people on the coast. From the look of Father Juvenaly, they thought for certain that he was a competing shaman because of the way he was dressed with a gold Cross and chain on his neck. This looked like the insignia of a competing shaman. They tried to prevent Father Juvenaly from landing.

However, Father Juvenaly kept coming towards the shore. The descendants of the people who killed him have told Father Michael Oleksa that their ancestors thought Saint Juvenaly was out of his mind because when they started to shoot arrows at him, it looked to them that he was brushing away the arrows as if they were mosquitoes. This was not the case, of course. As the descendants understood later, he was not brushing away the arrows – he was blessing the people who were killing him. He was making the sign of the Cross on himself and on them as they were killing him. From that death came a flourishing life in the Church in western Alaska. I would go so far as to say that this happened because Saint Juvenaly was forgiving those who were killing him. He was showing the people how to live.

Bishop Benjamin, who has been serving as the Administrator in Alaska, is aware of how the Yupik people and all the other Aboriginal people in Alaska have been very badly mistreated. They have been badly mistreated even by their Orthodox white brothers. He has said a number of times that it is a miracle how these people are still Orthodox Christians after all this. They endured for many, many decades, scarcely seeing a priest until recently. Now, at last, there are getting to be enough priests in Alaska. Even during the many decades with no priest, every Sunday, every feast-day, and any time there was any need, they still gathered in the local Temples which they had built. As much as people have mistreated them, they, who have come to know Christ, have been unshakeably faithful to Christ. It was not just externalism that made them Orthodox Christians. The Orthodox Faith was and is their way of life. Moreover, they have remained faithful because of their combined, mutual love for Jesus Christ, and their knowing how to live in forgiveness on the foundation which was laid by the death of Saint Juvenaly.

Most of the things that trouble us, that eat us up, that cause us pain are directly connected with whether or not we are ready and willing to forgive. Forgiveness, for the Orthodox Christian, is not simply one of those occasional things. It is not an option. It is a fundamental. It is the foundation of our way of life. It is the foundation of our life in Christ. We must be living in forgiveness with each other every day of our lives, and every minute of our lives. If we do not forgive, and we are holding grudges and nursing bitterness towards someone else, this anger, this non-forgiveness becomes an idol for us. It becomes something between myself and the Lord.

Anything between myself and the Lord, that takes the place of the Lord, is an idol. Thus, if my anger towards someone is so precious that I hold on to it and nurse it, despite the words of our Lord, despite the example of our Lord who forgave His executioners from the Cross, it has taken the place of God in my heart and in my life. It is serious business not to forgive. If I will not forgive, then I have become an idol-worshipper without knowing it.

Today, it is important that we are formally forgiving each other. It is essential that we forgive each other everything even if we do not know each other, because the way of the Christian is to live in forgiveness with everyone always and everywhere. It does not matter if I do not know everyone before whom I am going to make a bow or a prostration, because I have to live in forgiveness with everyone. I, myself, have to ask forgiveness of everyone else even if they do not know me, because when I fall, when I sin, it affects everyone else. It affects not only everyone else, it affects the whole of creation. For good or for bad, how I live affects everyone and everything everywhere. We are not all little, separated islands or “individuals” (as we, in North America, like to say). For the Orthodox Christian, there is no such thing as an individual. An individual has no connexion with anyone or anything else. By definition, the individual is not a person but a thing, by itself. In the mentality of the individual, we actually treat each other as things, not persons. Human beings are not like that, and cannot be like that. Even a hermit in a cave who never sees anyone for years is not an individual. We are all persons who have a relationship with other persons, and with the whole of creation. So, this hermit-person, sitting in his or her cave for who knows how long, has a relationship in the heart with the whole Church, with the whole of humanity, with the whole of creation. Those prayers and the worship offered by the hermit in that cave (wherever it may be) affect everyone and everything everywhere. People who are living lives like this tell me that they do not need to be told what is going on in the world because they can feel it anyway.

We need to forgive each other. We need to be asking each other’s forgiveness (and not only today). It truly is the Orthodox way to be asking forgiveness one of another all the time. Therefore, brothers and sisters, let us get serious about this forgiving. Let us ask the Lord to renew our hearts so that we will be both able and willing to forgive (starting now, right here, this minute) everyone around us. Let us ask the Lord to help us to forgive those whom we will encounter soon in “official forgiveness”, and then to be able to live our lives in perpetual forgiveness from the heart.

Let us ask the Lord to enable this forgiveness to flow freely in our hearts starting right now. Let us ask Him that this forgiveness may have fulfilment when we approach His Table. When He is giving us Himself in His Body and Blood, may this forgiveness multiply His presence in us. It is by living in forgiveness that we will truly be able to live in love, and to demonstrate Christ in our lives. May the Lord give us the Grace to glorify Him always, everywhere, and in all things : the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.