Sunday, 9 March 2008

Forgiveness Sunday and Clean Monday

The Lord Confronts the Disobedience of Adam & Eve; the Expulsion from Paradise Nave Mosaics from Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Sicily. Mid 12th Century.

It is Forgiveness Sunday today in the Orthodox church, commemorating the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise, a day of sorrow and lament as we reflect on the wretchedness of our souls, the disastrous paths our desires have led us down and commit ourselves to return to a virtuous life, first by forgiving others and then by embarking on a process of self-examination and inner repentance, beginning tomorrow with the feast of Clean Monday (Καθαρή Δευτέρα), the first day of Great Lent, the 50-day period before Easter characterised by abstinence, from certain foods – mostly meat and dairy products – and other pleasures, though this is not abstinence as an end in itself, as a test of will-power or a means to purify the body, but as an exercise in repentance and spiritual regeneration.

Father Alexander Schmemann explains the purpose of Forgiveness Sunday and the beginning of the Great Lent season thus:

‘Why is it that the Church wants us to begin Lenten season with forgiveness and reconciliation? These questions are in order because for too many people Lent means primarily, and almost exclusively, a change of diet, the compliance with ecclesiastical regulations concerning fasting. They understand fasting as an end in itself, as a 'good deed' required by God and carrying in itself its merit and its reward. But, the Church spares no effort in revealing to us that fasting is but a means, one among many, towards a higher goal: the spiritual renewal of man, his return to God, true repentance and, therefore, true reconciliation. The Church spares no effort in warning us against a hypocritical and pharisaic fasting, against the reduction of religion to mere external obligations. As a Lenten hymn says:

In vain do you rejoice in no eating, O soul!
For you abstain from food,
But from passions you are not purified.
If you persevere in sin, you will perform a useless fast.

Now, forgiveness stands at the very center of Christian faith and of Christian life because Christianity itself is, above all, the religion of forgiveness. God forgives us, and His forgiveness is in Christ, His Son, Whom He sends to us, so that by sharing in His humanity we may share in His love and be truly reconciled with God. Indeed, Christianity has no other content but love. And it is primarily the renewal of that love, a return to it, a growth in it, that we seek in Great Lent, in fasting and prayer, in the entire spirit and the entire effort of that season. Thus, truly forgiveness is both the beginning of, and the proper condition for the Lenten season.’