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The Great Lent

Tonight we are entering the holy and salvific Great Lent. In today’s Gospel reading Christ tells us to make sure that our fast is not hypocritical, not only for show. “But thou, when thou fastest, – He says, – anoint thy head and wash thy face” (Matt. 6:17), and do not be like hypocrites with falsely sad faces.

What does it mean to anoint one’s head? The head symbolizes the mind, the Holy Fathers tell us. Thus, you should make sure that your thoughts are pure; guard yourself from evil, foul, and banal thoughts. And in like manner make sure that your words are not evil, or foul, or banal. Pay special attention to spiritual nourishment: look at how you will nourish your mind, what pages you will peruse, what programs you will watch.

About our words, just as about our thoughts, we will be reminded throughout the entire lent by the prayer: “Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth, and a door of enclosure about my lips.” “For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned” (Matt. 12:37). Not only for every foul and rotten word, but also for “every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of the judgment” (Matt. 12:36). An idle word is not primarily a meaningless or deceitful word, but also every truthful and genuine word which we make idle when we use sacred words in vain, as though they are of no consequence.

We live in a world where the major battle is against man, against the only verbal being – man. Everything is being done to make words meaningless. And not only to drown everything in a sea, in a veritable ocean of deceitful words which crash over us daily, but to mix sacred words with lying and profane words. And also to make sure that we ourselves participate in this. Woe is unto us if we give in to the enemy. It is for this reason that the fast is given to us, for us to remember what is most important, for us to anoint our heads – i.e. our minds and our words – with the oil of reason, goodness, faith, truth, and purity, so that both our words and our thoughts come vibrantly alive.

The Gospel words “anoint thy head” also apply to the inner man, to our hearts – in order that no envy, no hate, no malice, no enmity, no passion, nothing profane issue from our hearts; in order that our coarsened, petrified, deadened souls, for keeping this lent and by the grace of God, receive a fragrant, blessed anointment by the Holy Spirit when the Great Lent ends and we stand before the crucified and resurrected Christ.

And what does it mean to wash one’s face? The face, say the Holy Fathers, symbolizes the external man. What do we have on our face? We have eyes, in order to heed where we look, to heed where our glance wanders among this changeable world, shimmering with all the colors of sin, lying in evil and deceit. We must also obviously exclude all television programs during the Great Lent, in order not to resemble a person who abstains from meat throughout the entire fast and at the same time with his eyes devours all manner of filth, just like the prodigal son who sat at the same table with dirty and noisily chomping pigs – to partake of the demonic feast which the mass media offer us today.

We must guard our sight, as we must guard our hearing, protecting it from all that is unwholesome, all that takes us away from truth and purity: both the radio and dangerously idle conversations should be excluded from our hearing. Depending on circumstances, we should be as the deaf and the blind, says Apostle Paul.

Similarly our nose should abstain from smelling the odors of this world which wants to tempt us, always remembering that even fragrant but sinful odors can very soon turn into stench. We must guard our entire being, our whole body from all manner of sin: our hands, that they not slap either man or animal and abstain from touching all impurity; and our feet, that they not walk among the council of the ungodly. In truth, our entire body should become a temple for our soul, should become a temple of God, and not a den of thieves. This is why the Great Lent is given to us.

Today’s Gospel reading begins with the words: “If ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:15). It is for this reason that the Lord and the Holy Church have established this day as Forgiveness Sunday. The Church warns us that when we come to ask forgiveness of the Lord, of the Mother of God, of all the saints, and of each other, we must come prepared, and we must be at peace with everyone. Just imagine that you come to confession and repent of sins for which you feel no penitence at all. It will be the same if you ask forgiveness of other people only externally, as a formality – such asking of forgiveness will only be to your judgment and condemnation. It is only by the grace of God and by our participation in this grace, which we can demonstrate by our entire 40-day labor of fasting, that we are able to acquire the gift of forgiveness.

No one can be forced to forgive, just as no one can be forced to love. And the Lord does not force us to forgive; He says – you do not have to forgive, you can do as you please, – because if He were to force us to forgive, then the forgiveness which we would grant to other people would not be our own forgiveness. It would not be ours, but God’s, and would not have any connection with us whatsoever. But only that which is done freely, willingly, consciously is of genuine value, when a person fully understands that he should forgive. The Lord only warns us that if we do not forgive, neither will He forgive us. And who will then forgive our sins, if God doesn’t forgive them? There is no being either in heaven or on earth who could forgive our sins. People will not forgive our sins, because we do not forgive others; God will not forgive our sins, because we do not forgive other people. So then where will we be, if we do not forgive others? The burden of our sins, both major and minor ones, which grow from day to day like mountains, will constantly increase, and when we pass into eternity they will continue to increase eternally and will eternally oppress us by their endless weight.

Such is the mystery of forgiving the sins of others. Therefore, let us learn throughout the entire fast not to respond to offense with offense, to insult with insult, to malice with malice, to sin with sin. The Holy Fathers encourage us to use our reason. If a drunkard is lolling in the dirt, they say, what will you do when you see this drunkard? Will you lie down next to him in the dirt, or will you try to pull him out of the dirt? Every sin is dirt, and every passion is like drunkenness in a man. Thus, if you see that this man’s soul is lolling around in the dirt of sin, you must try to abstain from sin yourself, in order to help this person, to pull him out of the dirt and cleanse him. Then the Lord, seeing your efforts, will pull you out of the dirt of sin in which all of us are mired up to our ears, and will place your purified being among the celestial angels and among all the saints by the gift of this forgiveness.

This is the kind of Lent we are now entering. A Lent which truly brings salvation. A Lent which frees man’s soul from all destructive hypocrisy. A Lent which was bequeathed to us by the Lord Himself. A Lent in which He participates Himself, and went through Himself in advance, in order to grant us the power to conquer the devil who tempts us with all kinds of passions, and grant us the victory of a new life in the Resurrection. Amen.

Protopriest Alexander Shargunov

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