February 5/18, 2018
Sunday of Forgiveness
Beginning of Great Lent
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Beloved in the Lord, This sermon was not an easy one for me to write this week. This always happens to me as we approach the Doors of Repentance, Holy and Great Lent. I am filled with so many lofty ideas about what it would take to fix the world, but that isn’t the point, is it? Lent is an invitation to fix what’s inside of me, and I don’t know about you, but I would far rather be doing something else. But this morning’s Gospel insists that our hearts can be found wherever we find the things we most desire or treasure. And when those desires are fixed on worldly things and not on eternity, our hearts will be restless until they find their rest in God.
In his book The Confessions, the 4th century bishop Blessed Augustine of Hippo provides a roadmap for fixing what is inside us and reshaping our human desires towards things that do not pass away. Fr. Seraphim Rose of blessed memory reread this book every year as his own Lenten reading because it helped soften his heart towards things above. I think of it every year on this Sunday because the epistle appointed for today from Romans is the very same portion of Scripture which finally brought this great sinner-turned-bishop to his knees. Augustine is a person we can all relate to, and if you, like me, find it difficult to approach the doors of repentance, then take him along as a friend and let him show you how it is done. For he did not start as a bishop or even as a Christian but spent 11 years of his adult life finding his way out of the dual traps of paganism and heresy. For those of us in the skeptical, modern West, he describes what it is like to be on the brink of salvation but never entering fully into it because of some lingering intellectual reservation or some pet pleasure which has festered into an all-consuming passion.
The son of a farmer in Thagaste, a backwater village on the outskirts of Carthage in northern Africa, the young Augustine sought release from the tedium of country living. His pagan, womanizing father supported his ambition to leave his small town and become the best orator in Rome, and he cared not for the unholy means by which he sought to attain this worldly status. So like his father, the young and restless Augustine became equally ensnared in the pleasure-seeking of multiple affairs and the deceptive traps of heretical teaching. About the former carnal temptation, he writes:
I lighted upon that bold woman, simple and knowing nothing, shadowed out in the Proverbs of Solomon, sitting at the door, and saying, Eat ye bread of secrecies willingly, and drink ye stolen waters which are sweet: she seduced me, because she found my soul dwelling abroad in the eye of my flesh, and ruminating on such food as through it I had devoured… I thought I should be miserable unless folded in female arms. (Book III)
About his intellectual deceptions and heresies he writes:
And even then, at Rome, I joined myself to those deceiving and deceived “holy ones”; not with their disciples only but also with those whom they call “The Elect.” For I still thought “that it was not we that sin, but that I know not what other nature sinned in us”; and it delighted my pride, to be free from blame; and when I had done any evil, not to confess I had done any, that Thou mightest heal my soul because it had sinned against Thee: but I loved to excuse it, and to accuse I know not what other thing, which was with me, but which I was not. But in truth it was wholly I, and mine impiety had divided me against myself. (Book V)
Only through the prayers of his pious mother St. Monica and the saintly Bishop Ambrose of Milan was he finally able to see past the blindness of his passions. The moment of his conversion came when he accepted his powerlessness over his addictions and acknowledged his need for a power greater than himself:
I cast myself down I know not how, under a certain fig-tree, giving full vent to my tears; and the floods of mine eyes gushed out, an acceptable sacrifice to Thee. And, not indeed in these words, yet to this purpose, spake I much unto Thee: And Thou, O Lord, how long? How long, Lord, wilt Thou be angry, forever? Remember not our former iniquities, for I felt that I was held by them. I sent up these sorrowful words; How long? how long, “tomorrow, and tomorrow?” Why not now? Why not is there this hour an end to my uncleanness?… Eagerly then I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there I had laid the Apostle when I arose thence. I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: [this is the section from this morning’s epistle] “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill its lusts.”
The Lord had answered the prayers of his mother and satisfied his deeper longing for communion with His true Creator.
And what of us here as we approach another season for self-denial and repentance? Do we shrink from the Great Physician of souls fearing the loss of a living to which we have grown so familiar? Our favorite foods, our favorite shows, and even our closest friendships though not wrong in themselves can collectively serve as roadblocks to our ultimate happiness and fulfillment in Christ. The reason we set aside these lesser goods during the 40 days is so that we can reorient our soul towards the cause of all goodness. Usually we feed our bodies, but starve our souls; consider now that you might starve the body a little in order to feed the soul with the delicious divine services spread throughout Lent. Starting tonight with Forgiveness Vespers and lasting all this first week is a smorgasbord of spiritual insight in the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete and then “our souls are calmed and quieted like a child at its mother’s breast” when we attend the first Pre-Sanctified Liturgy. Don’t stay at home, and stop blaming your neighbor for all the sins you recognize in them so well because they are already in you. Come to church and do business with Almighty God. In the words of the old negro spiritual:
I gotta Bible I can read. I gotta Bible I can read. If I don’t read then my soul will be lost. Ain’t nobody’s fault but mine.
Please forgive and pray for me a sinner, and may our good God have mercy on us and forgive us all. Veliki Post! Kali Tessarakosti! Blessed Lenten journey to you all!