Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Heart of the Matter

I've been tryin' to get down / To the heart of the matter / But my will gets weak / And my thoughts seem to scatter / But I think it's about forgiveness / Forgiveness  (Don Henley) 
The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong. (Gandhi)
Through most of my growing up years and in the 28 years I've served in ordained ministry, I've been committed to ecumenism. I was raised a Methodist, attended a Jesuit college, one Methodist seminary and two Presbyterian ones, served an ecumenical campus ministry for four years and as an Episcopal priest have relied upon ecumenical friendships throughout my ministry, including now in diocesan work. This year the theme for The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was on reconciliation. My own two cents is that we've been doing a pretty good job at this work at least among Western denominations since Vatican II.

The biggest and earliest divide among Christians happened long before Martin Luther tagged his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church 500 years ago, though. The schism between East and West happened in 1054 and it's one of the reasons that Orthodox Christians and Western Christians almost always celebrate Easter on different days.I'm not sure it's reconciliation so much as the need for re-introductions that is needed in these relationships.  

A few years ago I encountered Orthodox Lenten practices through a conversation with a Syrian Orthodox priest and a book he recommended to me by Alexander Schmemann called Great Lent: Journey to Pascha. Schmemman was the Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary in CrestwoodNew York and one of the leading liturgical scholars in Orthodox Christianity in the twentieth century. From him I learned that the Orthodox focus on five themes before they begin the Lenten journey: Desire for God (the story of Zacchaeus), Humility (the Publican and the Pharisee), Return from Exile (the parable of the Prodigal Son), Last Judgment, and then finally, Forgiveness Sunday. I have been immersed for my whole life in the western liturgical calendar and until I read this book I was aware of these differences. You can see an Orthodox calendar by following the link here.

This year Forgiveness Sunday (also known as Cheesefare Sunday) will fall on February 26, just a few days before western Christians celebrate Ash Wednesday and on the same day that western Christians will climb the Mount of the Transfiguration for the Last Sunday of Epiphany.

In spite of some popular piety, Lent is not intended in east or west as a time to wallow in guilt or shame, but as an invitation to enter more deeply into the mystery of God’s abundant love, which then allows us to more fully embrace the Paschal mystery by becoming instruments of God’s peace and ambassadors of reconciliation. It is not meant to be a private time, even if confession is personal. Lent is about being liberated from sin and freed to embrace God's call to become an Easter people.  

The triumph of sin, which we all know too well, is the experience of division, opposition, separation, and hatred. The first chink in the armor of the mighty fortress of sin, however, is forgiveness, for it opens a pathway to unity, solidarity, and love. It is a breakthrough to a new reality, to God’s reality. “To forgive,” Schmemman writes, “is to reject the hopeless dead-ends of human relations and refer them to Christ.”

Here is how the Orthodox liturgy for Forgiveness Sunday has been described to me: it involves an elaborate dance as each person in worship is able to say to every other person there, “Forgive me, for I have sinned.” Most of us know how hard it can be for us to forgive someone who has hurt us very badly. But at the very least, even when we aren’t yet able to forgive someone, we can remember that God forgives all who confess their sins and are truly penitent. So the liturgical response to the one who says, “Forgive me for I have sinned” is not “I forgive you” because, to be honest, that might not yet be true. Rather, it is this: “God has forgiven you.” Even as this liturgical "dance" is unfolding the choir is singing Easter hymns. It's a reminder of where Lent's journey leads; to Pascha.

The theological point, whether one is shaped by eastern or western Christianity is the same: Lent gives us roughly a tithe of days out of each calendar year to focus on forgiveness and reconciliation. But there is something sensible to me in beginning with the reminder that God gets there before us. When we confess our sins and truly repent, the good news of the Christian faith is that God does indeed forgive us. Lent, then, becomes a time for us to try to live more fully into that reality. 

There is an atmosphere created in Lent, Schmemman says, a state of mind that our worship creates. The spirit of Lent, he says, is meant to help us to experience a “bright sadness” which is the message and the gift of Lent. We are invited to enter this season of “bright sadness” in order to experience that mysterious liberation, a liberation that makes us “light and peaceful” by illuminating an inner beauty that he compares to “an early ray of the sun which, while it is still dark in the valley, begins to lighten up the top of the mountain.” 

Maybe that image gives us our connection between east and west! Maybe that is where the Mount of the Transfiguration converges with Forgiveness Sunday. It gets us to “the heart of the matter, which is in fact about forgiveness. Our Episcopal Confession of Sin and the Absolution pronounced by the priest says the same thing on behalf of God and God's people, but I think it is in more line with the ministry of all the baptized to practice this work by reflecting on the Orthodox practice. Forgive me, for I am a sinner. God forgives you, be at peace

My prayer is that this simple prayer may lead us into a Holy Lent and ultimately beyond Lent to the new, liberating life that is ours when once again we sing our alleluias on Easter morning - which both east and west will celebrate together this year, on April 16. Alleluia! 

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