The Sunday of Forgiveness (or Cheesefare Sunday) is the final Sunday before the start of Great Lent. This Sunday has two major themes: the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise and Forgiveness. In this post, we examine both themes to learn how they prepare us for the start of the Great Fast.
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Theme #1: Mankind’s expulsion from Paradise
We remember mankind’s expulsion from Paradise because it shows how far we’ve fallen into sin and separated ourselves from God. It shows us what we wish to restore in our own lives, a communion with God where we can walk and talk with Him in Paradise. Great Lent encourages us to seek this communion again, reminding us of what we lost and our need for God’s forgiveness. Together with Adam and Eve, we weep for the sins that deprive us of our communion with God. But at the same time, our sorrow is tempered by hope, as we prepare for Christ’s saving death and resurrection.
The icon of the Expulsion
In the icon for this feast, we see the story of the Expulsion of Adam and Eve in visual form. In the upper left we see God creating mankind, and in the upper right corner, mankind walks with God. Here Adam and Eve are enjoying communion and fellowship with Him.
Then, in the bottom left, we see the serpent speaking to them (Genesis 2:15-17), and find them disobeying God’s commandment not to eat of the fruit of the tree. When they took of the fruit and sinned, they realized their nakedness. And when “they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden,” they hid themselves “from the presence of the Lord” (3:8).
In the bottom right, we see the conclusion of the story. Because of their disobedience, the Lord expelled Adam and Eve from the garden. The icon shows the Archangel of the Lord forcefully ushering them out of Paradise, through the gate where God placed “the cherubim and a sword flaming and guarding the way to the tree of life” (3:23-24). You may notice Adam and Eve wearing garments of leaves, instead of the heavenly robes they wore before they sinned against the Lord.
Theme #2: Forgiveness
The Gospel reading for this Sunday (Matthew 6:14-21) illustrates our ideal Lenten journey, which begins with forgiveness. In order to restore our communion with God, we need forgiveness for the multitude of our sins. This passage reminds us that if we want forgiveness from God, we need to also forgive others. If we treasure God’s forgiveness, then our heart will be full of forgiveness for our brothers and sisters. During Great Lent, the Church offers us the opportunity to serve others willingly. We can more effectively serve if we are forgiving, not holding grudges. Forgiving others and serving them restores our relationship with them, and opens our hearts to receive forgiveness from God.
The reading continues by telling us how to fast: not by showing off, but simply and quietly, in a genuine way. If we treasure a relationship with God, our heart will be full of joyful, non-pretentious fasting. During Lent we are invited to eat less and pray more, giving God our attention instead of seeking the attention of others or looking to food for satisfaction. Working to control our physical body’s desires and spending more time and energy in prayer restores our relationship to God.
The Rite of Forgiveness
On the evening of Forgiveness Sunday, we celebrate Forgiveness Vespers. At the end of this service, the priest stands before the ambon, and the faithful come up one by one and make a prostration before the priest. As we do this, we say, “Forgive me, a sinner,” while the priest responds, “God forgives. Forgive me.” The person responds, “God forgives,” and receives a blessing from the priest. After receiving the priest’s blessing, the faithful also ask forgiveness of each other.
You might ask why you should ask forgiveness from people who have done nothing to you, some of whom you might barely know. In her wisdom, the Church shows us there are so many subtle ways of offending Divine Love. Indifference, selfishness, lack of interest/concern for others—in short, that wall we erect around ourselves, thinking that by being “polite” and “friendly” we fulfill God’s commandments. The rite of forgiveness is so important precisely because it makes us realize our entire relationship to other humans is deeply fallen. It allows us to encounter one another as children of God, so we can feel that mutual “recognition” which is lacking in our cold and dehumanized world.
While we do not know exactly when the Church began celebrating this beautiful service, we do know Forgiveness Vespers has been practiced since at least 520 A.D.; we see it mentioned in the story of the Life of St. Mary of Egypt, who lived around that time.
Why begin Great Lent this way?
For too many people, Lent means a simple change of diet, a way to fulfill requirements for what the Church doesn’t want you to eat for some reason. They see fasting as an end in itself, as a “good deed” required by God and carrying in itself its merit and reward. But, the Orthodox Church makes clear that fasting is a means toward a higher goal: our spiritual renewal, our return to God through true repentance and reconciliation. If we turn fasting into a legalistic obligation, we endanger our very souls. 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.”
Moreover, forgiveness rests at the very center of the Christian faith and 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.
The Sunday of Forgiveness helps to put us in the right frame of mind for the start of the Great Fast. Let us take some time to meditate on these teachings from Our Lord, so we may fast in a genuine, joyful manner and forgive others as God forgives us.
May God forgive us all and restore us to right relationship with Him. Amen!
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