My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,
CHRIST IS IN OUR MIDST! HE WAS, IS, AND EVER SHALL BE. Ο ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΕΝ ΤΩ ΜΕΣΩ ΗΜΩΝ! ΚΑΙ ΗΝ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΙ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΑΙ.
"O Lord, we were estranged before from Paradise, because of eating from the tree. Therefore, lead us into it again by Thy Cross and by Thy Passion, my Savior and my God. Fortify us therein that we may fulfill our fast with becoming purity, and worship Thy Divine Resurrection and Passover of salvation, by the intercessions of Thy Mother.--from Orthros, Tone 2
Please note: For those observing the Lenten Fast, Cheese-Fare Sunday is the last day on which eggs and dairy are eaten before Pascha.
Also, on Cheese-Fare Sunday, we also commemorate the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, entering into the Lenten fast in remembrance of mankind's separation from God through disobeying His Commandment to fast from the fruit of the tree. Furthermore, many faithful attend Forgiveness Vespers on Sunday; usually held on Sunday evening, but conducted immediately following the Divine Liturgy at our parish. At the service of forgiveness we ask forgiveness from each other in accordance with the Lord's words: "If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (St. Matthew 6:14).
Then after Vespers-after hearing the announcement of Lent in the Great Prokeimenon: "Turn not away Thy face from Thy child for I am afflicted! Hear me speedily! Draw near unto my soul and deliver it," after making our entrance into Lenten worship, with its special memories, with the prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian, with its prostrations--we ask forgiveness from each other, we perform the rite of forgiveness and reconciliation.
What is the meaning of this rite? 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 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 Himself, 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, forgiveness is both the beginning of and the proper condition for the Lenten season.
One may ask, however: Why should I perform this rite when I have no "enemies"? Why should I ask forgiveness from people who have done nothing to me, and whom I hardly know? To ask these questions, is to misunderstand the Orthodox teaching concerning forgiveness. It is true, that open enmity, personal hatred, real animosity may be absent from our life, though if we experience them, it may be easier for us to repent, for these feelings open contradict Divine Commandments. But, the Church reveals to us that there are much subtler ways of offending Divine Love. These are indifference, selfishness, lack of interest in other people, of real concern for them--in short, that wall which we usually 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--be it only for one minute--that our entire relationship to other men is wrong, makes us experience that encounter of one child of God with another, of one person created by God with another, makes us feel that mutual "recognition" which is so terribly lacking in our cold and dehumanized world.
On that unique evening, listening to the joyful Paschal hymns we are called to make a spiritual discovery: to taste of another mode of life and relationship with people, of live whose essence is love. We can discover that always and everywhere Christ, the Divine Love Himself, stands in the midst of us, transforming our mutual alienation into brotherhood. As I advance towards the other, as the other comes to me--we begin to realize that it is Christ Who brings us together by His love for both of us.
And because we make this discovery--and because this discovery is that of the Kingdom of God itself: the Kingdom of Peace and Love, of reconciliation with God, and, in Him, with all that exists--we hear the hymns of the Feast, which once a year, "opens to us the doors of Paradise." We know why we shall fast and pray, what we shall seek during the long Lenten pilgrimage. Forgiveness Sunday; the day on which we acquire the power to make our fasting-true fasting; our effort-true effort; our reconciliation with God-true reconciliation. (Father Alexander Schmemann)
Why start Lent with a service that almost forces us to forgive? "Lent calls us to spiritual perfection," explains Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou in Meditation for Great Lent, "which is impossible without love and forgiveness. Thus before Lent begins, we are called to forgive all who have wronged us. Only then can we hope to attain perfection, which is the likeness of God."
Having given and received forgiveness, we enter the desert journey of the Great Fast. Unlike many Western traditions, we Orthodox don't choose what to "give up" for Lent. Rather, during the forty days of Lent (and Holy and Great Week), we are asked by the Church to become essentially vegan: No meat. No dairy. No fish (other than shellfish).
Why such a rigorous course? Fr. Papavassiliou again elucidates:
"The purpose of our fasting is spiritual. Spirituality must not be viewed as something that does not concern the body, 'but as something that is made possible through and within the body...' The desires and needs of the flesh can all too often overpower the spirit. Fasting is a means of restoring balance between soul and body, a means of bringing the flesh under the control and will of the mind and spirit."
KONTAKION (Tone 6)
Master, Teacher of Wisdom Bestower of virtue, You teach the thoughtless and protect the poor: Strengthen and enlighten my heart. Word of the Father, Let me not restrain my mouth from crying to you: Have mercy on me, a transgressor, O Merciful Lord!
MY BLESSING TO ALL OF YOU
The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.
With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God