Jesus said “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Matthew 6:14-21 (Gospel of Forgiveness Sunday)

Today is Forgiveness Sunday. In many churches tonight, there will be a Forgiveness Vespers Service. At the conclusion of this service, it is customary for the faithful to ask forgiveness from one another, as we begin the Great Lent. I do not know many of the people who read these reflections every day. I am thankful for the part you play in this ministry. And I am sure over the course of the past year, I have probably offended someone through something I have written, or from not returning an email (I try to return most of them, but sometimes I fall behind and some go unanswered). On this Sunday of Forgiveness, I would like to ask forgiveness from all those who read these reflections for anything I have said or written that has caused any offense in the past year. Please forgive me.

As the journey of Lent is about to commence, we read in the Gospel three pieces of great advice for how to get the most out of the journey, as well as how to take away something positive that will last long after Lent is over. The first concerns forgiveness. When we sin against one another, we put up a wall between ourselves. That wall might be a wall of anger, disappointment, guilt, sadness and estrangement. When we sin against other people, we are also sinning against God. There are times when our sin doesn’t affect other people but we are still sinning against God. And then walls of estrangement go up between us and Him, not because of Him but because of us. Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel lesson that forgiveness is the way by which these walls come down, be they walls between us and Him, or between us and one another. How we forgive one another indeed affect how God forgives us. We can’t expect the walls between us and God to come down if we are unable to take down the walls that separate us from one another. They go together. Remove the walls of estrangement from one another, and we remove the walls between us and God. Leave the walls of estrangement between one another, and God won’t take the walls that separate us from Him away. Jesus told us that the two greatest commandments are intertwined—love God and love our neighbor. We can’t love God and hate our neighbor. Likewise we can’t expect the forgiveness of God if we cannot forgive our neighbor.

The second of advice concerns fasting. Fasting, as we have discussed, involves disciplining ourselves and what we eat, in an effort to discipline ourselves in what we think and how we act. Fasting is not supposed to be done for some kind of show. Rather, our choice to fast and how to fast should remain between us and God. There is no need to advertise or boast how we choose to fast. Just like there is no need for the one who is strict fasting to judge the one who isn’t. Fasting is a private matter between us and God. One other helpful piece of information as we fast in a non-Orthodox world. If, during Lent, we are invited to someone’s home who is not fasting, either because they are not Orthodox or are not keeping the fast, it is appropriate to eat what is put on the table in front of you, even if it is not fasting food. (Hint: don’t go for seconds!) Just eat the food and don’t make a big deal out of your fasting.

The third piece of advice concerns fortunes. Most of us spend a good portion of our lives earning money either to live in the present or to put away for future retirement. Most of us have hopes (at least) to retire at some point. Many of us contribute to Individual Retirement Accounts (IRA’s) and we hold our breath as the stock market ebbs and flows, placing our retirement outlook in the volatility of the market. Sadly, fortunes are easily lost. Christ tells us that we are not only to lay up treasure on earth “where moth and rust consume” (Matthew 6:19) and where investments don’t always pan out. Rather we are to lay up treasure in heaven, where God’s mercies are not unpredictable and volatile. As we put money into IRA’s, we should also be putting them into “ERA’s” (Eternal Retirement Accounts). Because no matter how much is in our earthly portfolio, we can’t take that money with us when we die. When our eternal retirement account is filled with love of God manifested in love of our neighbor, then we can look forward to an eternity of happiness.

Jesus concludes today’s passage by telling us that “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:21) Where we put our time, our effort and our money, this says a lot about the disposition of our hearts. When we put our time, our effort and our money into acts of faith and charity, it says a lot about the disposition of our hearts. When we put little into these things, that says a lot too. As we are about to begin the Great and Holy Lent, take some time to assess your faith, fasting and spiritual fortune. Put Christ at the center these next forty days, so that when we come to the Feast of the Resurrection, He is firmly established (or re-established) as the center, direction, purpose and hope of your life.

O guide to wisdom, provider of prudence, disciplinarian of fools, and defender of the poor, fortify and discipline my heart, O Master; You, give me a word, O Word of the Father. For behold, I will not hinder my lips from crying to You: O merciful Lord, have mercy on me who have fallen. (Kontakion, Sunday of Forgiveness, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)

Forgive one another. Prepare to begin the fast. Commit to working on your eternal retirement account this Lent!