To the Reverend Clergy, Monastics and Faithful of the Diocese of the West
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:14-21, Gospel reading for Forgiveness Sunday Liturgy)
Mere moments before we enter the Great Fast, the Church in her wisdom calls us to reflect on the essential elements of a truly Lenten effort. Prayer is a part of every Orthodox Christian’s life — it almost goes without saying. That prayer becomes the foundation of everything else we do during Great Lent. Besides our personal prayer, the Church calls us to more corporate worship, giving us the Eucharist as many as four times a week to strengthen us in our efforts.
But the Lord brings our attention to the other great tools of true spiritual effort. First, fasting. The true fast does not find fruits in following mere “rules.” “What can I eat? Does this have any milk in the ingredients? When can we have fish, wine or oil?” Those rules are there as guidance and not as ends in themselves. We can feel so proud that we have “followed the rules.” But the self-denial of fasting also leads to peace, calm, a new look at the things we too often see as important. In our consumer society, we never deny ourselves anything at any time. We have truly come to believe that man does “live by bread alone.” The lengthy, and sometimes grueling, fast strips us of the superfluous and leaves only the essential. We learn to eat to live, and not live to eat.
The Lord also brings our attention to treasure. Almsgiving — the act of giving to those less fortunate — is an essential part of the fast. Knowing that we have more than enough and that God calls us to divest ourselves of some of that treasure as a “letting go” to realign our hearts to the true Treasure is an essential part of fasting. St. john Chrysostom reminds that the wealthy (which most of us are in comparison to much of the world) hold their riches in trust for the poor.
Finally, we are called to forgive, for forgiveness — true, sincere forgiveness, holding nothing in our hearts against anyone — is the concrete action that makes us reflect God more than any other action. It is also perhaps the most difficult task that the Lord demands of us. Being offended so easily in our world of social media and instantaneous actions and reactions is perhaps the greatest temptation that we must fight. If our hearts are destroyed by holding onto the “wrong” treasure, what destruction is being wrought when we feel justified in holding anything dark or evil in our hearts about another? We examine ourselves and confess our sins, expecting forgiveness from God, but often feel completely justified in hatred and anger against one of God’s creatures for “slights” and “insults,” when our very actions are a slight and insult to God Himself. Brothers and Sisters, let it not be so!
Let us bow down before each other and seek (and grant) forgiveness as we enter into this tithe of the year. Let us pray personally, and corporately, with a sincere and humble heart. Let us place our treasures where they belong. May we fast in order to create a space for the One who is going to His Passion and Resurrection for us. I wish for all my faithful parishes and each and every one of you a most fruitful and joyous Fast. May we all rejoice in the celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection at the end of these most holy days.
With love in Christ,
Archbishop of San Francisco