by Fr Roberto Ubertino
We often try to argue the truth of Orthodoxy on doctrinal issues. And yet the splendour of the truth is, as the French say, "dans le vecu!" It is in what you live. The privileged place of this "vecu!" is in the liturgy, especially the "deep liturgical" moments of the year.
Lent starts with this “outpouring” of forgiveness. There are two ways of looking at this deep liturgical moment. From the point of view of eternity, it is the outpouring of mercy on the world. We stand beyond death, judgement, and enter the mystical chamber of the Resurrection. That is why we sing the Paschal canon. Pascha is the Great Mercy - mega eleos - in this reality all is forgiven, we forgive all, we are all embraced by the Merciful Father who has slain the fatted calf to welcome us wretched creatures back home. We begin lent in Pascha! From the side of time and us, it is more wishful thinking than reality. We wish we could forgive; in reality, you and I on our own are capable of little, if any, forgiveness.
A few weeks ago, I was present at one of the most painful moments of my life as a priest. I witnessed an exchange between two people I deeply love, both Orthodox, both communicants. One began to beg forgiveness for what in fact he really was not responsible for. A misunderstanding that touched an extremely fundamental wound in the other. The other person clearly stated: "I cannot, I will not forgive you!" The reason was eye-opening: "because if I do, you will hurt me again."
A few years ago, a volunteer of the Mission, and member of this parish, admitted to me why she hated me so much. She struggled to forgive me but could never really say of what, until the day she realized that I looked like her grandfather who for years had sexually violated her as she was growing up. In both situations I learned that forgiveness places us beyond the sphere of guilt, to the privileged place of salvation. We are placed in each other's lives to bear a sin, a trauma, not necessarily caused by us, but where one becomes the symbolic bearer/cause for the other’s suffering. The anger, pain of both of these people towards me and my brother in Christ is very real. In the second instance, it continues even now to spread, it grows, it even tries to bring others on "its side". And yet it is utterly impersonal, for it truly has nothing to do with the other person. In front of this reality the response is not to just brush it off or distance oneself from it. Rather, it can be a real personal invitation to struggle for this other person who is not able to forgive. Why? In a way, we are all implicated in the sin of the world; such "irrational" bursts of anger directed arbitrarily at us can be real occasions to embrace this call we have to incarnate the mercy and forgiveness of God in this world. We all struggle to forgive, afraid, that if we do, we will be hurt again. I know I do.
Yet there is no way around this one. You can get to "heaven" if you have been a prostitute, a thief, a murderer, Orthodox, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, but no one gets into "heaven" without forgiving. Left to our own power, few then will ever get into the Kingdom of Heaven. Here is the beauty, the extraordinary grace we have as Orthodox Christians. The Church says, Okay, you think salvation is being "right" – well in fact salvation is by getting on your knees and asking for forgiveness from everyone. Yes everyone - especially the person who is unjust towards you. With tears, beg forgiveness. Realize that while you do this, you really are just a hypocrite. You don't really know how to forgive. In fact you can't, because you are afraid of the other, afraid that the other will hurt you. That is why the Cross is in the middle of the church during the vespers when we ask for forgiveness. All our traumas and hurts, He takes on, so we can be safe to forgive. Theologically, that is how it works.
Now in real life on earth, it can be a real struggle! Forgiveness is never easy, never perfect, and lets face it never complete in this aeon. That is why, whenever we try to take new steps to forgive, we need to see the Cross and hear the Paschal Canon. Perfect forgiveness rises only from the tomb of Christ. If it was just up to us, we would have no hope. Nonetheless I am always reminded of the words of a dear priest brother with whom I shared my sense of being damned. He answered, "Yes, damned, but forgiven!"