Forgiveness Sunday Homily

by Fr. John Parker

St John Chrysostom’s Catechetical Homily, proclaimed during the Paschal Vigil at Matins, is one of the most profound moments of the Resurrectional Celebration. It paves the way for the rich celebration of the Paschal Divine Liturgy, leaving no one without cause for receiving with joy the triumphal news, “Christ is Risen!” It marks the passing of weeks of ascetical labors, the goal of which will have been to arrive at the glorious three-day Pascha, and to live our lives in that context. Already at the beginning of Great Lent, during the Rite of Forgiveness at Vespers on the eve of the first day, we sing the bright and joyful Paschal Canon, which will resound through the church during Pascha and Bright Week. We don’t commence our fasting wondering what will happen at the end of the 40 days. Rather, we begin the Fast with forgiveness, knowing that God so loved the world that He gave His Only-begotten Son for the forgiveness of sins and for the life of the world. In view of this marvel, of which we are entirely unworthy, I wanted to help us bookend the Paschal Mystery by offering a homily inspired by St John Chrysostom’s Catechetical oration—one which would clearly echo now, in our minds and hearts and souls, that which we know to be true of the Risen Lord, and which would call us, on this side of Great Lent, to repentance, conversion, humility, return—the themes of all the preparatory weeks, and indeed of the whole fast. Through the prayers of our father among the saints, John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople, may the Lord God grant us every grace and strength to complete the course of the Great Fast, in order to live every moment in the blinding, healing light of the Resurrection!

If anyone be devout and love God,
Let him commence this radiant fast with joy!
If anyone be a wise servant,
Let him, rejoicing, enter into the school of repentance.
We who have wallowed long in sin,
Let us now begin our return.
If anyone has strayed from the first hour,
Let him today repent with zeal.
If anyone has sinned from the third hour,
Let him with gratitude embrace the fast.
If anyone has fled God from the sixth hour,
Let him have no misgivings about his prompt return;
Because he shall in nowise be turned away therefore.
If anyone has indulged the flesh since the ninth hour,
Let him draw near, fearing God alone and trusting in His mercy.
And if anyone has turned away only at the eleventh hour, let him also not hesitate to turn back with haste.

For the Lord, who is longsuffering and full of compassion and mercy, will accept the last even as the first.
He restores him who repents at the first hour,
As He does him who turns back at the eleventh.
And He shows mercy upon the last,

And cares for the first;
And to the one He gives,
And upon the other He bestows gifts.
And He both accepts the confession,
And welcomes the intention,
And honors the contrite heart and rejoices in the return.

Wherefore, enter all of you into the holiness of your Lord;
Offer your repentance,
Both the last, and likewise the first.
You rich and poor together, repent, for today we stand outside the closed gates of paradise.
You sober and you heedless, prostrate yourselves before your King!
Return to the Lord today, both you who have sinned with knowledge and those who have done so in ignorance.

Your pantries are full; empty them to the hungry.
The belly enslaves us, let no one be dominated thereby.
Enter all of you into the Great Fast;
Stripped of heavenly wealth by sin, all draw near to God’s rich loving-kindness!
Let no one despair in his sinfulness,
For the Bridegroom comes at midnight.
Weep all of you for your iniquities,
And draw near to the life-giving Cross of our Lord.
Let no one put confidence in the flesh,
For the Devil has deceived us all thereby, and therewith enslaves us to sin.
By turning from God, we are made captives.
We have called good evil and evil good, and put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.

And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry:
Woe to those who put darkness for light, and light for darkness!

We are embittered, for we are banned from Eden.
We are embittered, but it is we who have mocked God.
We are embittered, for now we shall surely die.
We are embittered, for we have succumbed to the serpent.
We are embittered, for we are fettered in chains.
We partook of a fruit, and met the deceiver.
We were entrusted with Paradise, but we chose Hell.
Our eyes were opened to see the nakedness of sin.
Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver us!
O Lord, make haste to help us!

This is the acceptable time, let us repent!
This is the day of salvation, let us crucify the passions!
The end is at hand and destruction hangs over us!
The end draws nigh, let us come again to our senses!
The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, what first-fruits shall we offer?
Let us delay not, lest we remain dead in the grave, sold under sin!
For God desires not the death of the sinner, but that he should turn from his wickedness and live!
So, let us choose life, and live, for the mercy of God endures forever!
To Him be glory and dominion
Unto ages of ages. Amen.

Father John is Pastor of Holy Ascension Church, Mt. Pleasant, SC, and Chair of the Orthodox Church in America’s Department of Evangelization.