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Monday, February 27, 2012

Great Lent Begins

Last night was Forgiveness Vespers, which is the first step in Great Lent.  It is a reminder that Great Lent is about repentance for our sins not only so that we can receive forgiveness, but so that we can forgive others.  There is a mutuality in the rite of forgiveness that, even if taken lightly at the time and somewhat awkward, still teaches us about the power of both asking for and giving forgiveness.

The 12 Steps teach the power of both giving and receiving forgiveness, beginning with the former (Steps 4 & 5), and then the latter (Steps 8 & 9).  So, we begin Great Lent by attempting to forgive, even if weakly, knowing that much more will come up as the fast progresses.  This first, formalized step towards forgiveness is like knocking the tip off of the iceberg... soon, more will rise up out of the murky waters of the heart.  We will then chip away at that part until it is gone and even more comes up.

If we were to see within ourselves all at once, we would despair.  This is why the Steps are steps and not 'all at once.'  Alcoholics and addicts despair when they look within themselves and see so many problems.  The Steps pace the progress into smaller steps that can more easily be handled without overwhelming the addict and launching him into despair.

The same is true for every Christian who seeks God's forgiveness, seen in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We start off forgiving, and end with forgiveness.  The premise of the Lord's Prayer is fulfilled.

The problem of the Addict and the Christian is exactly the same: while he is troubled by sins, his real problem is despair.  He does not believe God really loves him and forgives him, largely because he knows he is unworthy because he holds on to so many offenses and so much guilt.

"The devil has no greater weapon in his hands than despair; we also give him less pleasure in sinning than in despairing." (St. John Chrysostom Homilies on Repentance I, 2 quoted in Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing [Jean-Claude Larchet], p. 99 ).  Despair finalizes the effects of sin, and leaves us in the mire of our suffering.  Sin is curable, but despair bars the cure.  It is a death sentence to those who accept it, and so the real fight in the Steps is not with what we have done or what has been done to us, but with our despair.

The premise of Great Lent is hope.  There is no reason to be despondent, since the end point of Great Lent is the celebration of Christ's resurrection.  The alcoholic has hope in much the same way, having seen others get free from the burdens that addiction fed off of, he has a vision of a future without hopelessness.

That's what we are striving for. 

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