Sunday, February 26, 2017

Putting on the Armor of Light for Lent: Homily for Forgiveness Sunday in the Orthodox Church

Romans 13:11-14:4; Matthew 6:14-21

            There are some lines of work in which people who are on duty have to dress in distinctive ways.  The uniforms of police officers, firemen, and members of the military, for example, reflect their unique vocations, responsibilities, and authority.   Athletes, employees in many businesses, and some students must wear clothes that identify them in terms of the larger organization of which they are a part.  Whether we like it or not, the clothes we put on our bodies say something to others, and also to ourselves, about who are and what we should be doing.
              We begin our Lenten journey with the reminder that we must be properly dressed spiritually.  That is a challenge because we are the children of Adam and Eve, who were cast out of Paradise after they stripped themselves of the glory that was theirs as those created in God’s image and likeness. The garments of skin that God gave them at that point showed their weakness and mortality, their slavery to the ways of death.  The good news is that Jesus Christ, the New Adam, has conquered our corruption and restored us to our ancient dignity as those who wear a robe of light.  We have put Him on in baptism like a garment.  In His mercy and love, He has made it possible for each and every one of us to fulfill our original vocation to become ever more like God in holiness as partakers of the divine nature.  Yes, that is truly what it means be a Christian and a human being.
Unfortunately, there is much in us that prefers the nakedness of Adam and Eve to the glory of the robe of light.  Corruption and decay root deep within our souls, and we so easily repudiate our glorious attire and turn away from our calling, preferring darkness and weakness to the brilliant holiness which the Savior has shared with us. For each of us in one way or another, there are strong temptations to strip ourselves of such great dignity and to disappear into the dark night of sin.  Not to do so requires a struggle, a battle, that goes to the depths of our souls. Perhaps that is why St. Paul said to “put on the armor of light,” for armor is strong and designed to protect those who wear it from deadly blows from their enemies.
During the season of Lent, we will be engaged in a difficult struggle to “cast off the works of darkness,” to strip ourselves of the ugly rags of sin that distort and hide our true identity as God’s beloved sons and daughters.  Instead of making sure that we give enough time and attention to serving our self-centered desires, we will invest ourselves in prayer, fasting, and serving others.  Instead of doing our best to ignore the truth about who we are before God and in relation to others, we will open the eyes of our souls to shining light that will reveal some very uncomfortable truths about each of us.  And even as we are tempted to take the focus off our own brokenness and to judge others, we will have to struggle mightily to see that the only failings to concern ourselves with are our own.  
Ever since Adam and Eve stripped themselves naked of the divine glory, people have wronged one another and often refused to extend forgiveness, to ask for and accept forgiveness, and to be reconciled with one another.  Despite the infinite mercy we have received from the Lord Who went to the Cross and rose from the dead to restore us, we so easily fall back into the old ways of resentment and division.  The Church calls us to forgive one another today as a way of taking a first step of repentance, of repudiating the passion-driven separation of God’s children from one another that has plagued humanity ever since Cain murdered his brother Abel.
The Son of God entered into our world of sin and death and took upon Himself the full brunt of its corruption.  He shed His blood in order to reconcile us to Himself, for we had separated ourselves from Him by slavery to sin in all its forms.  In humility and love, the eternal Word submitted to death, burial, and descent to Hades in order to raise us up with Him into eternal life through His resurrection.  That is the ultimate healing of a relationship, and we have only our Lord to thank for it.
As He taught in today’s gospel lesson, we must forgive others in order to be forgiven, in order to be restored to right relationship with God.  To put on Christ like a garment is to participate in His life, to be transformed and healed by personal union with Him.  If we claim His forgiveness and then refuse to forgive others, we strip ourselves of the divine glory as surely as did Adam and Eve.  For those who want His forgiveness without forgiving others do not really want anything to do with the Lord other than to get what they want from Him at the moment.  That was the problem of our first parents, who placed self-centered desire over obedience.  They fell into the idolatry of serving themselves instead of God.  And if we abuse our Lord’s mercy by proudly claiming His forgiveness while refusing to forgive others, we show ourselves to be guilty of the very same thing.  That path leads only to further weakness, darkness, and decay.  
Lent calls us, of course, to do the very opposite by taking every opportunity to participate more fully in the Savior’s healing of our fallen humanity.  We do that by extending forgiveness to those who have wronged us, by asking for and accepting forgiveness from those we have wronged, and otherwise doing what we can to mend broken relationships. These matters strike at the heart of the healing of our souls, and we should not be surprised when we struggle along this path.  So struggle we must, focusing on our own unworthiness when we are tempted toward anger and resentment toward anyone for any reason.  Like all spiritual disciplines, forgiveness teaches us humility because we do it so poorly. When our eyes are opened to that truth, we will know more fully our dependence upon the Lord’s mercy, as well as our constant obligation to extend that same mercy to others.
For the same reasons, we struggle to fast from the richest and most satisfying foods during Lent, as well as to give generously to the poor and needy.  Again like our first parents, we are more interested in making “provision for the flesh,” in satisfying self-centered desires than we are in obeying God.  Even small steps in fasting and generosity this Lent will help us catch a glimpse of our weakness, and thus serve as reminders that we need the merciful strength of our Lord to heal us from slavery to deeply rooted temptations.  The more that we struggle to live faithfully as those who have put on Christ, the more we will recognize our dependence upon His grace and love.   The more our eyes are opened to our reliance on His mercy, the more genuine the forgiveness we show to others will be, and the less we will try to impress anyone by our piety.  
If we approach Lent this way, we will remain robed securely in “the armor of light” as we gain the strength to live faithfully as those called to become ever more like God in holiness. We will strip ourselves of darkness and decay as we embrace the healing and restoration of our souls, our relationships, and the entire creation, in the New Adam, Who stopped at nothing, not even the Cross, the tomb, and Hades in order to bring us bring us into His blessed, eternal life.  If we approach Lent this way, we will be dressed spiritually in the most fitting way possible to enter into the joy of our Savior’s glorious resurrection on the third day.

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