The last day before Great Lent starts is known as “Forgiveness Sunday” in the Orthodox Church. The Gospel reading during the liturgy is taken from the Sermon on the Mount and encapsulates the meaning of the Great Fast, “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” (Mt. 6:14-21). This passage immediately follows behind Jesus’ instructions regarding alms-giving and prayer. The season of Lent is given by the Church as a time to re-adapt the commandments of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount in our own lives. The main emphasis given to us during Great Lent is to fast, pray, give alms, forgive, and to seek first the Kingdom of Heaven; the Kingdom which is given to us in Christ’s Holy Pascha.
Lent is a time to practice what we preach. The Christian life is often characterized as a life lived out of love for God, but Jesus challenges us to reshape our standard of love when He says, “if you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (Jn. 14:15) or when He warns us that, “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 7:21). To be a Christian isn’t about merely saying that you believe in Jesus, as St. Justin Martyr recognized, “let it be understood that those who are not found living as He taught are not Christians – even though they profess with the lips the teaching of Christ.” The Christian life is a life of the cross. To follow Christ is to follow Him down the path to Golgotha to be lifted up on the cross. The way of Christ is the way of the daily cross as Jesus said, “if any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk. 9:23).
The daily life of the cross is found in obedience to the commandments of Christ and the Sermon on the Mount is our guide. To deny our stomachs by keeping the prescribed fast is a cross which teaches us to reorient ourselves towards the hunger of our souls but if we fast with the intention of appearing righteous in the eyes of others, or that we may boast, then the spirit of fasting hasn’t truly touched our hearts and we keep the fast in vain. The keeping of the fast also reminds us that often our stomachs can be our god and more than once in the Scriptures did eating or complaining about food bring God’s judgment.
The commandments about prayer help to remind us that the needs of our lives are given to us by God. The more we turn to God in prayer the more we will find the inner peace and strength to meet the challenges of each day as well as the faith that God truly knows what we need and as a good Father will give every good gift to us. Frequent prayer will give us spiritual stability as we recognize through turning to God in prayer that He is the Maker of heaven and earth, He is the One Who orders all things through His providential will, and that He looks at us and all creation with His love and care.
The practice of giving alms teaches us that the riches of this life cannot last. Far too easily are we ensnared by the love of money and the pursuit of it, even at the cost of committing acts in rebellion to God, becomes an idol. The allure of riches turns us into gold hording dragons who wish to amass their horde while turning in towards themselves, caring nothing for the needs of others, and doing whatever it takes to keep their spoils. But gold won’t save you from death. Despite living in a world where so many are able to escape judgment through bribes and corruption God will not be bought out. By giving freely what we have received from God we become like Him and learn that our true treasure is the Heavenly Kingdom of the Resurrected Christ.
The discipline of forgiveness frees us from the inner prisons of resentment, grudges, and anger. When we’re wronged by others no matter how much we hate, how much we strike back, or how much we reject our abusers we cannot change what happened. To respond to those who hate us, persecute us, or curse us with hated, persecution, or cursing turns us into our enemies; the very thing we hate in them comes to define us. These feelings likewise keep us in inner emotional prisons and shape how we view and experience life. To forgive to to let go of the hold past wrongs have on us. To forgive is to find inner freedom. The Kingdom of Christ is marked by His own forgiveness of us and the only way to experience the liberty of His Kingdom is to follow Him in forgiveness, for as long as we remain in the darkness of our own unforgiving prisons we can never experience the light and freedom of heaven.
The effects that fasting, prayer, alms-giving, and forgiveness produce on us is no less than the very likeness of Christ Himself. Because when we take up our cross we open ourselves up to His resurrecting power. The life of the Kingdom is the life of the resurrected Christ and the way to experience the Christ’s resurrection is to follow Him to His cross. Fasting, prayer, alms-giving, and forgiving people are the means that Christ has given us to open our hearts as crosses that lead to resurrection. The essence of the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount is how to live the life of the Kingdom and the season of Lent helps us to renew our commitment to Christ and His commandments as we look forward to the gift of His salvation at the foot of the cross and outside the empty tomb.