Abba Poemen also said this about Abba Isidore that whenever he addressed the brothers in church he said only one thing, 'Forgive your brother, so that you also may be forgiven.' – From “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers”
Forgiveness is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Politicians rarely apologize for their mistakes. Countries take action based on what they think is right, without thinking about its repercussions years down the line or to people beyond their borders. This sentiment pervades common culture as well. We are taught to do what is right, and to be unapologetic when we are wrong. Even when forgiveness is asked, it is usually followed by justification of our actions rather than simply being contrite and remorseful for hurting our neighbor (Psalm 51:17). Modern Christianity has begun to accept this culture also, teaching salvation is individual, and reconciliation to God means that one only has to worry about his or her own status in the eyes of God rather than their position within the Holy Church.
However, this is not what Christ expects of us. In His “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5, the Lord says, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). The Lord teaches that it is not acceptable to be simply “okay” with our brothers and sisters, rather we are to be reconciled unto them. The world “reconciliation” comes from the Latin word reconciliatio, meaning “a re-establishing of a former state.” Christ does not accept being simply “okay” with others, but expects us to reestablish ourselves to each other as brothers and sisters. Christ assumes that the baseline of our relationship with the all members of the Church is as siblings. St. Cyprian of Carthage explains that God is our Father and the Church is our Mother. If this is the case, then all members in the Holy Church are our brothers and sisters.
The passage from the Holy Gospel of St. Matthew is a call to action. The Lord instructs to stop everything and anything we are doing, even an offering to God, and reconcile ourselves to our brothers and sisters. This is most evident in the Liturgy of the Holy Eucharist where the priest literally leaves the offering of the Bread and Wine at the Holy Table, as Christ instructed, and turns and comes to the people asking, “My brethren and beloved ones, forgive me and pray for me that the Lord may accept my oblation.” The acceptance of the Eucharistic offering is dependent on the forgiveness and prayers of the congregation. After this moment, the priest returns to the altar and prays for the forgiveness of sins for the congregation and departed. The Kiss of Peace is then given to the whole congregation, the acolyte echoing St. Paul’s command in II Corinthians 13:12 to “greet one another with a holy kiss.” This is the moment in which all of us should take pause. While the physical act of the Kiss of Peace has become automatic for most, we have to question our sincerity of the motion. Ultimately, it is not acceptable to be simply cordial with all members of the Church; rather Christ demands that we love all members of the Church. The Kiss of Peace is the prerequisite in which we can approach the Holy Mysteries at the end of the Liturgy. It is through this love that we, as one body in Christ, can share in His Holy Body and Blood.
St. Paul warns, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (I Corinthians 11:27). Christ makes it very clear that before offering anything to the Father, including the Holy Eucharist, the reestablishment of love between all the members of the entire Holy Church is required. It is only in this way that, as Fr. Alexander Schmemann teaches in The Holy Eucharist, that we can affirm our membership in the Holy Church.
Therefore, the next time the priest asks for forgiveness and we extend our hands to our neighbor for the Kiss of Peace, let us analyze our hearts and see what hatred it holds against those in our parish. Let us remember the words of the Apostle John, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (I John 4:20-21). Consequently, let us then drop everything and immediately reconcile ourselves to those who have hurt us and to those we have hurt. In this, we learn to “love because He first loved us“ (I John 4:19). By doing so, we can approach the Holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ who forgave our sin so that we might be reconciled to His Holy Father.
- By Shawn Thomas