During the weeks of the Great Lent, the church does something amazing. Every week it brings to our attention an essential Chrisitan virtue. Like a mother holding the hand of a child, it guides us and walks us through these spiritual passages of faith, helping us to prepare mentally and spiritually for the glorious Easter and resurrection of our Lord.
The first Sunday of the Great Lent in the Armenian Church is known as the Expulsion Sunday. Why did the church pick this theme and topic for the first Sunday of the Lenten season? What can we learn from the story of expulsion from paradise, and how can it help us grow in our faith?
Numerous artists from the middle-ages to the renaissance and our modern age depicted the story of expulsion. Yet, the way this incredible story is most often interpreted and presented in art does extreme injustice to its core message. Expulsion paintings and even sacred icons and miniature paintings often highlight the humiliation, fear, terror that Adam and Eve experienced as they were being driven out of the Garden of Eden. They capture and often focus on the anger of the angels sealing the gates of Eden for humanity, the vengeance and punishment of God.
While all of the above might be true, on its deepest level the Expulsion story is a beautiful tale of God’s fatherly and gentle love for his children, his compassion and care for humanity and ultimately about his unconditional forgiveness and mercy.
We find the same message of forgiveness echoed in today’s Scripture reading from the Gospel of St. Matthew. There is a cosmic depth, divine grace and beauty in how the theme of forgiveness is presented in the Gospel. While teaching in Galilee, Christ tells them that if they go to Jerusalem to offer their prayers and sacrifices to God and remember that their brother or sister might have something against them, they must leave their sacrifice in front of the altar, go back, reconcile with them first and only then return, offer their prayer and sacrifice to God.
The distance between Galilee and Jerusalem is about a hundred twenty miles. Traveling to Jerusalem through the desert and mountains would by itself be a very hard thing to pull off. By asking and encouraging Galileans to leave their offering in Jerusalem, return home, reconcile with their brother or sister, travel the same distance, and experience the same hardship – the Lord, in fact, highlights the importance of reconciliation in our lives relationships.
Forgiving can be very hard. Anyone who experienced abuse or trauma in their lives would attest that forgiveness often is a lifelong struggle and journey. But even then finding peace and strength to forgive someone is so much easier than actively searching for ways and means to also reconcile with those who hurt and wounded us.
But this is not all. Christ elevates the concept of forgiveness to an even higher level when He incorporates the necessity of mercy in the Christian understanding of forgiveness. In the Gospel narrative, there is no sign and indication that his person did anything wrong at all. In fact, what he did or did not do is completely irrelevant because the need for forgiveness and reconciliation is based purely on the other person’s feelings.
Showing mercy, compassion, being able to forgive when someone does not necessarily show remorse and regret, seeking reconciliation when we did nothing wrong, are very hard things to do. However, this is exactly what we are exhorted and invited to do by our Lord and Savior.
There is no one-click solution for raising ourselves to such a high standard of forgiveness. Like everything else in Christian life, forgiveness is also a journey that starts with prayer. Through our prayers, we raise our lives to God, ask him to give us strength and to guide us. Through our prayers, we bring our concerns and worries to him and gain confidence that through the mystical windows of our honest prayers and desire to forgive and reconcile God enters our lives, transforms, renews and heals our lives and relationships.