Two images are given to us today at the Saturday evening Vespers which are, I believe, intended to convey something very powerful concerning two sides of the same coin. It is completely appropriate on this last day before the Great Fast, or Great Lent, begins.
Some may find it puzzling that I say it is the last day before the Great Fast and it is a Sunday. Doesn't Lent begin on Ash Wednesday? Well, yes and no. In the Western Christian Tradition, Lent does begin on Ash Wednesday, but in the Eastern Christian Tradition, there is no Ash Wednesday, and consequently, no Mardi Gras either. In the Eastern tradition, Lent is not prepared for by indulging one last time in our chosen penance before the season begins. In the proper tradition of the Eastern Churches, one prepares for Lent by beginning to deprive oneself from the things from which one will fast, in order to begin practicing a higher degree of self discipline. In a sense, this last day before Great Lent is a stark reminder that we may very well have failed in our goal of preparation for the Fast. It is known of as Cheesefare Sunday, from the fact that it is the last day on which dairy may be consumed in the tradition of the full fast, which is not often observed in the modern era, but it also goes by another name: Forgiveness Sunday.
On Forgiveness Sunday, the purpose of our self discipline is driven home; that purpose is to grow in the love of God for one another. Sadly, as we have already begun to prepare for the Great Fast by two weeks of fasting, we have become aware that we have sinned against our friends, neighbors, and families. During the celebration of this particular day, at Vespers we are to ask one another's forgiveness for whatever offenses we may have committed. Part of the service involves the vocalization of forgiveness to one another, which we hope also comes from the heart.
As to the two images with which we are presented, they are chaos, and order. The image of chaos involves Adam, the father of humanity according to the flesh, sitting outside of Paradise lamenting over how much he has lost because Eve deceived him, even going as far as to say that the gates of Paradise are closed because of Eve. I will say more on this momentarily. The image of order shows the Most Holy Theotokos being the Throne of the Great King (Jesus) and the nuptial chamber of the Glory of God. In the course of this image, we see Mary being glorified as Mother of Jesus, the Savior of our souls, and Jesus answering the lament of Adam by stating that He desires His creation to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Both of these images are marital. The first of these images involves disharmony, disorder, misogyny, self centeredness, self pity, and a complete lack of personal responsibility. Adam is sorry for his sin, but it is only because of what he lost through someone else's actions. He just cannot own up to what he has done. This is an image of a very bad marriage, a marriage on the rocks. The wife is blamed for all the husband's problems, and really can't say anything to change his mind. She has no other recourse before human beings because the only other living human on Earth is the man who blames her for all of his suffering. This image we are given both in the Bible and in the prayers for today is not far removed from us. We see this sort of thing happening in our modern world as well, as husbands and wives blame each other for things not working out just as they planned. It should be noted that anytime a husband finds himself being critical of his wife, this symptom of broken humanity is being lived out in him, and the help of an experienced spiritual father should be sought. The same goes for a woman who is critical of her husband. There may be legitimate reasons for spouses to want to be critical, but one should always focus on changing oneself, and demonstrate mercy to the spouse. The Eastern Church presents this image to us first as a reminder that human beings have freely chosen the pickle in which they find themselves. If the Eastern Church were to leave us with this image only she could justly be accused of misogyny, and even a certain nihilism herself. But she doesn't stop there.
The second of these marital images with which we are presented is an image of order, harmony, and Glory. Jesus Himself promises salvation to His creatures, and then brings it about by glorifying a woman, one of a sex unjustly blamed for human suffering, and makes her the primary participant in His plan of redemption by becoming incarnate through her. He, the King of the Universe, takes her to be His throne. As God, He makes her the Platytera, more spacious than the heavens, for Him whom all heaven cannot contain dwelt within her ever virgin womb. As man, He becomes her son, which makes her His mother. Restoration to wholeness and harmony are given as a promise to all who receive this gift of God Incarnate.
I feel the need to be very explicit here. The Church presents us with both images, but it is not the Church which is misogynistic, it is Adam, and through him fallen, wounded, sinful humanity. The Eastern Church does not present this image to encourage enmity toward women, but rather to demonstrate that this enmity toward women is one of the symptoms of humanity tearing itself apart in disobedience to God. This is not to deny either, that there have been influential Christians with serious issues with women, but the Church is greater than the sum of its parts, for it is the household of God as well as being a hospital for sinners.
The truth of what humanity was to be in harmony with God is offered to us by Him and is contrasted with the lie that humanity accepted by choosing to live in disharmony with God, thus alienating themselves from one another. These two images are presented side by side to remind humanity of what we willingly chose, and to give us the chance to choose in favor of the best option ever offered to human beings.
As we are reminded of these images, we are also reminded to begin our work of bringing order to our houses by putting our relationships right. This does not mean we have to like everyone who is a member of our parish Church. It does mean that we have to strive to love them. It is presumed both that they have sinned against us, and that we have sinned against them. It is further presumed that obeying the command of God to love our neighbors will take work, and repentance on our own part as well. But if we wish to grow in God's love for one another, as He Himself would have us do, we must choose God's gift of Harmony with Him and with our neighbor, turn away from disharmony, which is sin, and although on Forgiveness Sunday, we are reminded very pointedly that this begins by repentance and forgiveness, we should not forget that every time we pray the Lord's Prayer, we pray "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."
May our observance of the discipline of Great Lent be a time of great Grace, and bring us ever closer to the Transfiguration of our world and of ourselves in Christ Jesus, our Lord.