The Cross was decided in the pre-eternal Council, so in a way God had forgiven us even before we fell. He took the risk of creation about which Father Sophrony speaks, for His purpose even before the foundation of the world was our salvation. And if the Lord had not said on the Cross, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34), we would not be able to repent nor find forgiveness. It is His word that is active and gives the fruit of forgiveness to our repentance. The word of the Lord was said once and it remains for ever, and this is the miracle of forgiveness. Likewise, the Lord said once, ‘Take, eat; this is my body’ (Matt 26:26, Mark 14:22), but every time we repeat it, fulfilling His commandment, (‘Do this in remembrance of me’ Luke 22:19), it becomes real again. If we did not eat and drink His Body and Blood and repeat these words fulfilling the commandment which activates it anew, the sacrament of the Eucharist would be impossible. If we do not forgive, but harbour resentment or displeasure towards someone, we cannot be free and we will not have any benefit from Lent, but will remain outside the grace of this holy period. It is true, we need God’s help to forgive, but as He gave the commandment to forgive, His wish and help is already expressed, and what is left is for us to implement it.
Question: If Christ said on the Cross, ‘Forgive them for they not know what they do,’ does this mean that we can only truly forgive on the Cross?
Archim. Zacharias: Yes, of course. In any case, we are always disciples of the Cross, because we try to follow the Lord. ‘Whoever wants to follow me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me’ (Matt. 16:24, et. al.). Already, to be wronged and forgive is a crucifixion of both mind and heart. The very essence of the Cross is the will of God for our salvation which the Son of God fulfilled: He came, suffered and died for us on the Cross. The same pattern occurs in our life: whenever we accept any commandment of God and try to fulfil it, we are assimilated into the mystery of His Cross and Resurrection whereby we receive forgiveness of sins and the joy of salvation. The strength of the Liturgy lies in that we come together to fulfil His commandment, His wish, and in doing that we receive the grace of salvation. The virtue of obedience has such a power in monasticism, because it is a very concrete way of abiding continually in the spirit of the commandment given to us by our Father in God in a very concrete and personal way.
Question: Does forgiving others make us like unto God?
Archim. Zacharias: When we forgive, we imitate God Himself, Who manifested His goodness on the Cross saying, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34). When we forgive we become like unto God, and we can therefore live with Him and conform to His spirit for all eternity. Forgiveness clothes us with the spirit of His humility. How can we be righteous unto all ages, if we do not receive in us the same spirit, the same disposition, ‘Forbearing and forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven us’ (cf. Eph. 4:32, Col. 3:13). ‘We too have the mind of Christ,’ says the Apostle Paul (cf. 1 Cor. 2:16). Saint Paul is most wondrous among all the apostles, because he had never lived with Christ, he only beheld Him for a few seconds when he was caught up into the third heaven, but he returned from this rapture bearing the whole Christ in his heart. He now possessed the knowledge of the whole mystery of God. For me, Saint Paul is the miracle of God. He was not among the disciples of the Lord, and yet in one instant he became the first and unique Apostle, before whom even the great Peter humbled himself, though his mere shadow was able to heal the sick.
Question: What does it mean to belong to God for ever in this life?
Archim. Zacharias: It is to have His word living in us, ‘dwelling richly in our hearts’ (Col. 3:16), because then we are marked by that word. ‘By the word of thy lips I have kept to the hard path’ (see Ps. 17:4). If we remembered only this verse in our life, we would never sin. When the word of God governs our life, we belong to Him, because His word is the expression of His pre-eternal Council, His pre-eternal purpose for our salvation. In the beginning of our spiritual life, it is easy to hold on to the word of God: as soon as we hear and accept it, our heart opens and we begin to experience the grace of salvation. All this comes to us through the word of God. The Lord is like a sower that sows the word in our heart and if these seeds find a good earth, a heart that will embrace the commandments of the Lord, then they bring fruit.
‘Quarrelling’ with God
Question: The Father gives all the judgment to the Son. How does that fit in with the Trinity?
Archim. Zacharias: He received the judgment because He is the Son of man: He humbled Himself, took upon Himself the form of man and performed all the commandments of God in His human nature. When He prayed with tears in Gethsemane, He offered the sacrifice for our redemption in His human nature in the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, Christ’s human nature is our judgment. He can judge the world because in His human nature He has saved the world and given an example of the perfection of the Father. This is why He can say, ‘Follow me, I have given you an example’ (John 13:15). In following Him, we are judged gloriously and receive the crown of salvation, whereas in not following Him, we are judged as fallen out of His salvation.
Father Sophrony was fighting with God saying, ‘How can You judge me, You are the perfect God Who dwells in the heavens and I am a weak person suffering so much pain in this transient life. How can You judge me?’ And the Lord spoke to Him, ‘Is it you that died for the world?’ The God Father Sophrony was addressing answered to him as the Crucified One. This is His judgment. He is the judge because He lived sinlessly according to God’s commandments and died for us. And after the Resurrection, He was given all authority in heaven and upon earth. In such moments of utter humility and despair, the Saints speak to God from the heart and they can receive such answers, such short dicta that become landmarks in their life. It is then that their consciousness widens, their heart enlarges, their mind is illumined.
Question: It sounds as if Father Sophrony almost complained to God.
Archim. Zacharias: Yes, because he was suffering. He had a tendency in his life to ‘quarrel’ with God, yet he said, ‘God always put me to shame by answering to me and correcting me.’ Father Sophrony could do that because he was ready to die for the Lord and he was ‘quarrelling’ with Him on the threshold of death. Such a man cannot perish, for God deals with him like with His friend, with His equal. All the Saints receive grace after such daring moments in their life, when they reach the threshold of death and even decide to jump over it, and suddenly find themselves in the Kingdom. Also, when Father Sophrony said, ‘I am so weak, how can You judge me?’, he was interceding for the whole humanity, not only for himself. In a way he was quarrelling with God for all humankind.
I always admire in the Saints this fearless desire to come to God and know Him, ignoring even the threat of death. This means that their faith and love for God is beyond the death that is threatening them, that they have already determined themselves for eternity, as Father Sophrony puts it. It is incredible. This is Christianity. Unfortunately, we do not know true Christianity. As Saint Andrew of Crete said in one of his homilies, God leads His Saints even to the threshold of death, not that they may perish but explore the whole mystery of Christ, His whole path descending even to hell and come to know totus Christus, the whole Christ. It is in such moments that we learn true theology, when we stand before God and decide to go to the end. Then God opens our mind and our heart to know a new dimension of His mystery. Through such experiences of reaching the threshold of death and even going over it, the Saints understood the life of Christ and His prayer in Gethsemane. There is no other way to understand the Gospel, which only speaks about the death that saved from death, about the death and Resurrection of Christ, Who saved us from the death of sin and made an opening to eternal life.
The Power of Fasting
We are commanded to follow Christ unto death, and when we taste a certain deadening for the sake of His commandment, we receive such grace that it fills all things, renewing our whole life. We are called to a new beginning. By keeping the commandments, the power of the mystery of the Cross enters our life. This is what we mean when we say that Great Lent is stirred up by the grace of God. The power of Lent lies in the greatest commandment of discipleship to Christ; to die to this world. This taste of death to this world is life to the Master Who gives the commandment. Great Lent is stirred by the grace of God, because it is provoked by the greatest commandment. Do not forget that God showed His love, the content of His hypostasis, when He loved us to the end, whereas man shows the content of his perfected hypostasis when he loves Christ to self-hatred. In fact, Great Lent is a period given us in order to exercise our self-hatred.
Those who live Great Lent properly, feel this power. The Lord says, ‘Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it cannot blossom and bring life’ (John 12:24). The deadening of the Lord Jesus predetermines the extent and quality of our future resurrection, because we are striving for a ‘better resurrection’ (Heb. 11:35). Therefore, do not be surprised, if you feel weak and a certain deadening, it is part of the programme, especially in the first week, when for three days you do not take food. It is a great lesson. Fasting is not a neutral thing. In this state we are unable to do much, but we pray quietly and so peacefully. We may not pray as much as usual; we may not have an abundance of tears or make as many prostrations as we normally do. We feel we have no energy, we cannot stand in prayer for long, but we invoke quietly the Name of Christ and each invocation is so powerful that it attracts a wave of grace. Despite this deadening, there is a wave of grace at every invocation sweeping over the soul. We bear the deadening of Christ, and so His life comes in waves within us. Thus the deadening of the body because of fasting goes hand in hand with the powerful invocation of the Name of Christ and contains in it the seed of resurrection, the seed of incorruption, manifest in the strength of prayer that originates from it. This phenomenon reveals the power of Great Lent and explains how the atmosphere of Lent is stirred up by the grace of God.