"Eucharist as the Actualization of Divine Forgiveness?"
Eucharist as the Actualization of Divine Forgiveness?
Fr Edward Rommen
According to Christ’s words of institution we are to receive the holy mysteries “for the forgiveness of sin” (Mt 26:28). This benefit of communion is echoed throughout the Liturgy and culminates in the words “Take, eat, this is my body, which is broken for you, for the forgiveness of sins” and is repeated in the admonition “Drink ye all of this; this is my blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins” (2003, 145-146). Then, right after the epiclesis we pray that those who partake of the holy gifts will be given cleansing of soul, forgiveness of sins, communion of thy Holy Spirit, fulfillment of the kingdom of heaven, and boldness toward God (2003, 149). An even more expansive statement of eucharistic blessing is found in St. Chrysostom’s pre-communion prayer:
...grant to me to have communion without condemnation of Thy most pure, immortal, life-creating, and awesome mysteries; for the remission of sins and unto life everlasting; for sanctification, enlightenment, strength, healing and health of soul and body; for the most perfect removal and destruction of my evil thoughts and reasonings, and intentions, fantasies by night, brought by dark and evil spirits...(1967, 100).
So what exactly is being offered to us in communion? What is being given through the Eucharist that isn’t provided in response to our daily request for forgiveness or the absolution spoken during the sacrament of confession? What is the nature and what are the conditions of the forgiveness (remission) mediated by the sacrament? What do the answers to these questions imply for our practice in the Church? Before we can explore the ecclesial dimensions of forgiveness, we need to briefly consider the nature of forgiveness in general by reviewing the range of definitions given in contemporary literature and the basic meaning of forgiveness as presented in the Scriptures. With that foundation in place, I will then turn to ecclesial practice and address the questions raised in the previous paragraph.
1. On the Nature of Forgiveness
a) Introductory Observations
To begin with we have to recognize that forgiveness, whatever it is, takes place on the plane of personhood, that is in a context of interpersonal communion that has been temporarily damaged by some offense. I say temporarily and damaged because the offense does not necessarily destroy the relationship entirely, in any case we are still capable of interpersonal communion even after it is damaged by an offense. For that reason part of my concern here is the relationship between forgiveness and the restoration of communion, that is, reconciliation.
When I speak of communion, I am referring to a self-transcendent intersubjective, interpenetration of two or more personal beings that takes place in complete freedom and kenotic love. It is “I,” driven by self-emptying love for the Other, overcoming the boundaries of its own personhood in order to share in the I-ness of the Other, a sharing that can be so complete that it is possible to speak of a multi-hypostatic “I,” that is, a “We.” Communion involves a free unhindered flow of information, emotions, and desires, and an unmediated participation in every aspect of the Other’s being. The characteristics of healthy communion are a) mutual acknowledgment and engagement of non-I as subject; b) an interpenetration / participation or sharing of thoughts, emotions, physical presence, desires, all without fear; and c) complete freedom of thought, movement, speech. This is the state of an inter-personal relationship in which no forgiveness is needed or it is the state of communion that has been renewed by reconciliation after repentance and forgiveness.
Communion, then, is not a static given, but rather a dynamic, living reality that can both grow and diminish. When it is damaged by an offense, the free exchange of subjectivity is hindered and in some cases even made impossible. It prevents the sharing (interpenetration) of thoughts, emotions, and desires and leads to a dissolution of the I/non-I union, in which case the relationship stalls, is reduced to banalities, becomes superficial at best and self-serving at its worst. Accordingly, when we sin against God we have a hard time praying, worshiping, or keeping the commandments. After sinning in our dealings with one another, we withdraw, avoid, and only awkwardly talk about things no more significant than the weather. That, in turn, prevents mutual interpenetration, and with mutual trust destroyed by a sense of betrayal, freedom is lost to fear, suspicion, and avoidance. In the midst of this and many other discontinuities “We” is lost. In fact, we could even use the image of death to describe what happens to the interpersonal communion damaged by sin. Again we see this in our relationship with God and one another. God, being a personal being, created us in his image, that is as personal beings so that we would have that ability to commune with him and with one another. But we are contingent beings who’s continued existence depends on the persistent will of God and who's personhood is derived from His, that is, is wholly dependent on the divine source. So in the absence of divine-human communion, cut off from the source, we experience both physical and spiritual death (Rom 5:12). Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos reminds us that
In church we often speak of the fall of man and the death which came as a result of the fall. Spiritual death came first, and bodily death followed. The soul lost the uncreated grace of God, the nous ceased to have a relationship with God and was darkened. It transmitted this darkening and dying to the body (Vlachos 1994, 112)
It is only true forgiveness that opens the way to restoration or better, the resurrection of communion by remitting or actually eliminating the cause of the offense. Although this can be voluntarily and unconditionally offered by the offended one, it is usually preceded by some form of repentance, the acknowledgement of wrong, and the request for pardon. This enables the offended party to legitimately dismiss the wrong and treat the offender as if no offense had taken place. This is forgiveness and it creates the possibility of reconciliation but does not guarantee it. Like repentance and forgiveness, reconciliation involves a deliberate choice. It has to be actively entered into by means of an invitation issued by the victim, accepted and reciprocated by the offender. The offending party is once again welcomed to full participation in the life of the Other and the process of intersubjective exchange or communion is reestablished. This, of course, is a matter of trust. In many cases the invitation to renewed communion is not immediately and sometimes never given. This may be the result of the understandable fear of further offense or injury. But, if reconciliation does not occur, then the forgiveness is denied its most obvious fruit.
So far three distinct themes, actions, or aspects of forgiveness stand out: repentance, forgiveness itself, and reconciliation. As I see it each step is required for the process to be completed. But, depending on which one or which combination of these three aspects you emphasize you get very different pictures of forgiveness. This is true of both contemporary literature and the biblical material. We can summarize this material by pointing to three distinct models: i) unconditional, ii) elective, and iii) conditional forgiveness.
b) Forgiveness in Contemporary Literature
i) Unconditional Forgiveness (with or without reconciliation) regardless of the offender’s attitude. Many today consider forgiveness a voluntary act based on the victim’s ability to reduce or overcome the negative feelings of resentment, anger, and betrayal and thus forgo any claim to retribution. This is done by helping the victim take control of his own feelings. This might also involve the conviction that the resentment is no longer warranted. Perhaps the person was unable to avoid, could not help committing the offense, in which case there is no need for forgiveness except for the emotional wellbeing of the victim. In this view forgiveness is something that takes place within the mind of the victim and has little or nothing to do with the offender. It is encouraged for the sake of the victim’s own mental health. This approach has been largely taken by those interested in the psychology of forgiveness and those in the self-help business. Frederic Luskin, for example, starts out his book, Forgive for Good, by observing that
Forgiveness is for you and not the offender.?
Forgiveness is taking back your power.?
Forgiveness is taking responsibility for how you feel.?
Forgiveness is about your healing and not about the people who hurt you.
Forgiveness is a trainable skill
Forgiveness helps you get control over your feelings.?
Forgiveness can improve your mental and physical health.
Forgiveness is becoming a hero instead of a victim (Luskin 2002, vii).
Of course, this therapeutic approach is relatively easy to criticize since it completely dismisses the person of the offender and reduces forgiveness to a technique rather than a moral response. In fact, I suggest that the self-help understanding of forgiveness as “getting over it" is not forgiveness at all (Couenhoven 2010, 156). For this reason some have suggested an intermediate position.
ii) Elective Forgiveness depends on the “mercy” aspect of voluntary forgiveness and understands forgiveness as choosing to release the debt owed. According to Lucy Allias this approach seeks to
accommodate the idea that forgiveness is elective in the sense that it is not a matter of what is deserved, that it can be given without repentance on the part of the wrongdoer, without the forgiver necessarily making a moral mistake, and that repentance need not oblige the victim to forgive (Allias 2013, 644)
The basic idea here is to avoid setting out more conditions for forgiveness, but rather to focus on a reduction of feelings of resentment, that is “overcoming retributive reactive attitudes” (Allias 2013, 644). This feeling of resentment represents a negative evaluation of the wrongdoer based on the blameworthiness of her action. As rational beings we have more options open to us than those simplistically constrained by the feelings or emotions of resentment, justified or not. These emotions can be deliberately and voluntarily altered, in which case
forgiving involves ceasing to have the retributive or negative reactive attitudes towards the wrongdoer that her wrongdoing warrants. You hold an action against someone when the way you affectively see her is informed by, and lowered by, her action; when you forgive, you stop seeing her as tainted or dishonored in the way that her action supports (Allias 2013, 646).
Resentment is warranted or made appropriate by wrongdoing, and wrongdoing entitles us to resent, but this does not mean that it obliges us to resent; we can therefore choose to give up resentment without making a moral or epistemic mistake (Allias 2013, 647).
Seen this way forgiveness becomes a choice that the victim makes by voluntarily renouncing the right to be offended even if the offending party is not entitled to that. The point here is not the actual wrongness of the offense, not the offended one’s resentful emotions, but rather the victim’s attitude to the offender as an agent. So unlike unconditional forgiveness which essentially eliminates the wrongdoer from the transaction, this form of forgiveness is a positive evaluation of the wrongdoer in spite of the offense and is granted at the discretion of the victim. This does not depend on repentance, it may or may not lead to reconciliation, and it could leave the victim vulnerable to additional assaults. But this is a choice that a rational individual can and, some say, should make.
iii) Conditional Forgiveness. At the other end of this spectrum there is what we could call conditional forgiveness. Forgiveness that can only take place if certain conditions are fulfilled by the offending party, basically withholding forgiveness in the absence of repentance. In one model Griswold enumerates the conditions necessary for forgiveness.
The wrongdoer acknowledges responsibility for the act in question?
The wrongdoer repudiates the action?
The wrongdoer experiences and expresses regret?
The wrongdoer commits ‘to becoming the sort of person who does not inflict injury, and that commitment must be shown through deeds as well as words (Griswold 2007, 49-50 as cited by Allias).
Only when these conditions are met is forgiveness even possible. The Jewish scholar David Blumenthal states that forgiveness without repentance (Teshuva) is not possible. Repentance, he says, includes five distinct steps:1) Recognition of one’s sins as sins, 2) Remorse, 3) Desisting from sin, 4) Restitution, and 5) Confession (Blumenthal 2005, 2-4). But again this does not necessarily include reconciliation.
If the offender has done teshuva, as described above, and is sincere in his or her repentance, the offended person should offer mechila; that is, the offended person should forgo the debt of the offender, relinquish his or her claim against the offender. This is not a reconciliation of heart or an embracing of the offender; it is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender no longer owes me anything for whatever it was that he or she did. Mechila is like a pardon granted to a criminal by the modern state. The crime remains; only the debt is forgiven.
This last idea—that the crime remains—may well be true of all forms of human forgiveness, since we have no way of wiping the event from our memories and we do remember it even after repentance and forgiveness. That is so because we do not have the ability to do away with the crime, that is, to atone for another person’s sin. This, as we will now see, is something that only God can do, “a total wiping away of all sinfulness... the ultimate form of forgiveness” (Blumenthal 2005, 74).
c) Forgiveness in Scripture
The idea of forgiveness in scripture is primarily concerned with the relationship between God and human beings. While the willingness for human-human forgiveness is spoken of (Mt 6:12. 14; 18:35), it is divine-human forgiveness that takes center stage and that will be the focus of the rest of this essay. In the Old Testament it is expressed using a number of terms. One term (za?kar) focuses attention on the forgetting of sin as in not thinking about, meditating upon, paying attention to, or remembering it. We see this in Psalm 79:8- 9 where God not remembering sin is the same thing as forgiving it and foregoing any further punishment. Another term (ka?sâ) speaks of covering or hiding sin. Psalm 32:1 illustrates this by paralleling the term forgive with the word cover. Some have suggested that his covering is not really forgiveness, that sin was just covered over or provisionally offered in light of the coming sacrifice of Christ. Yet the Old Testament repeatedly speaks of God actually forgiving the sins of his people (Ex 34:9; Num 14:19- 20), and forgiveness of all manner of sins including those done in ignorance is included in the Mosaic law, except for those who remain defiant and unrepentant (Num 15: 30-31). On the Day of Atonement, “all the iniquities" and sins of Israel were atoned (Lev 16:21, 30, 32, 34). So the use of these and other terms which speak of taking away, forgetting, blotting out do indicate real forgiveness that actually removes sin to an immeasurable distance (Ps 103:3, 11- 12), actually does what no human forgiveness can do, remove the crime itself. It is what Solomon asked for (1 Kgs 8:30, 34, 39, 50) and what the Prophets promise in return for repentance (Amos 7:2, Daniel 9:19, Jeremiah, 31:34; 33:8; 50:20). This is all captured in what is perhaps the most important term in this regard, sa?lah?, to forgive or to pardon. It is used solely of God and His offer of pardon and forgiveness and never refers to human beings forgiving each other.
So exciting was the openness of this offer of forgiveness that Isaiah (55:7) featured it as the heart of his invitation to salvation. So ready was their Lord to forgive, that Isaiah's listeners must forget all notions based on the reluctance of men to forgive each other. The experience of forgiveness in the OT was personally efficacious, although objectively the basis and grounds of that forgiveness awaited the death of Christ ("Forgiveness" in Harris, Archer, and Waltke 1980).
What the Old Testament presents is a cross between elective (mercy) and conditional forgiveness that requires repentance and always produces reconciliation. The process can be initiated by either offended or offender. Note that the prophets, speaking for God, call the sinful people to repentance. But forgiveness can only be offered by God himself since He actually removes the crime through the atoning sacrifice of his own Son. This divinely granted forgiveness always envisions complete reconciliation, the restoration of communion.
Forgiveness in the New Testament is centered on the term α?φ?ημι which can mean to let go, to pardon, to remit, that is to forgive’ sins (Mk 2:5ff.), trespasses (Mt 6:14), iniquities (Rom 4:7). The noun almost always means forgiveness, usually of sins (Mk 1:4; Mt 26:28; Acts 2:38; 5:31; 10:43; Col 1:14), or of trespasses in Ephesians 1:7. This is something that God does when he is asked to do so through repentance. The objective basis for this is the saving work of Christ (Mk 2:5ff; Col 1:14; Eph 1:7) as continually offered through the sacraments of baptism (Acts 2:38; Heb 6:1ff.) and the Eucharist (Mt 26:28). Forgiveness also has an eschatological dimension (Lk 1:77), something anticipated and foretasted during the Eucharist.
Again we have a cross between elective (mercy) and conditional (repentance) forgiveness that atones for sin, removes it completely based on the passion of Christ, and makes possible the full resurrection of divine-human communion. Summing up we see that
a) responsibility is maintained to God as Judge, b) that forgiveness is known as his act, not as a theoretical deduction, c) that as an eschatological event forgiveness means total renewal, and d) that forgiveness is received when God's judgment is affirmed in the confession of sins (1 Jn 1:9; Js 5:16; Acts 19:18), penitence (Lk 24:47; Acts 2:38; Heb 6:12) ("Forgiveness" in Bromiley and Friedrich 1964).
2. Forgiveness in the Church
How, then, does all of this play out in the Church? As I see it we have four formal or institutionalized opportunities for forgiveness within the life of the Church. First, there is the sacrament of baptism during which we are cleansed from all previous sin and given new life and the power to become the children of God. After baptism the priest expresses this by praying
O Lord, through holy Baptism, You have given to Your servant remission of sins, and have bestowed upon him (her) a life of regeneration. Likewise, the same Lord and Master, ever graciously illumine his (her) heart with the light of Your countenance. Maintain the shield of his (her) faith unassailed by the enemy. Preserve pure and unpolluted the garment of incorruption with which You have clothed him (her), by Your grace, the seal of the Spirit, and showing mercy to him (her) and to us, through the multitude of Your mercies (Harrison).
Second, we are given “repentance unto salvation,” that is the opportunity to continually repent of any sins committed after baptism. We do this daily during our evening prayers, one of which reads “O Lord our God, if during this day I have sinned, whether in word or deed or thought, forgive me all, for You are good and love mankind” (Coniaris 2001, Location 1228-1229 Kindel Edition). We have every reason to believe that, if our confession is sincere, God will and does forgive us those sins.
The third opportunity, again for post-baptismal sin, comes during the rite of Confession. As time passes and our sins are repeated and their weight increases as the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin (John 16:8). We are then able to take advantage of the sacrament of penance during which we confess our sins to Christ and are granted absolution. Through the priest the promise of forgiveness is issued and in that moment God does forgive us. Again, there is no reason to doubt the efficacy of this act and experience shows that most sinners weighed down by transgressions are greatly relieved by the Spirit mediated release. Interestingly absolution is offered with a view toward communion. In one edition of the Priest’s Service Book the prayer reads as follows:
May God Who pardoned David through Nathan the Prophet when he confessed his sins, Who pardoned Peter who wept bitterly for his denial, the Harlot who wept at His feet, the Publican and the Prodigal, forgive you all things, through me a sinner, both in this world and in the world to come, and set you uncondemned before His terrible Judgment Seat. And I, your unworthy priest, do conjoin you to the unity of the faithful, and the body of Christ’s Church and do communicate you with the Divine Mysteries of the Church: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen (Abramtsov 1971).
Note the connection between forgiveness, the admonition to rejoin the unity of the Church, and the willingness to offer communion. In this form of the prayer the penitent is being urged to complete the process of forgiveness by reentering communion with her fellow believers and with Christ by receiving the Holy Gifts of the Eucharist.
The fourth opportunity for forgiveness comes during the Divine Liturgy. After we once again pray that God will have mercy on us and pardon our trespasses, voluntary and involuntary, in word, or in deed, in knowledge and in ignorance” then we add the words, and make us “worthy to partake of thine immaculate Mysteries unto forgiveness of sins and unto life eternal.” And when we then receive the Holy Mysteries, God does exactly that. Again there is no doubt that forgiveness is actually granted.
Speaking now of post-baptismal sin, if we are granted forgiveness through repentance, confession, and the Eucharist, what is the relationship between these three practices? What is being offered at the Eucharist that we do not receive from the daily repentance and confession? According to the prayer just cited the remission of sin is only one benefit of the Eucharist, eternal life in Christ is the other. In the model of forgiveness set out in this essay, the Eucharist could be seen as reinforcing and completing the process initiated by repentance. It provides a concrete and practical way of stepping into the reconciliation made possible by forgiveness. In other words, it is the realization or actualization of the intended aim of divine forgiveness, namely, the resurrection of complete communion with Christ. As Staniloea puts it “If chrismation gives power to develop the new life in Christ received through baptism, it is through the Eucharist that this life is perfected as full union with Christ and the Church” (Sta?niloae 2012, 73).
a) The Eucharist and Forgiveness of Sins
The first of these Eucharistic benefits is forgiveness. This is consistent with the words of institution, that is, with the atoning purpose of Christ’s passion which is made real to us during the Liturgy.
Who does not know that it is the death of Christ alone which has brought remission of sins to the world? But we also know that even after his death faith, penitence, confession, and the prayer of the priest are necessary, and a man cannot receive remission of sins unless he has first been through these processes (Cabasilas 1960, 72-73).
What I am suggesting here is that forgiveness is a process that takes us through our death with Christ in baptism, our confession of post-baptismal sins, and on to the prayers and actions of the Divine Liturgy. Faced with the sacred and holy space of the Liturgy, its prayers and hymns heighten our sensitivity to our own sin. According to Cabasilas “The prayers turn us toward God and obtain for us pardon of our sins, the Psalms make God look favorably on us and draw to us that outflowing of mercy which is the result of such propitiation” (Cabasilas 1960, 26). But what sins are we talking about here? If the sins confessed during the rite of penance are indeed forgiven during the prayer of absolution, what are these other sins that need to be forgiven during the Liturgy celebrated the next morning? Perhaps we are to think in terms of all the sins committed between confession and the Eucharist. And while serious communion-destroying sin could certainly occur in that space and could thus be forgiven during the Eucharist, reckoning this way seems a bit pedantic and implies that God is simply keeping an account of every misstep, something he says he does not do (Psalm 150:3). This kind of thinking reduces God’s relationship with us to keeping score rather than redeeming and transforming us into his children. Staniloea offers an interesting insight.
The Eucharist thus establishes in us the power to surrender our existence wholly to God in order to receive it back filled with His eternal life, as Christ did through the resurrection. The Eucharist is not so much intended for a renewed life on earth, in the likeness of Christ’s earthly life, as it is for the life to come. It presupposes that man has progressed or will progress beyond a renewed life on earth—a life that he will realize by drawing on the power of baptism and chrismation—into eternal life, that is, a life beyond the life that has established itself firmly in the purity received in baptism and in the virtues of the power of the mystery of holy chrism, hence beyond a life sheltered from sin into eternal life. For sins committed after baptism and chrismation, pardon is generally obtained through the mystery of penance. If it is also said that the Eucharist exists for the forgiveness of sins not exclusively for the sake of the life to come, this is because these sins are those that have continued to remain hidden from our consciousness and have not been able to be forgiven in the sacrament of penance on the basis of confession. The Eucharist is given principally for the sake of eternal life, and hence for the purpose of raising us above life on earth. (Sta?niloae 2012, 75)
If repentance is required for forgiveness, then we see the possibility that Staniloea raises, namely that we have some sins that we continue to hide or deny, of which we have not repented, and which have not been forgiven during the sacrament of confession. If Cabasilas is right then the Liturgy and its prayers draw us toward the holiness of God and in that light our sinfulness, all of it, even the hidden elements are exposed and rise to the surface (Eph 5:13). Throughout the Liturgy we repeatedly petition God for forgiveness and remission of our sins and are then given an opportunity to repent of these sins in the prayers just before taking communion. The Eucharist itself as a reactualization of Christ’s atoning death is effective in removing and forgiving our offenses. We take into us the very “body of his dying” with which he covered our sins, separated us from our sinful past, and granted us new life (2 Cor 4:11). “Our bodies, having received poison, need an Antidote; and only by eating and drinking can it enter. One Body, the receptacle of Deity, is this Antidote, thus received.” (Gregory of Nyssa: Dogmatic Treatises). And in the words of Origen “If the blood of the covenant was poured into our hearts for the remission of our sins, then by the pouring of that potable blood into our hearts all the sins we have committed in the past will be remitted and wiped clean.“ (Commentary On Matthew 86)
b) Actualization of Reconciliation
So yes, we repent and receive the Holy Gifts for the remission of sins not confessed and absolved through penance. But, as we saw above, the process of forgiveness involves a third step, something that has to be deliberately entered into. This is the second and primary benefit of the Eucharist, new life in Christ. Certainly this is the meaning of Jesus’ words in John 6. There he clearly relates the drinking of his blood and the eating of his flesh with life, that is life eternal.
Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever (John 6:53-58).?
This is, as the Fathers attest, a clear reference to the Eucharist, and its primary benefit is life. As St. Ignatius puts it, the Eucharist is “the medicine of immortality and the antidote against death, enabling us to live forever in Jesus Christ” (Epistle To The Ephesians 20). To live in Christ is to have the unrestrained interpenetration and participation, the inter-subjectivity, the fearless and kenotic love spoken of above. It is, in a word, to have communion with Him. So what we have in the Eucharist is an opportunity to resurrect divine-human communion or enter into the reconciliation that has been made possible by Christ’s forgiveness. We repent (confession), He forgives us (absolution), and we consciously and deliberately accept his invitation for renewed communion by taking the holy elements. And while human victims are often reluctant to take this step and trust those who have offended them, Christ, out of love, continually offers us this invitation to new life.
Ultimately, the life without death grows in us through the supreme and concrete intimacy into which we have entered. We remain and grow through the Eucharist with the divine Person of the Word, who has realized the potentiality of this intimacy with us and of the act of communicating His own divine life to our body through the human body he assumed, for His body was filled with this life through his actual death, through the victory over the death that He endured, and through the state of mystical death and resurrection. Through this intimacy and communication perfected in Him we experience the states, feelings, and activities of Christ, and He experiences ours, penetrated and characterized by His own. “It is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20), said the holy Apostle Paul. Ultimately, the full union between Christ and ourselves, realized through the Eucharist, is the testimony of His supreme love for us, and this is the basis of the mutual communication perfected between Him and us.”(Sta?niloae 2012, 80-81)
As with any other relationship, divine-human communion has to be continually renewed and reaffirmed. This involves the ongoing work of spiritual maturation. Each new offense is repented of and forgiven. Each new, even minor, breach in communion is repaired and the relationship is kept active, growing, and healthy. An obvious implication of this is regular participation in the Eucharist, that is,
through our repeated moments of Eucharistic Communion. Through each Communion we produce a discontinuity with our past state and launch ourselves outward toward another state, which is higher up and corresponds to epektasis (“forward tension”) spoken of by Paul (Phil 3:13-14) and by Gregory of Nyssa. (Sta?niloae 2012, 78)
St. Cyril warns us that neglecting frequent participation in the Eucharist is inviting spiritual ruin. Since we continue to sin, our relationship to Christ is constantly threatened and the only way to maintain it is to actively participate in the repentance/forgiveness/reconciliation cycle, which culminates in the Eucharist.
Since these things are so, let those who have been baptized and tasted the divine grace understand this: if they are sluggish or reluctant about going to church and for long periods of time keep away from the eucharistic gift through Christ, feigning a pernicious reverence by not partaking of him sacramentally, they exclude themselves from eternal life inasmuch as they decline to be enlivened. Thus, their refusal [to partake of the Eucharist] though seeming to be an expression of reverence, is turned into a snare and an offense. (Commentary On The Gospel Of John 3.6.7)
So throughout the whole repentance/forgiveness/reconciliation cycle in the Church we are not only forgiven, not only returned to true communion, but we are also gradually transformed into His likeness, sanctified and made holy. This is exactly what the Priest anticipates in the the prayer before the Trisagion Hymn: “sanctify our souls and bodies, and grant us to serve thee in holiness all the days of our life” (Dmitri 2003). The idea of transformation and progress is also captured during the second prayer for the faithful: “Grant also, O God, to those that pray with us progress in life and faith and spiritual understanding.” (Dmitri 2003)
So taking advantage of every opportunity offered to receive Him into our lives we not only grow in our communion with Christ, but also gain an enhanced ability to live in forgiveness and reconciliation with one another. So I believe this ecclesial pattern can, by analogy, be applied to our relationships with one another. In particular, I think of relationships that have been broken because of a long term, continual string of offenses. How can these situations ever be reversed? Perhaps we could think in terms of “baptizing” a relationship, that is mutually agreeing in the presence of Christ to wash away, repent of, and forgive all past offensives and to do so without rehearsing them all and without any conditions other than repentance. This would put the relationship back on a path toward reconciliation. Then as we work on the relationship by gradually and cautiously opening ourselves up by offering trust, we will need to repent of, confess, and forgive any new offense that arises out of the struggle to repair that which was broken. We may well need to, with the new spiritual strength derived from the Eucharist, offer our own invitation to communion by depending on our communion with Christ to enable trust in the Other.
I have come to the conclusion that forgiveness is a process that involves repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It operates this way both in human to human relationships as well as in the divine-human relationships. In the realm of the human this ideal is difficult to achieve because we generally do not forget wrongs done to us, cannot atone for another’s wrong, and because we have difficulty extending trust after having been hurt. However, in the Church Christ Himself offers us forgiveness as well as a practical and sustainable path to reconciliation. This restoration of the divine-human relationship is granted to us in the institutionalized rites of the sacraments: baptism, repentance, penance, and the Eucharist. The Eucharist in particular
imprints upon us this state of resurrection, by which we are to transcend the death that we must pass through, so that we might enjoy the fullest possible union with Christ, for Christ has conquered death having already passed through it, and now finds Himself within the perfected state of mystical death and resurrection.... In the Eucharist, however, he unites Himself with us through His very body and blood from which His own power shines forth (Sta?niloae 2012, 79).
It is this power that unites the members of the Eucharistic assembly, sanctifies them, and gives each participant the ability to apply the same remedial pattern to their own relationships with other human beings.
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