If we see the Church year as a recapitulation or commemoration of the life of Christ, then the season of Lent, Holy Week, and the festival of Pascha is clearly analogous to the temptation (and fasting) of the Lord in the wilderness, his suffering and death on the cross, his defeat of the gates of hades (of death itself), and his triumphal resurrection from the dead. When we think of our place in this re-living of Christ’s life throughout the year, and especially through the season of Great Lent, we can better understand its purpose.
One enters into the Lenten season as a person estranged from God, striving forward in hope of the resurrection. We are faced with a number of temptations, but the ability to overcome is given to us through Christ himself (and in our increased partaking of the Eucharist during Lent). The icon of the resurrection (“the harrowing of hell”) shows us the full glory of this reality, as we see Adam and Eve (mankind itself) being pulled from the depths of hades by the hands of Christ, who has triumphed over both death and its author (the Evil One).
As we seek to image Christ more fully in our own lives through the Lenten season, our focus is ironically turned not inward towards ourselves, but outward towards others. Our fasting, almsgiving, and prayer is all purposed away from ourselves and our own concerns or desires, and towards our neighbors, friends, and family. All true asceticism is self-less, not selfish; it is for the life of the world.
The secret that lies at the heart of our journey towards both salvation and resurrection in Christ is found not in an intellectual fixation on our standing before God in eternity, an obsession over whether we can know “for certain” that we are “saved,” or even a right understanding of particulars of doctrine, dogma, or a perfect explanation of scriptures. No, the gateway to resurrection and a triumph over death is found in the mystery of forgiveness. It really is as simple as that.
The Gospel for the appropriately named “Forgiveness Sunday” (the last Sunday before the beginning of Great Lent) explains:
The Lord said, “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
For whatever reason, many do not believe the Lord when he says this. We look for salvation and forgiveness in perhaps every other place but the forgiveness of others. Rather than looking to the promises of Christ in the Gospel, we twist the words of Paul to our own destruction (2 Pet. 3:16), or even use words from the old testament to contradict the new. As Orthodox Christians, there is no scripture more important for us than the Holy Gospels. And in this Gospel, we learn literally everything that we need to know about the hope of salvation: forgiveness.
The concern here is not merely of how we can be forgiven, but rather how we must be willing to forgive everyone else in order to have any hope for our own deliverance. The “effectiveness” of the Gospel apparently hinges on our willingness to be ever-forgiving of others. Instead of placing our hope in abstract and unknowable notions such as “election,” or a right understanding of certain aspects of Christian dogma, our hope is to be placed in how we receive the forgiveness of Christ, and our sharing of that mystery with others.
A person can have a perfect understanding of dogma, the canons of the Church, the ancient languages of the scriptures, and even the finer points of both the Trinity and Christology, but if that person has not love — if they have not forgiveness for others, and for every offense, no matter what — then such a person is estranged from the Lord and without the Spirit of God. If we have faith alone, rather than faith working through love, such a faith can never save us (James 2:19-20). Right belief about God makes us like the demons; mercy, forgiveness, and love make us like the Lord himself.
Salvation is not a matter of acquisition of the right gnosis; it is acquisition of the Holy Spirit. And if we have acquired the Spirit of God, then we will reflect the love of the Holy Spirit in our willingness to both forgive and be forgiven.