This is the second in a series of posts that focuses on the Sundays of Great Lent (and Holy Week and Pascha). Each week we will share ideas of ways to help your Sunday Church School students learn more about that particular Sunday’s focus. We will share each blog early, so that you have time to read it before the forthcoming Sunday, in case you find any of those ideas helpful for your particular class.
Here’s a meditation on Forgiveness Sunday for you to ponder before you create a lesson for your students:
The Sunday immediately before Great Lent begins is usually referred to in the Orthodox Church as “Forgiveness Sunday.” Forgiveness Sunday has two major themes: the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden, and Forgiveness. We will take a short look at each of these themes, here.
It is important that this day features the expulsion of Adam and Eve, who in the beginning walked and talked with God in Paradise. This sort of relationship with God is what we wish to restore in our own life, and Lent is a time when the Church encourages us to do so with vigor. So it makes sense that She provides us with a reminder of what has been lost, and how it was lost, just before we begin Great Lent. This reminder also causes us to ponder the reality of Hades – where everyone went after their death, after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise. Because we are blessed to live in a time when we are able to know Christ, we also think of Him, who by His death trampled the doors of Hades, and rescued Adam and Eve, and all of us from Hades’ grasp, forever. So, even right here, just before Great Lent begins, we already have a spoiler alert. We know where this is going, and we want to be part of it!
Forgiveness Sunday’s Gospel reading is found in Matthew 6: 14-21 (NKJV)
“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
This Gospel reading is, in a sense, a good map for our Lenten journey. It begins with forgiveness. In order to restore our relationship to God, we need to be forgiven the multitude of our sins. This Gospel reading reminds us that if we want forgiveness from God, we need to also forgive others. The reading continues by telling us how to fast: not by showing off, but simply and quietly, genuinely. And it finishes with an admonishment for our focus: it should not be on earthly things, but on the heavenly. Great Lent is the perfect time to re-orient our focus to heavenly things. The Gospel reading’s last sentence summarizes the whole passage: where our treasure is is also where our heart is found.
Let’s take another look at the Gospel reading, this time through the lens of that last sentence. If we treasure forgiveness from God, our heart will be full of forgiveness for our fellow humans. During Great Lent, we are offered the opportunity to serve others willingly. We can more effectively serve if we are forgiving, not holding grudges. Forgiving others and serving them restores our relationship with them, and opens our hearts to receive forgiveness from God.
If we treasure relationship with God, our heart will be full of joyful, non-pretentious fasting. During Lent we are invited to eat less and pray more, giving Him our attention instead of seeking the attention of others or looking to food for satisfaction. Working to control our physical body’s desires and spending more time and energy in prayer restores our relationship to God.
And if we truly treasure God’s Heavenly Kingdom, the stuff of earth will matter not to us. During Great Lent, we are encouraged to do a better job of giving alms. Almsgiving lays up for us treasures in Heaven, while also blessing us with the opportunity to extend love to our fellow humans, and in doing so, to Christ Himself. Letting go of earthly things and earthly cares restores our ability to care for what is important to God: His creatures, His creation, and His Kingdom.
The Church steps right into the beginning of this Gospel passage with Her practice of offering Forgiveness Vespers to begin Great Lent. We’re not sure exactly when this beautiful service began to be offered. We do know that Forgiveness Vespers has been practiced since at least 520 AD, for it is mentioned in the story of the Life of St. Mary of Egypt. So Orthodox Christians have been beginning Great Lent by forgiving each other for a very long time.
According to Forgiveness Sunday’s Gospel reading, forgiving each other is a natural way to begin Great Lent.
Please forgive me, a sinner. And may God forgive us all and restore us to right relationship with Him.
Here are some some ideas you may wish to use as you help your students learn about Forgiveness Sunday:
This blog post from several years ago features a whole list of ways to help your students learn about Forgiveness Sunday: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/02/13/on-forgiveness-vespers/
Listen to this Sunday’s Gospel reading told in simple terms for younger children, and read from the Gospel for older children, at https://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/letusattend. Find 5 levels of printable pages with questions for related discussions at http://ww1.antiochian.org/christianeducation/letusattend.
Teachers of young children may find this podcast helpful as they share Forgiveness Sunday with their students. https://www.ancientfaith.com/specials/tending_the_garden/forgiveness_sunday_for_younger_children
Begin a class on Forgiveness Sunday (for young children through elementary) with a pile of bricks and a red paper heart in your classroom. Ask the students why they think you have these items in your class. Invite the students to stack the bricks on top of the paper heart, on the floor of your classroom. As they stack, invite them to say a word or an action that can make someone sad or hurt. Then show them this video from The Orthodox Children’s Press, about Forgiveness and Forgiveness Vespers. https://youtu.be/ED3f0e4QBXM . After watching (and reading it aloud if your students are too young to read it for themselves), ask again why you have these items in your classroom. Invite students to practice for Forgiveness Vespers by taking turns picking up a brick from the pile, saying, “God forgives and I forgive!” and placing it in a trail/path shape on your classroom floor.
Craft/activity idea #1: To focus on the truth that our choices hurt others, but God can forgive and heal those hurts, invite students to create their own red paper heart. Direct them to trade with a friend, and make a cut on the friend’s heart. Remind them that when we say and do mean things, it’s like hurting the other person’s heart. When they get their heart back again, they may feel very sad, because it hurts when people do mean things to us. But God can bring healing to us when we forgive, so encourage them to tell the other person, “God forgives and I forgive!,” then pass out tape for each student to put on the cut of their heart, mending it whole again.
Craft/activity idea #2: To focus on each student’s need to forgive or be forgiven, direct each student to make a reminder of the video and brick activity by cutting a heart out of red paper and writing “God forgives and I forgive” on it. Invite them to write or draw on the back of the heart the different things and/or people that they will forgive or ask forgiveness of, at Forgiveness Vespers.
Teachers of elementary-aged students through teens may find one (or more!) of these “Be the Bee” videos helpful for a lesson on Forgiveness Sunday:
Forgiveness Vespers is the focus in this episode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLFVJqHmAkY
Forgiveness unifies us as we learn in this episode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bsDRWB2emwc
Find four ways to forgive in this episode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8pfuimXIM0
Teachers of teens may want to take a look at this lesson on Forgiveness, when preparing a lesson about Forgiveness Sunday: https://www.orthodoxcatechismproject.org/grade-9/-/asset_publisher/sVl6TXix4npP/content/forgiveness-booklet
Consider printing a copy of this (or sending the link, if you have email addresses for your students’ parents) home after a lesson on Forgiveness Sunday. It contains discussion questions and activity ideas that families can do together as they learn together about Forgiveness Sunday. https://www.goarch.org/documents/32058/2618758/familygospellesson_forgivenessunday.pdf/51c7c29a-e862-4a37-81c2-be6bcc922dd6