4th Sunday of Great Lent
Concerning the Sins of Cain
Wednesday, at the Pre-sanctified Liturgy, I said that each one of us can be compared to a fortified city protected by the Cross of Christ. I said also that according to the Fathers and the liturgical texts, the Cross was composed of three types of wood: cypress, cedar and pine. Each one of these three woods is the type of a virtue. Cypress represents compassion, cedar represents faith, and pine represents charity. Compassion, faith and charity are your weapons in the war against Satan. However, this is not sufficient — because the strong city is also a city which is watched by the devil. At the first sign of weakness in the walls, the devil will try to invade. So it is with you: at the first sign of weakness in your mind, heart or body, the passions will rise and try to develop in you, pushing you to sin. This is why you need to post sentinels at the gates of your mind, heart and body. Fasting and prayer are your main sentinels: they keep you in a state of watchfulness. Like the wise virgins, you become vigilant.
However, the war does not stop there. On top of his weapons and his sentinels, the general who is on the battlefield needs to know who the enemy is; he needs to know the strategy of the enemy; he needs to learn how to spring his traps and escape. You are that general. You need to know your weaknesses; you need to know how they develop and trap you; and you need to learn the way to heal them. This is done first through examining yourself honestly — examining your actions, your thoughts, and your feelings; and then confessing them.
To learn what is at stake, I ask you to come with me and make a visit to someone who failed. Everybody knows the story of his life. His name is Cain. Cain was a poor general; and he lost the battle against the devil. Let us see why.
There were two brothers: Cain and Abel. Cain was a tiller of the land, Abel was a herder of cattle. And it came to pass that one day, it was time to offer a sacrifice to the Lord. “Cain brought of the fruits of the earth a sacrifice to the Lord, and Abel brought of the firstborn of his sheep and of their fat portions.”
But for Cain, things did not happen as he had expected it. “God looked upon Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his sacrifice he had no regard.” In other words, God looked with favour and accepted the sacrifice of Abel but He did not pay attention to the sacrifice of Cain. Why? The Biblical text tells us that Cain brought of the fruits of the earth — but not of the first fruits; while Abel brought of the firstborn of his sheep. And so, even in the most sacred act of offering a sacrifice, Cain is the slave of his weakness which is self-love. The very name Cain means in Hebrew “possessiveness”. Cain sinned out of self-love. God Himself tells him: “If you have brought your sacrifice rightly, but not rightly divided it, have you not sinned?” In other words, Cain had made an offering according to the rules, but he had kept part of it. There is even a midrash which says that Cain ate his meal before making the offering, and offered God only a few grains of flax. Cain took first, then offered. The Greek text of Genesis is very clear: Cain offered an ordinary sacrifice of which you keep a share, and Abel offered a total sacrifice: the sacrifice of yourself.
Let this be a warning to us. What God asks is the total sacrifice of Abel. Which is a type of the total sacrifice of Christ, “who is the firstborn over all creation”, “the firstborn from the dead”, and “in whom we have redemption through his Blood” (Colossians 1:14.15.18). Therefore, let our sacrifice be like the sacrifice of King David: a real sacrifice to God is a broken and contrite spirit (Psalm 50). The first sin of Cain is covetousness, avarice, possessiveness, which are signs of self-love and pride. Cain offered his sacrifice with pride, with arrogance, and it was not accepted.
Then takes place the second sin of Cain. “Cain was exceedingly sorrowful, and his countenance fell.” In other words, Cain was suffering of despondency, which is the beginning of sin. It is easy to imagine his anger against God. It is easy to imagine his jealousy towards his brother. Both anger and jealousy swallowed up his heart, and they turned into hatred. There is no other way for self-love to survive than hating and rejecting the others when you do not get what you want. And Cain murdered his brother.
Paul Florensky gives an excellent analysis of what sin is. He says that it is refusing the relationship with the others, and therefore with God. In other words, it is refusing to recognize their existence. This is nothing else than murder, even if it does not physically happen. The Canon of St. Andrew of Crete says the same thing in different words: “I have become my own idol.” You have fallen in love with yourself. And instead of seeing the face of Christ in your brethren, you seek an image of yourself; you want them to be like you; you want to lord it over them. You refuse them the right to exist: you deny their identity which makes them different; you seek only the same, that is to say yourself, your own image. Your name is Narcissus; you are a murderer. This is the ultimate sin: the perversion of love.
And you don’t even know that you are hurting yourself. You don’t know that it is because of self-love that life is hell for you. Have you ever thought why you are despondent or afraid? Your despondency and your fears are the off-spring of self-love. In order to heal, you must fight the desire to murder your brother. You must seek what St. John Chrysostom calls the Sacrament of the Brother: true love. True love will kill despondency and fear (cf. First Epistle of St. John).
Therefore, strictly speaking, the unrighteous sacrifice of Cain and the murdering of his brother can be considered in effect as the same sin. All forms of self-love grow into the murder of the brother.
However, the text of Genesis is very clear that the bigger sin is not the murder but what comes next: the third sin. For God does not punish Cain right away. He gives him time to repent and change. God punishes Cain when he refuses to confess his sins, proving that he does not believe in the mercy of God. Not confessing your sins is a greater sin.
First Cain refuses to confess: “And the Lord said to Cain, where is Abel your brother? And Cain said, I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” It may be difficult to confess your sins voluntarily; but when you are asked questions, it should be easier to answer. God knows all: He does not need to be told. However, we need to confess our sins, for it is a blessing which has been appointed for our healing.
Cain refuses to confess. Like the wicked of the Psalms, he says: “How could God know what I have done? I was hidden when I did it.” It is like these people who before committing some wrong things cover their icons with a veil. What happens next? God unveils Cain’s sins; and it is too late for confession. “And God said, What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries to me from the earth. And now you are cursed from the earth.”
The Fathers are very clear: the sins that are not confessed before they are unveiled by God lead to judgement, not to mercy. Because sins that are not confessed cannot heal. It is like a disease which has not been diagnosed. These sins remain alive in the heart. And they will always exercise a depressing influence on man, driving him more and more away from God, drowning him in constant and deeper despondency. In the end, sin proves to be a form of spiritual suicide. A sin which stays alive in the heart is the true punishment of the sinner who will always live in fear; this is why Cain must stay alive.
It is clear from the Fathers and the Scriptures that all sins, even those which are confessed, leave scars in the heart (Jeremiah 17:1; St. Mark the Ascetic, Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite, etc.). For example, someone who has seen pornographic images will always have that recurring image in front of his eyes, not like a bleeding wound, but as a scar, even after confession. So, imagine how much worse it is if you do not confess. It will burn you alive; there will be no peace, for if your conscience is now asleep and tries to hide or justify things, it is bound to awaken one day.
By refusing to confess, Cain refuses the blessing of God. He gives the proof that he does not believe in the mercy of God. “And Cain said to the Lord, My crime is too great for me to be forgiven.”
Why not confess your sins and your passions regularly? The influence of Western Christianity and its Augustinianism has certainly something to do with that. Confession has been equated with judgement and punishment. Are you afraid to be punished like a child? The priest — the texts for confession are very clear — is only a witness.
Or is it because of sloth? Is it because it bothers you to work at putting your life in order? Is it because the pleasure principle of the world attracts you more than a life of true love?
But there are other reasons. Often the main reason is pride. For example, you think that you are abnormal; and therefore you are ashamed. This is only caused by pride. There is another case: you refuse to recognize yourself as someone who needs to improve, because you know better. Again, this is pride. You go back to the origins of the sin of Cain. For the essence of pride is self-love — philautia (cf. St. Maxim the Confessor, St. Barsanuphius, St. Theodore the Studite). Self-love is the hardening of your will against the will of God. The secret of perfection is cutting off your own will. Or as St. Macarius the Great puts it: it is changing your will so that it corresponds to the will of God.
Another reason of not going to confession is lack of faith. You refuse to ascend to the Cross. It is true that confession can be painful, but it is glorious and brings delivery. The Blood of Calvary is atonement for the blood of Abel. By refusing confession, you refuse healing, relief, consolation and discernment. In other words, you refuse the mercy of God. You are no better than Cain.
Have you ever thought about the short-term and long-term consequences of not going to confession? They are dramatic. And it is not because you do not “feel” them that they do not exist. First, you lose any possibility of reconciliation; you lose the hope of being forgiven and you become forever the slave of your passions. Second, you lose any possibility of acquiring the Holy Spirit and entering the Kingdom. It is not I who say it, but all the Fathers. Third, you kill in you what makes you a man, that is to say the conscience.
Do you remember the first prayer of St. Basil the Great in the prayers of Preparation for Communion? He talks about “the witness of the conscience.” Your conscience is the only witness of your sins. It tries to hide them or to forget them if there is no confession. Confession, on the contrary, restores your conscience to its fullness and to its role as a true witness. This is a necessary condition to be illumined by the presence of God, because the purpose of the repentance is the awakening of conscience, beyond the worries and cares of the world. For certain Fathers, the conscience is the diving spark which is inside us. And therefore it is your conscience which shall judge you. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Origen, and also Dostoievsky in the “Brothers Karamazov” say it clearly: Hell is a reproaching conscience.
There are a few weeks left before Pascha. I urge you, I entreat you to be like King David and not like Cain. Make the words of Psalm 50, which you say daily in your morning and evening prayers, your own words. Psalm 50 is not a Psalm of judgement; it is a Psalm of Life. Listen; seek mercy not judgement; confess your weaknesses, whatever they are: sins, mistakes, failures, infirmities; do not fear; and this will bring you life, rebirth, truth about yourself and joy. You may shed tears when you are alone. As the Fathers (St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Anthony, St. Ephrem the Syrian, St. John Chrysostom) say: confession of sin and repentance is the Baptism of tears. It is a perpetual baptism; it is repentance; it is Life in Christ. God will pardon; but you must be watchful and keep your eyes on your sins as a safeguard for the future. “My sin is ever before me” says King David in Psalm 50. Only the disposition of your heart will put out your sin and make God pardon you.
Hermitage of the Annunciation.
Sunday of St. John Climacus, April 6, 2008
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