It begins like any Vespers service. The peace and stillness of the darkness. The close of the day. But in Orthodoxy, the evening of the calendar day is the beginning of the next liturgical day. Evening to evening. So, as we sing, there comes the moment when it is no longer Sunday. It’s Monday, and not just any Monday…
The reader slowly chants: “…Blessed are You, O Lord. Teach me Your statutes. Blessed are You, O Master. Make me to understand Your commandments. Blessed are You, O Holy One. Enlighten me with Your precepts.” Girls approach the icon stands, remove the gold cloths beneath them, revealing a different color cloth underneath. The altar boys make a gentle swishing sound behind the iconstasis as they quickly change from one robe to another. Even the lampadas have their golden, glowing glass removed and replaced with a different kind of brilliance. Everything has gone from gold to purple. There’s been a change of season. A change of time. Lent is here.
The service goes on, but the mood in the room has visibly shifted. The signs are clear on the outside. In the colors, the melodies, the prayers. The Great Fast, the time of repentance is here. Has something changed inside me?
At the end of the service, a unique and profound thing happens. One of the things I read about as a non-Orthodox and just could not believe actually happened. This is Forgiveness Vespers. This is our journey to the death and Resurrection of our Lord and Savior. A time, more than ever, to look deep within, find what shouldn’t be there, and let it go. A time to repent and ask for forgiveness. But how can I expect God to forgive me, if I can’t forgive someone else?
The priest faces the congregation, asks for our forgiveness for anything he did to us this year, knowingly or unknowingly. Then, he drops to the floor on all fours and bows his head to the ground in a prostration of repentance. Rising, he starts a line, and one by one, snaking around the room, we all join in the line. The next person goes up to the priest, they both prostrate (or bow as physically able), ask for forgiveness, and exchange the kiss of peace. Then, that person goes in line, and the next person follows the same pattern. Eventually, everyone has joined in, and we ask for forgiveness from each and every person in the room.
Forgiveness. What does it mean? Does it mean avoiding or ignoring an issue just to keep the peace? Does it mean playing nice while harboring a resentment that clutches deep inside? Sometimes we just say we’re sorry. But this night, we have to show it. If I can’t let go of the little things…even the big things…and just love like Christ, if I can’t look at these people and just see Christ…how will I ever recognize Him? He’s here in all these people. He’s right here. And I’m so sorry for all I’ve done to offend Him.
As the line progresses, what started in silence and whispers moves on to a hum of smiles and laughter. We all fill a bit silly…and sweaty. It’s a big workout for the body; it’s a joyous exercise for the soul. I remember the first year I came to this parish. I barely knew anyone. I had nothing against these people. This act didn’t seem to make much sense. Later, I began to see how many times we really do wrong others just in the course of daily life. Whether we meant to or not. This past year, we’ve had quite a bit of unfortunate drama at our parish. We’ve been rocked to the core. I did feel wronged by some of my fellow parishioners, and I know that some of them felt wronged by me. We needed this Forgiveness Vespers.
The line went on, and I began to come to my own family members. My eyes watered as I embraced my children. From the time they can talk, we train them well. “Now, say you’re sorry!” But how often do we say it back? As we’ve transitioned into the teen years, I’ve tried especially to do that. To admit when I’m wrong, but sometimes, I just don’t say it, even when I know it’s true. Please forgive me… Please forgive me…
Those of us in the choir had been some of the first in line so we could finish and return to our stands. As the rest of the parish continued, we began the music that instantly took us to another night…one still to come. “Let God arise! Let his enemies be scattered! Let those who hate Him flee from before His face!” The music of Pascha. Still weeks away, but we sing it now to remind everyone where we’re headed. The beacon, the goal. Because of Pascha, we forgive. Because of Pascha, we’re forgiven.
Again the tears come to my eyes as we build up through the song and eventually reach a shouting crescendo…”Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” Forgiveness…it is death transformed to life.
Lastly, everyone goes into the parish hall for a sweet reward to our efforts. Bowls of ice cream are piled high with sprinkles and colorful sauces. There’s fellowship and community and sugar highs everywhere. This Sunday was also Cheesefare. The last day before the fast from dairy products begins. Meat has already been left behind for a week now, as the Church eases everyone into the rigors of fasting. Now, for those who are able, it is no meat, no dairy, no oil, and no fish with a backbone for the next seven weeks.
It seems only fitting to have ice cream. Not just because of the dairy, but because of the sweetness. Being forgiven is sweet, especially when you don’t deserve it. Asking for forgiveness is humbling, but there is a sweetness to it, as well.
Forgiveness. Something I seem to always assume and expect from others, but pridefully don’t always give. Forgiveness. Something I seem to frequently assume will come from God, but pridefully won’t admit that I need. To ask for forgiveness means admitting I did something wrong to begin with, and that can be a bitter pill to swallow. Lord, help me to see inside myself. To really see all those sins that happen daily. I want to see. I want to confess. I want to be forgiven. I want to forgive.