[Clean Monday, March 14, 2016]
Last night was the beginning of Lent for Eastern Orthodox Christians. We are far behind the West this year. The reason is that the date of Pascha / Easter depends on the date of the vernal equinox (first day of Spring) and also the phases of the moon, and some years we have the same Easter, and some years (like this year) we are as much as 5 weeks off.
On the Sunday evening that Lent begins, we have a vespers service. Afterward we have the Rite of Forgiveness. The members of the congregation line up, face to face, and ask for each other’s forgiveness, and give it. I found a few photos from around the web to show what this might look like.
How it works is, the congregation forms two lines, face to face. Each person is paired with another member of the church, standing face to face with them. Either one of you begins by making the sign of the Cross and bowing, honoring the presence of God in the other person. You say something like, “Please forgive me for any way I have sinned against you.” Put it in your own words. Even if you can’t think of any specific thing you did against this person, the daily tide of sins we commit makes make this world a more sick and miserable environment.
Orthodox think of sin, not as individual culpable deeds, but as a destructive, undermining condition which we all contribute to, and which we all suffer from. Sin is not necessarily pleasurable; our feelings of fear and despair participate in this miasma of sin. A good analogy is air pollution. So even if I haven’t done anything against this specific person deliberately, I have by my sins made this a more miserable world that she has to live in.
The person then says “I forgive you, and please also forgive me for my sins,” putting it in her own words. You respond “I forgive you,” and then you embrace.
Then both of you take a step to the right, and face a new person, and go through that exchange again. Since it involves everyone, people within families exchange forgiveness too—brothers with sisters, parents with teenagers. At Holy Cross most of the congregation comes to Forgiveness Vespers, about a hundred people. The Rite of Forgiveness takes about an hour for us.
I’ve never been able to learn anything about how and when this Rite originated. As a new convert I thought it sounded touchy-feely, but it is apparently very ancient; the last acts of the Emperor of Constantinople and his court, as the city fell in 1453, were to ask forgiveness of everyone they could find, including servants. The Rite is also mentioned in the story of St. Mary of Egypt, which occurred in the Holy Land perhaps around AD 520, and was written down a hundred years later. So it’s been the practice for a very long time, and I’d love to know more of how it came to be.
Even if you’re not Orthodox you can ask forgiveness of the people around you. It’s a ready exercise in humility, which we all need more of.