Forgiving What We Do Not Know

christforgiveThe first service of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church is “Forgiveness Vespers,” served on the eve of Monday of the First Week. There is nothing unusual about the service itself – other than the “rite of forgiveness” appended to it. In this, the priest and the faithful ask forgiveness of one another. Often this is done with mutual prostrations. Each asks the forgiveness of the other. The rite can take time, depending on the number in attendance. When it is complete, the long labors of Lent can begin. Fasting without forgiveness would be a hollow activity. This is a meditation I shared with my parish this week as the Sunday of Forgiveness approaches:

Perhaps the most generous words spoken by Christ are those we hear from the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Taken at face value, the words make little sense. Surely, those who crucified Christ knew that they were killing a man. Surely they were even aware that his execution was largely political and unjust. The centurion in charge of the crucifixion is said to have stated, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” So how could Christ say, “They do not know what they are doing?”

I believe this goes to the very heart of our lives and actions. We almost never know what we are doing. The greater context, the meaning of anything, is  hidden from us. We have children, work at a job, and live our lives, hoping that these have been worthwhile actions. We know that much, even most of what we have done has been tainted with bad intentions and other less-than-worthy motivations. But we never actually grasp the full scope of our actions. Even those good things that we do have a hidden aspect. Did that kind word spoken earlier make a difference? Did that act of charity actually change anything?

This hidden aspect of our lives is an inherent part of the human condition. We simply don’t know what we’re doing. This makes it very hard for us to judge our actions or to weigh them for their value.

Christ’s words are addressed to the Father on behalf of all of humanity. For it is not just the small number of people in Jerusalem who were consenting to His death. His death is “on behalf of all and for all.”

And this brings us to Forgiveness Sunday. “Why do I need to ask forgiveness of others if I have done them no wrong?”

The simple answer is: You don’t know what you have or have not done. But it is commonly understood in Orthodoxy that “each person is responsible for the sins of the whole world.” Our lives are deeply connected—we are never uninvolved in the lives of others. What I have done and what I have not done effects the lives of the whole world. I may have had no direct hand, and yet I cannot excuse myself as if I have no share in what happens everywhere. The world is as we make it.

I once heard a monk say, “The person of prayer does not need to go any further than his own heart to find the source of all violence in the world.”

But none of this is to call us to a morbid guilt. It calls us to Christ and calls us to hear His words. On Forgiveness Sunday each of us asks forgiveness of the others around us. It is both a personal matter and a collective. I have failed and need forgiveness. We have failed and need forgiveness. And perhaps the even greater call comes to us to join ourselves with Christ who says: “Father, forgive them!”

“Forgive me,” we say. “God forgives us all,” comes the response. It sometimes feels awkward, even embarrassing. Some people begin to weep. Others begin to giggle. Both are part of the human condition within our shame.

But the actions of Forgiveness Sunday unite us necessarily to the actions of Christ. By submitting Himself to crucifixion, Christ put Himself in the place of the sinner, the one needing forgiveness. He was displayed naked, nailed on high for all the world to see, the shame of the whole world.

In the mild social embarrassment of saying, “Forgive me,” to another human being, we unite ourselves to the deep, profound healing shame of Christ. And with brazen boldness we confess, “God forgives us all!” uniting ourselves with the priestly cry of Christ Himself, “Father, forgive them!”

And having read this, and done all that, we still will not know what we have done. But we are not saved by knowing what we do. We are saved by doing what He does.



  1. Father Bless!!!

    Thank you for this inspiring way of ‘seeing with new eyes of faith’ the need each of us have for forgiveness.

    I thought today’s reflection from Saint Nikolai’s Prologue of Ochrid might be a nice complement to your post to pass along:


    Water is finer than earth; fire is finer than water; air is finer than fire; electricity is finer than air. Nevertheless, air is a dense element in comparison to the spiritual world and electricity is a dense element in comparison to the spiritual world.

    Electricity is very fine but the voice is finer than electricity; the thought finer than the voice; the spirit finer than thoughts.

    The air is fine and it carries the voice over a great distance. Electricity is fine and it carries light over a great distance. Nevertheless, how much more is every deed, every word and every thought of yours carried to all ends of the spiritual world. O how awesome it is to commit sinful deeds and to speak sinful words and to think insane thoughts! To what immeasurable distances are amassed from that on the waves of the spiritual sea! But do not go into the details of the unknown world. The main thing is that you know and that you measure how all of your deeds, words and thoughts unavoidably create an impression on all four sides: On God and the spiritual world, on nature, on men and on your soul. If you train yourself in this knowledge, you will attain a higher level of saving vigilance.

  2. Last year was my first orthodox lent. I remember going around asking forgiveness from people I don’t know as well as I should, and feeling a bit awkward doing so. One older gent put into words part of what I was feeling. “Not sure what I did, but I’m sorry anyway” he said with a wry face. Later, it occurred to me that if I don’t have anything to ask forgiveness for, I may not be involved enough. And that in and of itself is something to ask forgiveness for. I’m on parish council this year, so I think I’ll have plenty to ask forgiveness for.

  3. My father taught me that all of our thoughts and actions effect everybody else on the planet–and that was in the context of a primarily simple biological view.

    As the reflection Bruce shared, how much more is that true in the spiritual.

    So, in my ignorance and selfishness and violence, I spread those things to others.

    Forgiveness Sunday acknowledges that and submits all of that to God.

    Certainly specific, known transgression can also be healed and are but as Father Stephen remarks: we don’t know what we do even in those specific situations.

  4. I’ve spent a lot of time in Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches and when I see all the bickering that has gone on for centuries, the words Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing, come quickly to mind. And I include myself in the “Them”

  5. My favorite comes from a really humorous Melkite Archbishop Elias Chacour in Palestine who likes to say Father forgive them for they are idiots! 🙂

  6. Father, where in holy scripture does it say that each of us is responsible for all the world’s sin?

  7. I consider Ancient Faith Radio a daily Blessing !! I listen and I support monthly hoping to bring the beautiful and wonderful music and messages to others to blessed like am and have been. Thank You for this ministry.

  8. Ann k,
    Nowhere specifically in Scripture – though I could string some verses together to show it. It is a commonplace in the Orthodox spiritual tradition. It was made famous in the modern world in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov.

    A quick theological reflection – Christ has taken upon Himself the sins of the whole world. If we are united to Christ, then we, too, accept the sins of the whole world.

    Of course, we can make our case and plead innocence. But as we do this, we will distance ourselves from Christ who boldly enters our sins that we might become the righteousness of God. I recommend this article’s reflection on the topic.

  9. Once more, thank you Father Stephen for your salvific words.

    In the rite of the Anglican Church of which I am part, our prayers of confession includes the words ‘we have sinned in ignorance’. Some members of the congregation do not appreciate these words. Your sermon is a beautiful and gentle rejoinder.

    Thank you also for your elucidation regarding our responsibility for the sins of the whole world. Although I have had some inner sense of the truth of this for some time, your explanation is most helpful, indeed Joyous


  10. Father bless. Thank you for that wonderful reflection on Forgiveness Sunday. It was beautiful and food for thought. I will remember.

  11. I very much like the way you phrase the ritual response of Forgiveness Vespers as “God forgives us all.” The more commonly heard “God forgives” always sounded a bit curt to me — as if we were brushing the other person’s “Forgive me” aside and secretly thinking “God forgives you, but I’m not too sure that I do!” I always wondered if it could be a mistranslation of “May God forgive you.” “God forgives us all” serves as a beautiful exhortation — both to myself and the other — to imitate Him.

  12. Thank you, Father, for this post and thanks to Michael R. for observing that “If I don’t have anything to ask forgiveness for, maybe I am not involved enough.” This really strikes home with me. Although I believe that all our lives are woven together in Christ, I consider myself a bit of a “loner,” and don’t make nearly enough effort to get involved with others in a concrete way. Often, when I come face to face with my fellow parishioners at Forgiveness Vespers, the pardon I am seeking is for not caring enough to make the effort to really get to know them.

  13. “In the mild social embarrassment of saying, “Forgive me,” to another human being, we unite ourselves to the deep, profound healing shame of Christ. ”

    This is a wonderful reflection.

  14. Forgiveness is a wonderful mystery that is incredibly healing. Since it is of the Holy Spirit, it can be elusive to speak about. It is so much easier to talk about sin I think–or so it seems. (over 200 comments on the Sex and Moral Imagination thread–so few here).

    Yet, much of what we struggle with would not be so great a struggle if we learned forgiveness: Including our distorted sexuality.

    Would there be any divorce or adultery if we learned to forgive for instance?

    I don’t think it is possible to repent if we don’t forgive. “…Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…”

    Failure to forgive is setting one’s heart against God after all.

  15. “Yet, much of what we struggle with would not be so great a struggle if we learned forgiveness…”

    This got me thinking about what the Venerable Dorotheos has to say on forgiveness:

    “Nothing angers God so much or strips a man so bare or carries him so effectively to his ruin as calumniating, condemning, or despising his neighbor.”

    “Nothing is more serious, nothing more difficult to deal with, as I say repeatedly, than judging and despising our neighbor.”

    “Why do we not rather judge ourselves and our own wickedness which we know so accurately and about which we have to render an account to God? Why do we usurp God’s right to judge? Why do we demand a reckoning from His creature, His servant?”

    His illustration of the two slave girls and their “ontological” situation reveals this Saint’s approach, and is quite arresting. Also, if the Saint is right and “nothing is more difficult to deal with” than judging our neighbor is shows us the enormity of our sin and our task…

  16. Just the other day some girls in our office were discussing forgiveness. I opined that forgiveness is not self-centered but rather inclusive; it is the restoration (or offer of restoration) of relationship. (Granted, this is healing for the one offering as well).

    To my surprise they insisted that forgiveness is given primarily to heal oneself, not to reach out to another. One even stated she had forgiven a man in her past–but if he ever came within reach of her again, she would punch him in the face! In my amazement, I could only tell her that it was obvious she had not forgiven him anything, to which she turned away and was silent.

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