Our two younger children sat alone, stone-faced, in a forest of pews while the other parishioners gathered at the front of the church. We were lining up for the final portion of Forgiveness Vespers, the evening service on Cheesefare Sunday (as in, “Farewell to dairy products!”) that ushers the Orthodox faithful into the season of Great Lent.
With a little bit of parental bribery (dinner at Red Robin), the kids, who were teenagers at the time, had agreed to attend the service. But there was no way, absolutely no way, that they were going to hug and kiss a bunch of strangers and ask their forgiveness. That was just weird. Why do we need to forgive people we’ve never even met? My husband Rob and I were no help in explaining, because we were new to the Orthodox Faith and didn’t know what to expect.
The Church Signals a New Liturgical Season
We had arrived as daylight faded outside the temple. The beauty of the service washed over us while our parish gathered, seeking God for help and healing for ourselves and for others:
Lord, I have cried unto Thee, hearken unto me;
attend to the voice of my supplication, when I cry unto Thee….
Let my prayer be set forth as incense before Thee,
the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.
As the service progressed, the priest, dressed in a white phelonion (the outer cape worn over his vestments), stepped away during prayer. When he returned, he was clothed in a somber purple phelonion to signify the Bright Sadness of Lent. The vestments of the church—the fabric on the altar and the pulpit—were also changed to purple. As nighttime fell and the lights dimmed, the melodies of the service changed to a minor key.
The quiet beauty of the icons in the candlelight, the holy words, and the songs of lament filled our senses as we entered this season of repentance. It all felt so different from the high-tech worship services I was familiar with. No state-of-the-art sound system blared contemporary music, and no sophisticated, computer-controlled lights lent a wash of color to set the mood.
Instead, the physical reality of the signs and symbols called us to contemplate the love of God and our own need. On the wooden stand at the entrance to the nave, the icon of the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise reminded us of the consequences of sin. Echoing across the centuries, the candlelight, the incense, the sacred words of the Psalms, and the ancient prayers from human voices without accompaniment called us back, back, and back again. Back to the basics. Back to repentance. Back to Christ.
Committing Together to Walk in Forgiveness
The physicality of Orthodox practice continued at the end of the service as the people, minus two Horner children, assembled at the front of the nave. Each person grasped the hand of another, and they kissed each other’s left shoulders and then the right. One of them asked, “Please forgive me,” and the recipient responded, “May God forgive you and me.” We exchanged these mutual requests for forgiveness with everyone present, one on one, with friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers, until we were finished. (Specific customs and wording will vary among churches with Greek, Russian, and Syrian heritages, but the intent—pledging to walk together in forgiveness—is the same.)
Several years have passed since that awkward evening for our family. The teens have grown into committed Orthodox adults with much better attitudes, and Forgiveness Vespers is now one of my favorite services of the entire liturgical year.
Why Forgive Strangers?
At last I have a better answer to my children’s sensible question. In our natural minds, we think, “I haven’t sinned against her, and he has never wronged me—We don’t even know each other.” We view the matter with the logic of an equation, with the quid pro quo of offering forgiveness in exchange for another’s admission of wrong: an “I’m sorry” requires a “That’s okay” in response, and we’re good. Or we tell ourselves that we are.
But the Church understands human nature at a much deeper level. In his article, “Forgiveness Sunday,” Fr. Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory writes,
The Church reveals to us that there are much subtler ways of offending Divine Love. These are indifference, selfishness, lack of interest in other people, of any real concern for them—in short, that wall which we usually erect around ourselves, thinking that by being “polite” and “friendly” we fulfill God’s commandments.
This annual lavish display of forgiveness expresses our commitment as a community to walk together in humility and non-judgment, both “pre-forgiving” one another for specific wrongs we may commit and also forgiving one another for our mutual self-centeredness. Father Alexander continues:
On that unique evening, listening to the joyful Paschal hymns we are called to make a spiritual discovery: to taste of another mode of life and relationship with people, of life whose essence is love. We can discover that always and everywhere Christ, the Divine Love Himself, stands in the midst of us, transforming our mutual alienation into brotherhood. As l advance towards the other, as the other comes to me—we begin to realize that it is Christ Who brings us together by His love for both of us.
We are journeying together as a Body, not merely as individuals. We need each other. We need grace and reconciliation even when we’re unaware of our need. Next Sunday, Forgiveness Vespers will remind us again of these things.
Brothers and sisters, please forgive me.