After twenty or so prostrations, I begin panting. “God forgives,” I whisper into the ear of my fellow parishioners, whose lips brush my right cheek and then my left. The nave is completely dark, lit only by flames of candles casting shadows on expressions sweetly somber. My breathless petitions for forgiveness join the steady hum of voices murmuring softly in the twilight of this very last Sunday before Lent. We are men, women, and children, bowing, and embracing, and experiencing first hand the mercy and restoration of Christian fellowship.
In 1999, I was eight months pregnant and a very new Orthodox Christian. That winter, I attended my first Forgiveness Vespers having no idea what to expect or how moved I would be by the experience. Earlier in the day, I had braced myself for a marathon of litanies, hymns and Gospel readings, assuming by that point anything remotely related to Lent would quite naturally require an extra 45 minutes of standing time, but to my surprise the vespers service lasted only for half an hour. Rather than grabbing coats after its conclusion, however, everyone remained respectfully quiet and in place while our priest explained the significance and order of what was to follow. Before embarking on an intense period of repentance and preparation, we would be given the incredible opportunity to rid our souls of bitterness, arrogance, and envy by looking each of our spiritual brothers and sisters in the eye and asking for forgiveness for any hurt we may have caused them.
With curiosity, I watched a line begin to form, hanging back apprehensively as the deacon in front of it stood face-to-face before our priest. Both men bowed, knees bent and heads touching the floor. Upon rising they clasped hands and kissed each other. “Forgive me,” they said in turn. “God forgives,” was the mutual reply. The deacon then stood beside our priest while the next person approached him, following the same protocol. One after another, those in attendance bowed, kissed, and asked for forgiveness from the person across from them, forming a circle as each cycle was completed. Visually, it was stunning; the synchronization of bended knees, bobbing heads, and shuffling feet, seemed gracefully choreographed in that incense-scented ambiance of holy grandeur.
Much of the spiritual impact was buried, initially, by my fear of bowing when I should stand or of asking for forgiveness when I should be assuring that God forgives. I waddled nervously, lowering my neck, unable to maneuver my gigantic belly into any semblance of a prostration, and looked warmly at members of my parish I had never previously thought about or remembered noticing. Drops of sweat were beginning to bead on foreheads, and I could feel the breath of virtual strangers hot upon my neck. I did not yet understand how apologizing to those I had never had personal contact with could be so healing and meaningful, but I was moved to tears regardless by the intimacy of our shared contrition.
Every year since then, I have been adamant about attending this service. Entering Lent without participating in Forgiveness Vespers, is like to trying to run a race without warming up limbs, cold, taut and stiff from inactivity. The process of gathering as a body in humility, lightening the burden of guilt and resentment through a communal offering of leniency, prepares us for the Fast ahead. It reminds us that we are not alone in our efforts to tune out this world and tune in to the Kingdom of Heaven. It is both with anxiousness and anticipation that I ponder upon the Lenten season of restraint that is, literally, just around the corner. Clinging to the authority of the Church, I will trust Her to lead me through the highs and lows of grieving my human depravity and rejoicing in the sustenance of God’s compassion. It is tricky, difficult, to navigate through the dangerous waters of self-examination. Only through the guidance of my spiritual father, the attendance of Lenten services, and the support of my Church family, will I successfully walk that thin line between pride and despair or find the courage to stand back up and try again after falling.
In 2007, I attended my first Forgiveness Vespers at our current parish, St. Elizabeth’s. Having not yet established roots within our community, I looked forward to weaving my family into their established tapestry of faith, rich in the colors and textures of all the personalities that are threaded throughout. Some faces I kissed having little familiarity with the hidden joys and sorrows veiled discreetly behind courteous smiles. To them I apologized for wasting the gifts and blessings generously bestowed upon me, for letting others in the body of Christ carry more than their share of earthly burdens while I sat by in idleness, for falling short of my potential over and over and over again. I gazed upon God’s creation and prostrated before His handiwork, acknowledging with a heavy heart that I had failed Him.
I kissed others, however, like my husband, my children, and my parents, - faces as familiar to me as my own, with a profound awareness of the wrongs I had inflicted out of selfishness, pride and impatience. To them I apologized for being a less than a stellar example and for making my needs and wants a priority above their own. The intentional reminder that “God forgives,” reiterated profusely the evening before, was ingrained in my heart the next morning when I took my first steps toward extracting the vices barricading my will from total obedience. That assurance was the light at the end of the tunnel, always burning with the promise of Christ’s ultimate victory, and illuminating my darkened spirit with the grace-covered confidence that even I can be saved.
So now, my friends, I ask for your forgiveness, not because I deserve it, not because I won’t mess up again but because Christ is good – gracious and forbearing. I pray that every one of us will find the bravery to believe in (and to emulate) a Love that knows no limits, a life not bound by egotism, and the miracle of resurrection after death. May we all have a sacred, a productive, a very blessed Lent.