By the end of the evening, I had said this and had it said to me nearly one hundred times. One would think the repeated nature of the phrase would numb you to its initial impact. Instead, I found myself contemplating the very importance of this humble request. I found myself contemplating how many marriages could be saved by this phrase, how many friendships could be rescued, how many conflicts could be brought to peace if this phrase became more commonplace in our vernacular. Instead of being numb to the phrase after its repeated use, I was broken. Thus concludes my first experience of Forgiveness Vespers.
I have been on a journey towards Orthodoxy for a number of years now (someday I’ll write about it). Though I am not a communicant, nor am I catechumen, I have been on a very slow journey towards the Orthodox Church. While I have kept this semi-hidden, especially on this site, I fail to see the purpose in hiding it much longer. Sadly, I held a job for a while that prevented me from attending services until recently, especially at night. Thus, though I’ve been moving in the direction of Orthodoxy for a number of years, tonight was the first Forgiveness Vespers I was able to attend.
Forgiveness Vespers (or “Cheesefare”) is the last liturgical day before the Great Lent. For those unfamiliar with the Eastern Church, they run on a different calendar. Thus, while Lent began in the Western Church a few weeks ago, Lent for the Orthodox begins tomorrow (and our Pascha, or “Easter” celebration will occur in May). For both the East and the West, Lent functions for the same purpose, to draw on the seriousness of our sinful condition before God and what He accomplished to rescue us from this condition. The fast serves as a means to teach self-discipline and reflect on God. But before all this must come forgiveness from each other. After all, during Lent we seek forgiveness from God, but how can we hypocritically do so if we fail to seek forgiveness from one another first?
Forgiveness Vespers, thus, is the time when we ask for forgiveness for our sins. I attended All Saints Orthodox Church, a place that is quickly becoming a home, and enjoyed what Fr. Nicholas said when instructing us on what to say. He said we would go up to each other and say, “Forgive me, a sinner,” and would respond with the same. We would not say “Yeah, of course I forgive you” because only God can forgive. By both people asking for forgiveness, both people were on equal ground.
Midway through the liturgy we began to move out into the aisles and began to prostrate ourselves before Christ, coming before Him for forgiveness. It was a very somber moment, reflecting on my own sins and the pain they brought not only to Christ, but to the world.
Then Fr. Nicholas gave us the instructions, stood at the front, and crossed himself as he said, “Forgive me, a sinner.” Then Deacon David went before Fr. Nicholas and said, “Forgive me, a sinner” with Fr. Nicholas responding “Forgive me, a sinner.” Both men embraced and Deacon David stood next to Fr. Nicholas. That’s when the procession started, with people forming a line and going up to Fr. Nicholas, going through the ritual of forgiveness, moving onto the next person, then the next person, and finally taking their respective spots in line. Thus, everyone asked for forgiveness from every person present when it was all said and done.
It was interesting for me, to see the familiarity that people had with each other. For some, it was hard not to laugh at the complete awkwardness of the situation. And I think this is good; if you can laugh while asking for forgiveness and the other person laughs as well, it shows there is no bitterness between the people. If it’s awkward to ask for forgiveness because familiarity breeds awkwardness, then all the better, for forgiveness has already occurred. But for me, where almost everyone there is a stranger to me and I’m a stranger to them, it was humbling. While others were laughing or giggling at the awkward nature of what was going on, I was fighting back a lump in my throat, completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of what I was experiencing. It was so odd, so foreign, so different from anything I had done before; it was beautiful.
Having grown up with a Protestant background (Southern Baptist), I can safely say that I’ve experienced my fair share of church splits, politics, and battles. I’ve seen men almost get into yelling matches over the placement of a light pole, or over the color the walls of the church should be (and I somehow suspect that this happens just as often in the Orthodox parishes). But I’ve also seen more serious divisions, divisions over doctrine, divisions over sexual indiscretions. In these divisions no one was willing to admit fault, no one was willing to seek forgiveness or offer forgiveness.
Growing up Southern Baptist, politics within the church was simply a given. After all, the SBC convention actually has a “Committee on Committees,” that is, they have a committee that is dedicated to forming committees. This is not a joke, it actually exists. So within the Southern Baptist life, it’s easy to become accustomed to infighting, and it’s even seen as necessary.
Sadly, the SBC has always been a place of vicious infighting, especially recently. First, the conservative resurgence fought against the liberal hardliners and moderate theologians. Men actively went after the reputations and livelihood of fellow believers. In our more recent history there has been a growing divide over Calvinists and nonCalvinists, with the debates becoming more heated and the division becoming greater.
Thus, seeing all these people within the church walk around and ask for forgiveness was a thing of beauty to me. I’ve never seen anything like that. It requires humility to ask for forgiveness, especially when strife exists. To ask for forgiveness, rather than to say, “you are forgiven,” is to say, “I am the one at fault, not you, so please forgive me.” When both people ask for forgiveness, there is no need to say, “You are forgiven,” for both have admitted fault. I truly believe that if this were practiced more in Protestant churches, there wouldn’t be so many divisions.
I stood there as a circle slowly began to form within the church, watching people embrace and ask for forgiveness. I wiped away tears as I began to think of how much the world needed this. What if we took a group of Palestinians and Israelis, put them in a room, and had them do this? Obviously, this is just a thought experiment. But what if they truly asked for forgiveness, not offered forgiveness, bust asked for it? Would that lay a sufficient foundation for peace talks? What if we took those who struggle with race relations and did the same? What if we took conservatives and liberals? What if we took those in strife and showed them the importance of asking for forgiveness?
But isn’t that the core of Christianity? What is it to put aside your own pride and ask for forgiveness? That is inherently an act of humility. Humility is self-giving, it is self-sacrificial. Humility is an act of love. To ask for forgiveness, then, one must love, which is the core of Christianity. In the Kingdom of God forgiveness will not be necessary, for we will be holy as God is holy living in perfect union with each other, but the seeking of forgiveness from one another is what will beget the Kingdom of God. In many ways, in that little circle, I stepped into the ever-present future Kingdom. But it shouldn’t just exist within that circle, rather it should extend to all the world.
When we talk about forgiveness we typically talk about giving forgiveness to those who have harmed us. And we should forgive those who have harmed us. But what I noticed is that Forgiveness Vespers put an emphasis on asking for forgiveness. It is easy to forgive, but harder to ask for forgiveness and truly mean it. It puts one in a humiliating position, because you must admit that you were wrong. Asking for forgiveness is hard because it requires you to love someone enough that you’re willing to cast aside any ounce of pride you have.
This act of humility exists so that the world might be saved, for sin can only be combatted by humility. This is why Forgiveness Vespers precedes Lent, a season where we reflect on our sin. Only by first humbling ourselves can we enter the Lenten season prepared to face our sins and overcome them.
As I walked out into the cool evening air, I felt better prepared to face what is to come. I had just asked many people, most of whom are strangers to me, to forgive me of my sins. I acknowledged to them that I was a sinner. And now we walk away, better prepared for the fast, better prepared to reflect on the death we have brought into our lives. And in this humility, we can eventually come to accept the victory that Christ has brought over this death, so that one day we shall never again have to ask for forgiveness, for we will be holy as He is holy.