First Forgiveness Sunday

February 15, 2010

“If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses…” (Mark 6:14-15)

I am happy to report that we were able to attend the forgiveness Vespers this afternoon. I was nervous that our toddler would not be able to hold out for that long as he usually breaks down towards the end of coffee hour. Fortunately he had a brief nap on the way to church this morning and this ensured that we were able to stay for the Vespers immediately following lunch.

We weren’t entirely sure what to expect. We haven’t been to a Vespers service before, so I am not sure how this compared (an abbreviated version perhaps? It didn’t seem to last long). There were several prostrations during the service and I looked at my husband and said “are we going to do this or what?” I remember thinking that starting to cross ourselves was a big deal, but now it is beginning to feel normal. Prostrations are a much bigger deal – so, so far from our conservative Protestant upbringing.

(Sidenote: as a child I remember seeing a picture of my Roman Catholic grandfather lying prostrate as part of some service – perhaps when he became a deacon in the church. I found it very, very strange and felt a great sense of unease when I saw the picture. The prostration seemed so – I don’t know – demeaning? I also felt like I had seen something that I shouldn’t have.)

My husband shrugged in reply to my question. We stood through one more prostration and then we started to get into the flow of it. I don’t know what I expected it to feel like, but I was surprised to find that it actually felt liberating. Is there really a more intense form of worship than prostrating oneself? Nothing is coming to mind. I found the experience amazing.

(Sidenote 2: my little son started getting into it after he saw us doing it. So sweet!)

From there we moved on to asking forgiveness of our fellow parishioners. Again, at first we weren’t sure about the right way to do this, but we quickly got it. It was really neat and I really appreciate this opportunity to connect individually with everyone – even people I had not met before. It was moving in that regard. Unfortunately I was pretty focused on 1) following the protocol* and 2) caring for my son whilst doing so. I expect that it will be an even greater experience next year when I 1) know what I am doing and 2) know more people in the church.

*Curious about the protocol? The archpriest begins by kneeling as he faces the parishioners. The next priest goes to him and they cross themselves and then ask forgiveness of each other: “Forgive me for any way that I have offended you” and they then bow to one another. The bows vary depending on one’s level of comfort – some people are down on their knees, head bowed and others may bow more slightly. They then stand up and hug/kiss and say “God forgives.” Priest #2 now stands next to Priest #1 and the next person then asks forgiveness of Priest #1. So it continues down the line, until everyone has asked forgiveness of everyone else.

Long story short, I was really moved today. This was such a cool experience. And oh yeah – both David and I are really sore!

My First Lent

February 11, 2010

This year I will experience Lent for the first time. In my former life as a Protestant I knew that Lent was the period of time proceeding Easter. I had a friend who would give something up (usually a vice of some sort) during this time. Otherwise I was completely ignorant on the topic.

In Orthodoxy I am finding that Lent is a very big deal because it is a preparatory period leading up to Pascha (Easter). So now my ears are perked when I hear anyone mention something about Lent. Interestingly enough, Christianity Today just published several articles on this very topic:

Lent—Why Bother? To Lead Us to Christ

Lent—Why Bother? For Spiritual Exercise

Lent—Why Bother? To Take Up the Cross

Forgiveness Sunday

February 10, 2010

We have been warned about forgiveness Sunday that is coming up in a few days. Friends have said that it is a moving experience but also that it is physically taxing. If you’re scratching your head in confusion, here’s the explanation of forgiveness Sunday courtesy of Orthodox Wiki:

Significance of the day On this last Sunday before Great Lent, the last day that traditionally Orthodox Christians eat dairy products until Easter, the Church remembers the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. God commanded them to fast from the fruit of a tree (Gen. 2:16), but they did not obey. In this way Adam and Eve and their descendants became heirs of death and corruption. On Forgiveness Sunday many attend Forgiveness Vespers on the eve of Great Lent. They hear on the Lord’s teaching about fasting and forgiveness and enter the season of the fast forgiving one another so that God will forgive them. If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you your trespasses (Matthew 6:14). The Gospel reading of the day also gives advice on fasting. Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. (Matthew 6:16-18).

The Rite of Forgiveness After the dismissal at Vespers, The priest stands beside the analogion, or before the ambon, and the faithful come up one by one and venerate the ikon, after which each makes a prostration before the priest, saying “Forgive me, a sinner.” The priest also makes a prostration before each “God forgives. Forgive me.” The person responds, “God forgives” and receives a blessing from the priest. Meanwhile the choir sings quietly the Irmoi of the Paschal Canon, or else the Paschal Stichera. After receiving the priests blessing, the faithful also ask forgiveness of each other.

As it was explained to us, the ceremony will begin with the archpriest asking for forgiveness. Each parishioner will proceed to ask forgiveness of every other parishioner. This involves kneeling in front of the person who you are asking to forgive you – see why this is taxing? You can also see why it is a moving experience. You are humbling yourself in front of every other person in the church; some people may be your friends, some you may not know, some you may not like. Forgiveness Sunday is another example of how the Orthodox Christian experience permeates one’s life; there is no lone ranger Christianity here. 

It is serious stuff to kneel in front of someone and ask their forgiveness – have you ever done this before? I sure haven’t, though there are plenty of times when I probably should have. It is even more serious to do this in the temple and as part of one’s preparation for Lent.

I am looking forward to this experience on Sunday – though I am not sure to what extent due to the fact that I have a toddler who will require a nap right about the same time I am supposed to be asking for forgiveness. (That’s a post for a later date – “The Orthodox experience with small children afoot”.)