The temperature has plummeted 25 degrees since morning. A gray sky oozes raindrops, on their way to becoming ice. But inside, it is warm. Clouds of incense hang in the air making it sweet. And holy. Flames flicker before the icons, and soft, buttery light bathes the images of saints, of Christ and His Mother. The room is crowded with people I love. We have come here to commence the Lenten journey together. We want to begin clean; to rid ourselves of anything that might impede us along the way.
Last fall, when Mike and I hiked the Grand Canyon rim to rim, we learned the importance of traveling light. We agonized over every single item we placed in our packs. In the end, we still took too much. And we felt it every step of the way. We resolved that next time we would be more ruthless. We would carry less.
Similarly, we want to commence our Lenten journey unencumbered. So we have gathered for the beautiful Forgiveness Vespers. We pray together words about the coming fast and ask God to purify both body and soul. Then, the priest bows before each member of the clergy and says these words, “Forgive me, a sinner.” Each of them replies, “God forgives. Forgive me, a sinner.” Then the priest responds, “God forgives,” and they embrace one another.
After this, they form a line at the front of the church and, one at a time, we pass before them and have the same exchange, adding ourselves to the end of the line. So that, by the end of the evening, each of us has bowed before every other person and asked for, given, and received forgiveness. It is a deeply moving experience.
Obviously, some of us know one another better than others. Our stories are more involved. There is my wise and gentle friend and hero who teaches me, by her example, what it looks like to purposefully pursue relationship. There is the friend who knows all the worst about me and chooses to love me anyway. There are friends who have generously poured themselves out on my behalf more times than I can count. There are so many who have inextricably wound themselves around my heart, and it is an honor to bow before them and ask for forgiveness. We exchange words of love, and our embrace says all the things we do not know how to say.
There are also those who challenge me; who sometimes rub me the wrong way. And I can only imagine how many people feel like that when they see me coming. But each of us is choosing to let God use the other in our lives to refine us and make us more like Him–There is more than one way for iron to sharpen iron–And this act of humbling ourselves before one another, of forgiving and embracing one another, is a crucial part of that.
All the while, the chanters have been quietly singing the hymns of resurrection. A glimpse of what awaits us on the other side of this journey. An important reminder of where we are headed. Fragments come to me over the voices of the many penitents. “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death.” “Dance now and be glad O Zion.” “Glory to thy Holy Resurrection, O Lord!”
As the evening ends, my heart is full. And I walk out into the night as light as a feather.
We are begun.
Let us set out with joy upon the season of the Fast, and prepare ourselves for spiritual combat. Let us purify our soul and cleanse our flesh; and as we fast from food, let us abstain also from every passion. Rejoicing in the virtues of the Spirit, may we persevere with love, and so be counted worthy to see the solemn Passion of Christ our God, and with great spiritual gladness to behold His holy Passover.
~from the Lenten Triodion, Forgiveness Vespers