The triumph of sin, the main sign of its rule over the world is division, opposition , separation, hatred. Therefore, the first break through this fortress of sin is forgiveness.
Slanting rays of late afternoon sunlight fall on the solea as the priest bows before the first deacon and says these words, “Forgive me, a sinner.” The deacon replies, “God forgives, and I forgive.” The deacon bows before the priest and says the same. They repeat this ritual with the second deacon, and the third. Then, one by one, we add ourselves to a line that eventually snakes around the whole church, bowing to one another, “Forgive me…” til each person in the temple has bowed before the other, asking for, and receiving forgiveness.
There are tears. And hugs. Some of us barely know one another, others have complicated histories. We do not take time to enumerate the many ways we might have hurt one another. God knows. But by our words and the humbling of ourselves, we say we would like it to be other. That we want to be made right.
With this, we begin our Lenten effort.
And because, in her ancient wisdom, the Church understands that we need lots of practice, she gives us the whole of this week to contemplate repentance and forgiveness. The services are filled with a great many prostrations, mingled with reminders of my propensity to seek my own way. But this is not punitive. This is liberation. I speak to my friend Jack one night after praying the penitential Canon of St. Andrew and ask him if he is tired after chanting so many long services this week. “Not at all. I love this service! It’s invigorating.”
Invigorating? A service whose primary focus is repentance?
In the long and difficult effort of spiritual recovery, the Church does not separate the soul from the body. The whole man has fallen away from God; the whole man is to be restored…Salvation and repentance then are not contempt for the body or neglect of it, but restoration of the body to its real function as the expression and life of spirit, as the temple of the priceless human soul.
I have discoloured Thine image and broken Thy commandment. All my beauty is destroyed and my lamp is quenched by the passions, O Saviour. But take pity on me, as David sings, and ‘restore to me Thy joy’.
~The Lenten Triodian, Canon of St. Andrew
It just so happens that a couple of days before Lent began, I had an encounter with a dark cloud from my past. A reminder of a difficult season in which I made choices I am not proud of. And I allowed that cloud to rain all over me and put me in a terrible funk.
Perhaps this is why I need this week so much. I need to physically stand inside forgiveness. I need to look into the eyes of another who will say to me, “You are forgiven. By God, and by me.” I need to know hunger in my belly. I need the opportunity to touch my face to the floor, not as a grovelling worm, but as one who recognizes my vulnerability. I need to wear forgiveness in my body so that the next time accusation visits, it finds no harbor in me.
It is only when we have lost all love of ourselves for our own sakes that our past sins cease to give us any cause for suffering or for the anguish of shame. For the saints, when they remember their sins, do not remember the sins but the mercy of God, and therefore even past evil is turned by them into a present cause of joy and serves to glorify God.
May it be so.
*A parenthetical word on dates: The Orthodox and western dates for Pascha (Easter) frequently differ, usually by just a bit, but occasionally (as this year) by more than a month. You can read about why that occurs HERE and HERE. Hence, as our western brothers and sisters are ramping up for Palm Sunday, we have only just begun the Lenten season.