Journey Into Orthodox Christian Lent
The Orthodox Church's 'Rite of Forgiveness' is an exhilarating kick-start for a time that just gets harder.
Some people find this fast so taxing it would sour them spiritually, and they must do less. Others find it not stringent enough. No one is to judge anyone else's fast, or even notice it. But it helps that we all look to a common standard. Since we all fast from the same things at the same time, we can trade recipes and commiserate.
With the following Sunday, seven weeks before Pascha, Lent begins in earnest. This is called "Cheesefare Sunday," and from now until Pascha we will abstain from meat, fish, dairy products, wine and olive oil. At the evening Vespers service we trade the bright chant melodies for more sober ones, and say the prayer of Ephrem the Syrian, a fourth century hermit: "O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk."
If you were in our church on this Sunday evening you would see us fall to our knees and then place the palms of our hands on the floor, and touch our foreheads down between them. This is called "making a prostration." You may have seen Muslims praying this way toward Mecca. This traditional Middle Eastern worship expression was used by Christians for centuries before the founding of Islam.
At last we reach the Rite of Forgiveness. As vespers come to a close, parishioners form a large circle. Nearest the altar the two ends overlap, as a deacon turns to face the priest. The priest bows to the ground, then stands to say, "Forgive me, my brother, for any way I have offended you." After the deacon says "I forgive you," he bows to the ground, and asks for and receives the same forgiveness. Then the two embrace. Each of them moves to the next person in line.
Over the course of an hour or so, every single person will stand face-to-face with every other person. Each will bow to the ground and ask for forgiveness; each will bestow forgiveness on the other.
As my husband says, "When we do this, we do something the devil hates." Teenage brothers and sisters forgive each other. Small children solemnly tell their mothers, "I forgive you." Folks who have been arguing about the church budget for months embrace with tears.
In fact, tears are the common coin of the evening. Some weep hard as they look in each face and think how they have slighted, ignored, or resented this person during the year--a person now revealed as bearing the face of Christ. Some weep as they are forgiven, over and over, in an overwhelming rush of love and acceptance. Some weep and hug so much they hold up the line. A toddler ignores the line and goes from person to person, tugging on a skirt hem or trouser leg and looking up to ask, "Forgive?"
This is how Lent begins for us. It's an exhilarating kick-start for a time that will get much harder. The number of required services during Lent increase dramatically--during Holy Week there are 11--and they get longer as well. Food simultaneously gets shorter. Old knees don't like prostrations.
In all this, though, we rejoice; in the company of our friends we can run this race. It is good that it begins with forgiveness.