Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Forgiveness Vespers

"I have never felt so out of my element in my life," said a fellow Orthodox janie-come-lately as we recently talked about our remembrances of Forgiveness Vespers last year - a first for both of us then. (Actually, I had been to a Forgiveness Vespers a time or two, but only as an observer, not as a participant). I completely understood and identified with the honesty of her words, and it was exactly how I felt at Forgiveness Vespers last year.

At the end of Vespers each year on the evening before Lent begins, all present for the service are invited to participate in a simple but profoundly meaningful rite. Each person addresses every other person, asking for forgiveness and, in turn, granting each one forgiveness.

Clinically speaking, here's how the rite works at our church: You approach each person one at a time, beginning with the priest(s), and make a metania or half-prostration (making the sign of the cross and then bending over to touch the floor) and ask for their forgiveness. They do the same and ask for your forgiveness sort of at the same time, and you exchange a word of forgiveness and the kiss of peace (at our church it's 3 kisses, actually: one cheek, the other cheek, and then the first one again). Then you move on to the next person in the line and start all over again.

My memories of Forgiveness Vespers from last year are very much like my friend's. I was brand-new to the church then (a one-week old!) and really didn't know most of these people very well at all. As I approached about the first half-dozen people, I remember being more concerned about just getting through this rite than I was concerned about forgiveness. Then as I approached about the next dozen people, I began to wonder if this rite wasn't somehow a bit contrived. Why should I be approaching theses people - many of whom I barely knew and some I didn't know at all - and asking for their forgiveness? What did I ever do to this person - or this one? I hardly knew them! In some cases, I didn't even know their names. And what had they ever done to me that they should be asking for my forgiveness?

Then as I came to stand before the members of my own family it suddenly began to make alot of sense. In just the minute or less that I stood before each of them, I was overwhelmed with a flood of ways I had offended each of them - things I'd done or said for which I'd needed their forgiveness for some time, but hadn't asked for it. And it dawned then on me only then just how important such a thing is for the health and healing of our own little household community, and also how important it is for me personally in order to maintain the integrity of my relationship with the others in my own home. And then, of couse, the rite in this particular wider context, began to make a great deal of sense to me.

In a society where "no regrets" is the theme and admission of wrong and of our personal failings is often interpreted as a sign of weakness, Forgiveness Vespers comes as sort of a wake-up call for Christians, reminding us of who we really are - not only in our relationship to God, but in our relationships with each other. It is a small way to begin to set ourselves aright.

Often, it seems, when we feel "out of our element," it turns out we are actually closer to being "in the element" for which we were created.

The trick in our day and age, I think, is remembering exactly what our true element is.

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