So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, “Have patience with me.” — Matt 18:26
The man who just prostrated himself before me and confessed himself a sinner is back on his feet and embracing me. He has squatted and bowed before dozens of other sinners in this little candlelit cathedral, as have I, and both of us have worked up a sweat. Tomorrow our legs will ache. This is one strenuous way to get ready for Easter.
The “Forgiveness Vespers” service is how Orthodox churches embark upon Lent. Western Christians begin with ashes on their foreheads. Orthodox Christians begin with their foreheads on the floor.
The service marks a high point on the Orthodox calendar. Worshippers step reverently into the cathedral, knowing that tonight their church will “change keys” and enter a period whose mood they often describe as bright sadness. Prayers are rising before dusk, but sunlight has left the church by the time the old archbishop invites his people to draw near for a heart-to-heart. He begins to talk of forgiveness.
Their Lord, he tells them, pursued their reconciliation unto death. His sacrifice should move them to go about forgiving with urgency, outside the church as well as within. The archbishop’s counsel: If you aren’t willing to forgive, don’t bother with Lenten fasting. It would be pointless.
Finally, he makes a general confession himself. He admits, for example, that he has often been guilty of impatience. For that and other failings, he is sorry. “My brothers and sisters,” he says before prostrating himself, “forgive me.”
And so begins the rite of forgiveness. Starting with the archbishop, the people form a receiving line that slowly winds around the church. Everyone prostrates himself or herself before every other person present, even strangers.
“Forgive me, a sinner,” each one says, and then bends low. The person opposite makes the same confession, the same gesture. Rising, they embrace and kiss. “God forgives, and I forgive,” each one says, or other words to that effect.
Because everyone participates, all inevitably stand face to face with those who know them best. Young fathers bow before their young children. Boyfriends and girlfriends ask one another’s forgiveness. A mother seeks pardon from her son. Husbands prostrate themselves before their wives, and vice versa. A few people, choked by emotion, cannot get the words out every time. Tears say what their tongues cannot.
Cynics may doubt the genuineness of all this; some doubt its necessity. One visitor a few years ago was bemused to see all those faces down and bottoms up. Keeping her seat, and her distance, at the back of the church, she quietly wondered aloud, “Do they really need that much forgiveness?”
A Christian answers yes, they really do – and not just for more or less public offenses in word and deed, but even for offenses committed in secret or in the heart. No sin, in Orthodox and other Christian thought, is absolutely private. Each represents a breaking of faith with the whole church, the whole human race. No one who believes such a thing means to deny that sin offends God above all. The idea is simply to affirm that sin also offends those made in the image of that God.
But shouldn’t people who think that way seek and extend forgiveness all the time, and not just one Sunday night in late winter? Any church that prays “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” week in and week out, knows the unanimous Christian answer. In the words of St. Paul, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the young German theologian martyred by the Nazis, envisioned Saturday as a time when laypeople might regularly pursue reconciliation with one another before sharing Holy Communion the next day. “Nobody who avoids this approach to his brother,” he wrote, “can go rightly prepared to the table of the Lord.”
The Orthodox are exhorted, just before they sing the creed, “Let us love one another, that with one accord we may confess: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
Right thinking without right relating, to paraphrase St. James, is dead. As the Orthodox see it, a simple rite of forgiveness at the end of evening prayer underlines that point and puts it in boldface. “Let us embrace one another,” they will sing in the wee hours of Easter morning. “Let us speak also, O brethren, to those that hate us, and in the resurrection let us forgive all things, and so let us cry: Christ is risen from the dead!”
A resurrection gospel puts those who believe it on their knees before God. Sooner or later, it puts them on their knees before one another.
Paul Buckley is a student at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, USA, and has been called an Eastern Rite Presbyterian.