Lent starts for the Orthodox churches on Monday this week. Sunday night we start with the service known as “Forgiveness Vespers”. At the end of the service each person – clergy and laity, from most elder to the youngest child – going around in a big circle around the inside of the church, makes a prostration before every other person in the community asking forgiveness and begging for prayers. It is God who “forgives our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” As the prostrations begin the choir sings verses from the Paschal Service, slowly, quietly. “This is the day of resurrection. Let us be illumined by the feast. Let us embrace each other. Let us call “brothers” even those who hate us, and forgive all by the resurrection.” When the prostrations are over everyone is winded. There are a few eyes misted over in tears. There are hugs and laughter. Lent is serious business.
For the first week of Lent, Monday – Friday, most Orthodox Churches have services of “The Great Canon” of St Andrew of Crete. This, too, talks about forgiveness, but in a different way: reminding us that most of our assumptions are not altruistic and God-like but, at core, selfish and self-directed. Even most of our desire for forgiveness is fear-based instead of Love. Are we running to God, or merely running away from Hell?
This is important: for in Orthodox Theology, it is God, himself, in his burning Love, that is the very Fire: for some it will burn, for others it will enliven. If you will, you can become wholly flame, as the Fathers said.
For the rest of Lent, yes, there are special services, but this first week is called “Clean Week”. It is a chance to “clean house”, as it were: to make amends, to set things in order – if not set fully right. To empty our luggage – forgive the mixed metaphor! Jesus said to go out with no money, no extra coat, no extra sandals: just trusting in God. So by cleaning up, by forgiving, we drop the extra weight for this long journey.
And we move from Clean Week into the rest of the journey to Resurrection. It is a very real journey. The death of Lent, prostrations, fasting, long services in the dark church, culminating of course in the longest services of the year in Holy Week, with the 12 Gospels and the Chanting of Psalm 118 (119). Towards the end of the Psalm, things start to get a bit raucous and the quiet joy that we’ve been sharing since Forgiveness Vespers suddenly bursts out in the reading of the “Dry Bones” lesson.
The very next night is Pascha and we – literally – shout with joy, “This is the day of resurrection. Let us be illumined by the feast. Let us embrace each other. Let us call “brothers” even those who hate us, and forgive all by the resurrection.” But this Resurrection began 7 weeks prior: with Forgiveness. The Resurrection always starts with Forgiveness. It only starts with Forgiveness.
My brothers and sisters, I have sinned against you in any sin I have committed: prostrate before you I beg your forgiveness and your prayers.