Forgiveness Sunday Vespers and the Vesperal Litany: Or, How, Despite My Planning, Great Lent, Still Snuck Up on Me

So a dash to Evanston and a visit to our cats–er, I mean, to the Young’s who now own our cats–to see, as Anna puts its, that our kitties are adjusting well to their new home. A quick stop on the way back home to get a pregnant woman a one-pound-bag of peanut M & M’s (as if I hadn’t gotten her Dunkin’ Donuts earlier!), and then I was rushing off to the service for Vespers of Forgiveness Sunday.

Don’t get me wrong. I was prepared. I’d already discussed my Lenten disciplines with Fr. Patrick and gotten his blessing. Anna and I had talked about them, and she was fine with them. I scheduled in my calendar for the extra services this week. For Pete’s sake, I’d even purchased and read the first several pages of Alexander Schmemann’s Great Lent. I mean, come on, now. I was prepared.

Or so I thought.

I’d been to a few Vespers services, so I had some inkling of what I would expect, but of course, I’d never done the “forgiveness thing” at the end. So I was curious and a bit apprehensive. Would I clink eyeglasses, or bonk noses? I’d never kissed a grown man before, even on the cheek, or at least not since I was a kid, so all those adolescent “don’t want to look unmanly” sweatinesses had to be laughed away. But despite the combination of familiarity and curiousity, I was in tune with the service. I was ready.

Or so I thought.

We were into the Vesperal Litany, when I felt a change deep in my gut. “Lord have mercy” had just changed tone. No upward lilt, even if in a minor key. This was Byzantine, minor key, with downward glide. It was almost like a physical blow. I wanted to sit down. Then another “Lord have mercy.” And another. We were half-way down the page when I noticed the rubric at the top: Lent begins during the Litany. Lent had begun, and I had missed it.

What now? I’d planned on having a small meal of fruit after Vespers, to prepare for the rigors of the first week. Should I eat it now, or not? I had poured a sherry tumbler of Ouzo, but had left it unfinished. Do I just dump it out? Why didn’t anyone tell me Lent began during the Litany? I mean, I knew it was this evening, but . . .

By the time the prostrations came, I was well-humbled. God would be in charge of this Lent. Not me. “O Lord and Master of my life. Take from me the spirit of laziness, despair, lust for power, and vain talking.” Prostration, forehead to floor. “But give to me, Thy servant, the spirit of purity, humility, patience, and love.” Prostration. “Yes, Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not judge my brother. For blessed art Thou, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.” Prostration.

And so came the asking for and giving of forgiveness. Fr Patrick made a low bow to Eva’s young boy. “Forgive me,” he said. “God forgives,” was the response. And so it went, each alternately asking for or giving forgiveness. I spent the first half of the time, giving forgiveness to the congregation of worshippers. We were barely minutes into it, and already there were tears. I was unmoved. Well, at least until it came time for me to look the sister to my right in the eyes, to bow and to say, “Forgive me.” My eyes stayed dry. But not my heart.

Why should I ask the forgiveness of what were, really, little more than strangers to me, some of whose names I didn’t even know? It began to dawn on me that my sins may not have been so much ones of commission as ones of omission. Why didn’t I know their names? Why did I withhold Christian love and joy behind my introverted persona? What would it have hurt to have gone up to a total stranger and ask, “How are you doing? How may I pray for you?” Ah, see, it would have hurt my pride. See. There it was. I had sinned against these my brothers and sisters. And no, not just from withholding of Christian love. No, truth be known, I had judged them. That school teacher who’d made some harsh comments about an Orthodox bishop. Yes, it was me; I was the one that judged him as immature, and impatient. That young high school boy, the one I nicknamed in my own mind, “the loudmouth.” Yep. That one stings. This young man, after all, is not merely a creation of God, but a member of God’s Kingdom. He is one of the least of these. I began to keep a wary eye out for millstones.

I don’t know how long Forgiveness Vespers has been around. The quizzical shrugs (“Why is that important?”) seem to indicate centuries. That may well be. But it’s clear to me now the spiritual genius for starting Lent this way. We need it. Great Lent is hard enough without carting all this baggage around. And anyway, we’ll end where we begin: with the great mercy of God.