The Orthodox Church begins Great and Holy Lent with a simple yet profound service, the Vespers of Forgiveness Sunday. One of the hymns of the services sets the tone for the time and the season which is to begin:
Let us set out with joy upon the season of the Fast, and prepare ourselves for spiritual combat. Let us purify our soul and cleanse our flesh; and as we fast from food, let us abstain also from every passion. Rejoicing in the virtues of the Spirit may we persevere with love, and so be counted worthy to see the solemn Passion of Christ our God, and with great spiritual gladness to behold His Holy Pascha.
Another hymn exhorts:
Thy grace has shone forth, O Lord, it has shone forth and given light to our souls. Behold, now is the accepted time: behold, now is the season of repentance. Let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, that having sailed across the great sea of the Fast, we may reach the third-day Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of our souls.
We see here the dual contrasts: Joy and sorrow; despair and hope; ugliness and beauty. This is Lent, when we experience sorrow for our sins, but joy in Christ’s mercy; when we despair of our sinfulness and hope in his grace; when we see the ugliness of our sins, and the beauty of forgiveness.
Although the theme for the day is the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, and it is often called Cheesefare Sunday, as it is the last time dairy and eggs will be consumed prior to Pascha (or Easter), the crown of the day is the Vespers service, where all the faithful drench themselves in God’s forgiveness given and received.
At the conclusion of the service, the rubrics begin somewhat tersely: “Then follows the ceremony of mutual forgiveness.” Pragmatic directions follow, though local customs dictate the specific mechanics of it all. But it is in that short sentence that the whole point of Lent is summarized: the experience of the mercy of God. Although we express our forgiveness to one another, we do so only because forgiveness has been extended to each of us through Christ and his saving work.
Among the many mercies of the Forgiveness Vespers are the tears that flow from eyes that smile. Here before me is my brother, my sister, before whom I kneel and press my face to the ground, asking their mercy, and–how can it be?–they in turn kneeling and pressing their faces to the ground, asking forgiveness of me. We each sorrow for our sins, but then embrace one another, saying, tear-stained cheek to tear-stained cheek, “God forgives, and I forgive.” God forgives. What amazing words these are. God, to whom I can give nothing to cover my sins, freely and without payment gives mercy and grace to me. And here am I, a conduit of his mercy, extending the same grace to this child of God with whom I am confronted.
This mutual forgiveness stirs the waters of the soul, for there are in this life many wounds, small and large, which striate my soul, and engrave my heart. I may leave the service reconciled to my brother and my sister, but there is still work to be done. Our lives are a large tapestry of interconnected threads. Forgiveness given and received calls forth more healing work, more giving and receiving of forgiveness. Some of this work is damnably hard, and bitterly painful. And yet . . . and yet, surging within, as life within death, there is light and joy, too. To cast off the soul-infection, to release the pent-up bile, is an act of freedom and relief.
And here is the wonder of it all: the more I forgive, the more space there is in heart and soul for mercy and forgiveness to fill. We are lightened, both in the casting off of the weight of sin and in the filling of our lives with brightness. The same tears are transformed as the sweet casts out the bitter, and the sorrowful is filled with joy.
This is why we begin Lent this way. And this is what awaits us at Lent’s end.