(51) forgive me, a sinner

(a.k.a. thinking about orthodoxy – part 3)

This is Forgiveness Sunday in the Orthodox Church and Lent begins at midnight tonight.

I have never quite experienced anything like this.

In a separate vespers service after the regular liturgy this morning, we each asked forgiveness of literally every other person present in the church. This is called “the rite of mutual forgiveness.” Maybe this is kind of what we aim for when we practice literal foot-washing in other church settings.

The priest was first, “because I am the chief sinner among you,” he explained. Each deacon, subdeacon and altarboy then approached him and they asked forgiveness of each other before standing beside him in a growing line. Then his wife and family, “because,” as the priest explained, “I sin against my wife more often than any other person.” And on it goes. Each person in the congregation goes down the line and then stands at the end of it.

You take a moment to stand facing each person in line, make the sign of the cross and bow to the ground, and say “forgive me, a sinner” and then respond (since they said the same thing), “as God forgives, I also forgive” or “may God forgive us both” and then embrace.

I wanted to leave multiple times before this all began. I was so nervous and it just seemed so odd. My sister had encouraged me last night to be humble, to see it as a learning experience, and “not to worry.” Easier said than done, but her instructions became a bit of a mantra, calming my nerves last night and today.

But it was a beautiful experience, despite being moderately awkward and very warm and stuffy in the church by the time we finished.

I needed this.

I need to be forgiven of many wrongs. I need to forgive many wrongs. Even during the morning liturgy, I was reminded of the anger and judgmental attitude I felt yesterday toward someone I love. I needed to have someone else look me in the eyes and remind me that God forgives me.  I need mutual forgiveness because I need to be reminded that, as a member of the human community, I both suffer with the oppressed and am in part responsible for the acts of the oppressors. I needed to give the gift of forgiveness and receive it in return.

Since some of you who might be reading this weren’t there today, please forgive me, a sinner.*

And know that I forgive you and God forgives you.

This is a sweet beginning to Lent.

*Maybe we can talk another time about the strange and heavy connotations of the word “sinner” and how I don’t always know how to use it or when and how I only realized recently that it applies to me too.

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