Wednesday, February 28, 2007

An Image of the Kingdom

At the beginning of Lent I mentioned our “Forgiveness Sunday,” and the fact that we have a forgiveness service at Vespers that evening to prepare ourselves for the season of cleansing and conversion. But I didn’t give any details about it, so I’d like to do it now.

The service is really very simple, yet its effects are profound. At the end of Vespers, the people come one by one to the front of the church and venerate the icon of Christ. Then each in turn prostrates before the priest, saying: “Pray for me and forgive me; I am a sinner.” The priest blesses them and says: “May God forgive you.” Then the priest prostrates and says the same thing to the one he has just forgiven (you don’t see that very often, do you?), and the person responds with the same words; then they embrace in the liturgical “kiss of peace.” This goes on until everyone in the church has offered and received forgiveness from each other, with the mutual prostrations (this is not impractical for us; we have a small church). It is our custom also to anoint each person with holy oil at the end, as a further preparation for the coming Lenten efforts. While everyone is prostrating and forgiving each other, the choir softly sings Easter hymns, so that the goal of Lent is already in sight, and so that this first dawning of the Light of the Resurrection will be a source of quiet strength and hope in all the struggles to come.

It may be that the above description is not particularly powerful, but “you have to be there.” If you experience it yourself it is profound and moving. It’s one thing to talk about it, and quite another to throw yourself down before people with whom you may have had many or serious problems, and ask forgiveness, and then offer it to them as they ask for it. I remember, it was quite a few years ago, that I had had a really long and difficult year with one of the brothers in the monastery. As I approached to prostrate before him, I couldn’t even get out the words, “pray for me and forgive me; I am a sinner.” I just burst into tears, and then we reconciled. Words were not necessary after that.

It isn’t always that dramatic, but it is always moving. It feels good to reconcile, to start fresh, to put the old animosities away. Strength and encouragement are given to live the Gospel more fully and faithfully, beginning now. That doesn’t mean that everyone’s irritating idiosyncrasies are going to disappear, or even that the reasons for repenting and forgiving have vanished, but it does mean that we have made a choice to do things Jesus’ way henceforth, and with our eyes fixed on Him there will be more peace and mercy and wisdom in our hearts.

Being the first to finish, I was able to look out upon the church and the rest of the people. This service is really an image of the Kingdom of God as it is meant to be on this earth. Husbands and wives are prostrating before each other, embracing and forgiving; friends and community members are doing the same, while the air is full of hymns to the risen Christ, who by his death and resurrection reconciled us to the Father and to each other in Himself. There is hardly a dry eye in the place. Hearts are softened, and even if the moving power of this experience is only temporary, we have seen how things are supposed to be, and we are called to remember and put it into practice. We have felt the touch of grace, we have experienced the reconciling power of the Cross, and we have felt the relief of the liberating experience of both offering and receiving forgiveness.

I wish this service could be done in all churches. It should be done in families as well. Why don’t you try it this Lent? Prostrate before each other, husbands and wives and children, siblings and friends; ask for forgiveness and then offer forgiveness to those who ask it of you. If you are in the grace of the Holy Spirit it feels good thus to humble yourself. It brings healing and inner peace and freedom. You walk with a lighter step after that. You begin to understand how the Lord wants us to live in this world as we prepare to enter the next. This is what Lent is really about—not just giving up a few things that you’re going to take back on Easter anyway. If you want to give up something, give up resentments, grudges, animosities, hard-heartedness, and that critical or contemptuous spirit that leaves you unreconciled with everyone.

Repent and forgive. Bow down and be raised up. Embrace and rejoice. Then go forth in peace to serve the Lord, and be a part of that holy and life-giving image of his Kingdom on earth. Many more will be drawn to Him when they see how his disciples love one another.