"Ritualistic" Forgiveness in the Orthodox Church

We just did Forgiveness Sunday in the Orthodox Church. That is how we start Lent. In Catholic and Protestant Churches Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. The focus is on reconciling oneself to God. In the Orthodox Church, the focus is on reconciling to each other. The two are not, of course, mutually exclusive. 

I am sure the logistics of Forgiveness Sunday vary by parish, but in mine the entire church forms a kind of receiving line that folds in on itself. The person on the outside says, "Forgive me, a sinner." The person on the inside replies, "God forgives, and I forgive." Then she asks for forgiveness in turn. The end result of the ceremony is that every person asks forgiveness from every other person present. 

Some might see this as being "ritualistic" in the pejorative sense. Does the fact that one person asks another for forgiveness mean that forgiveness is truly sought or truly received? Of course not. No doubt the ritual is entirely perfunctory for some people, and partly perfunctory for many more. Despite the exchange of words, there are just some people one will never feel like truly forgiving. But that is not entirely the point. 

Love is not so much an emotion as it is an act. A man who lays down his life for his enemy may still feel nothing but hatred for his enemy, but he has in fact demonstrated love despite his feelings. The exchange of words, even if one cannot quite muster the feelings, is still important. Maybe the person who says, "God forgives and I forgive," is speaking in the same spirit as the father of the epileptic boy in Mark chapter 9. He wanted Jesus to heal his son, but he lacked faith. So he begged of the Lord, “I believe; help my unbelief!” It was an aspirational cry. He did not believe. But he wanted to. Grace means that we never believe enough, but God makes up the difference.

And so I stand in the receiving line and face a friend.

God forgives, and I forgive.

I face another and remember how they gossiped about me.

God forgives, and I forgive.

I face another who made my daughter cry.

God forgives, and I forgive.

Others face me, and I am sure they think the same things. I have hurt people. I have wronged people in more ways I can number of begin to know about. That is the most important aspect of the forgiveness ceremony in the Orthodox Church. Lent is all about grace—the grace God extends to us and the grace that we must in turn extend toward others. No one is innocent. We have all sinned against others, and we have all been sinned against. Our lives are connected in ways we cannot begin to see or comprehend. Trace those millions of invisible threads, and at the end one reaches the same conclusion as the elder Zossima from the Brother’s Karamazov.

For know, dear ones, that every one of us is undoubtedly responsible for all men — and everything on earth, not merely through the general sinfulness of creation, but each one personally for all mankind and every individual man…Only through that knowledge, our heart grows soft with infinite, universal, inexhaustible love.

Forgive me, a sinner. 

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