This article by Frederica Mathewes-Green, originally appearing at Beliefnet, chronicles the preparation for Great Lent in the Orthodox Church and gives a good description of Forgiveness Vespers that occur the evening before Lent begins.
Journey into Orthodox Christian Lent
On Sunday night I am going to have to apologize to someone. I am going to have to apologize to about a hundred people, in fact–one at a time, face to face. I’m looking forward to it.
For Orthodox Christians, Lent begins differently than it does for Protestants and Catholics. The observance of Ash Wednesday is dramatic and beautiful, but is not in the Eastern tradition. For us, Lent comes in gradually over a period of weeks, like a cello line subtly weaving itself into our lives.
Ten Sundays before Easter (or, as we call it, Pascha) we hear the Gospel lesson of the Publican and the Pharisee; before we begin the season of self-denial, we recall that it is futile to boast of self-denial. The Publican’s model of heartbroken repentance is instead our aim. To reinforce that lesson, during the following week there is no fasting. The Orthodox pattern is to abstain from meat, fish, and dairy products on Wednesdays and Fridays year round, but this is one of the few weeks that is suspended and feasting is the rule.
The next Sunday we hear the Gospel of the Prodigal Son, perhaps the most beloved parable in the Bible. The icon of this scene shows the son in worn, torn clothing and his feet wrapped in rags; he cradles his sorry head in one hand while reaching the other out tentatively toward Jesus. There is nothing tentative about Jesus’ responses — he is running toward the son, his arms open to embrace, and a scroll tumbles from his hand: “For this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
Orthodox confess their sins in the presence of a priest year round, as their consciences prompt them, but everyone must make a confession in Lent before receiving the Eucharist on Pascha. This icon reminds us of the sharp paradox of making confession. The awkward pain and embarrassment of admitting our wrongs is the necessary condition for release and joy. Being thoroughly known, yet loved anyway, is life’s greatest joy. But it lies on the other side of this thorny divide: you must allow yourself to be thoroughly known. Blessed are those who take that risk voluntarily and early, without having to reach the state of the Prodigal Son.
By the third Sunday, a watershed is reached. The Gospel readings concern the Last Judgement, and no punches are pulled. Here is the choice: humility like that of the Publican or Prodigal Son, which opens our hearts to receive divine love–or the cataclysmic rewards of stubborn pride. This Sunday is also called “Meatfare Sunday,” and as the name suggests, you eat meat this day, because you won’t be eating any for a long time to come.
During all of Lent, Orthodox strive to abstain from eating certain foods. This is not a matter of ritual purity; on Pascha the tables will groan with beef, pork, and fowl. If these foods were unclean, we wouldn’t dig into them with gusto on the holiest day of the year. Nor does our refraining from these foods somehow benefit God or make him like us more. Fasting is a form of self-discipline, like lifting weights or jogging. It builds the muscle of self-control, one useful in many situations besides eating. If we can master the temptation to reach for a cheeseburger, we can resist other daily temptations as they come along. As with athletic training, everyone acknowledges a common standard, but adjusts it to their own health and spiritual needs. Some would find this fast so taxing that it would sour them spiritually, and they must do less; perhaps they can build up to it in time. Others find it not stringent enough. No one is to judge any one else’s fast, or even notice it. But it helps that we all look to a common standard. Since we all fast from the same things at the same time, we can support each other, trade recipes, and, when necessary, commiserate.
With the following Sunday, seven weeks before Pascha, Lent begins in earnest. This is called “Cheesefare Sunday,” and from now until Pascha we will abstain from meat, fish, dairy products, wine and olive oil. At the evening Vespers service we trade the bright chant melodies for more sober ones, and say for the first time the prayer of Ephrem the Syrian, a fourth century hermit. We will recite this over and over throughout Lent:
“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faith-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.”
If you were in our church on this Sunday evening you would see us do something surprising. We fall to our knees and then place the palms of our hands on the floor, and touch our foreheads down between our hands. This is called “making a prostration.” You may have seen Muslims worshipping this way toward Mecca. This traditional middle-eastern physical expression of worship was used by Christians for centuries before the founding of Islam, and of course the Hebrew scriptures are full of references to people “falling on their faces” before God.
We stand up again, and recite the next passage of the prayer:
“But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.” Here we do another prostration.
“Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother: for Thou are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.” Then comes a final prostration.
At last we reach the Rite of Forgiveness. As vespers comes to a close, the members of the church form a large circle. At the end nearest the altar the two ends overlap, as a subdeacon turns to face my husband, the priest. He bows to touch the ground, honoring the image of God in this person, then stands to say, “Forgive me, my brother, for anyway I have offended you.” After the subdeacon says “I forgive you,” he too bows to the ground, and asks for and receives the same forgiveness, and then the two embrace. Each of them then moves over to the next person in line. Over the course of an hour or so, every single person in the church will stand face-to-face with every other person. Each will bow to the ground and ask for forgiveness; each will bestow forgiveness on the other.
As my husband says, “When we do this, we do something the devil hates.” Teenaged brothers and sisters forgive each other. Small children solemnly tell their mothers, “I forgive you.” Folks who have been arguing about the church budget for months embrace with tears.
In fact, tears are the common coin of the evening. Some weep hard as they look in each face and think how they have slighted, ignored, or resented this person during the year — a person now revealed as bearing the face of Christ. Some weep as they are forgiven, over and over, in a nearly-overwhelming rush of love and acceptance. Some weep and hug so much they hold up the line, but no one minds. A toddler is ignoring the line and going on his own steam from person to person, tugging on a skirt hem or trouser leg and looking up to ask, “Forgive?”
This is how Lent begins for us. It’s an exhilarating kick start for a time that will get much harder. The number of services during Lent increase dramatically — during Holy Week there are eleven — and they get longer as well. Food simultaneously gets shorter. Old knees don’t like prostrations. In all this, though, we rejoice; we look forward to Lent as a time that is invigorating and challenging. In the company of our friends we can run this race. It is good that it begins with forgiveness.