Friday, March 23, 2012

Forgiveness Vespers

My stepdad recently sent me the following note in an email entitled "Forgiveness Sunday in Peru. Sort of...":

Each year, the town of Chumbivilcas, Peru, celebrates the new year with what to Americans might seem "Festivus"-inspired (from the Seinfeld TV show), but is actually drawn from Incan tradition. For "Takanakuy," with a background of singing and dancing, all townspeople with grudges from the previous 12 months (men, women, children) settle them with sometimes-bloody fistfights so that they start the new year clean. Said one villager to a Reuters reporter, "Everything is solved here, and after(ward) we are all friends." [Reuters via CBS News, 12-14-2011]

I quipped, "I wonder if that might not work better in some parishes?"

All joking aside, Forgiveness Vespers is among the most beautiful services of the Church. By some trick of scheduling, I rarely manage to be with my parish for this important service, but I still recall the first Forgiveness Vespers I ever attended, at St. Joseph's in Houston while I was a catechumen. I remember watching in amazement as each member of the congregation approached the priest, Fr. Matthew; they made mutual prostrations and asked and gave forgiveness: "Forgive me, a sinner." "God forgives and I forgive." They began to line up across the front of the iconostasis and around the edge of the nave, each asking and giving forgiveness to each other: "Forgive me, a sinner." "God forgives and I forgive." Though I was something of an outsider, I was unmistakably drawn into the community by participating. I felt, very acutely, what it meant to be in communion.

I think that this rite of forgiveness and reconciliation is central to the evangelistic mission of the Church. Though I have not been present for Forgiveness Vespers, I do seek out members of my parish at the start of Lent to seek their forgiveness, but I've also begun to bring others into my practice of this rite. Last year I worked with two Catholic men with whom I often had conversations about religion. Because I knew that we shared some common understanding of faith, I sought their forgiveness. This year, I am working with a whole new group of people; I do not know the faith background of any of them. It has been a particularly trying couple of months, and our small group has begun to mesh very well. I did not feel as though I could leave this work "family" out of my practice.

While I refrained from making prostrations, I did approach each in turn and explain that as part of my Lenten practice I wanted to seek their forgiveness for wrongs, perceived or unperceived, committed against them. The response has truly been amazing, and I can't help but recognize in their embarrassed, dismissive, emotional and grateful responses some of my own feeling of being welcomed at that first Forgiveness Vespers that I attended.

Christ's salvific work certainly includes atonement, but (I think) that was more a concession to us than anything else. The beauty of the Orthodox Christian teaching about salvation is the emphasis on our reunion with God. The acts of reconciliation, forgiveness, and hospitality are truly vectors for grace because they anticipate and remind that the purpose of our existence is that union with God, and by His grace, extending that love to all.

I have been humbled not only by the response from my co-workers this year, but also by the enormity of the task in front of me. Forgive me my transgressions, as I forgive those who transgress against me. If I truly inhabited the task of working out my salvation in fear and trembling, there would be no end to the seeking of forgiveness. Perhaps that is the lesson.

No comments: