I miss Ash Wednesday, the Western liturgical churches’ entry into Lent. The ashes on the forehead in the shape of the Cross, the important reminder that we are mortal: “Dust you were and dust you shall be.”
We don’t have that wonderful tradition in Eastern Orthodoxy, to which I converted in 2007. And I miss it. But I so appreciate our own opening stanza of the long, slow spiritual symphony of Great Lent, known as “Forgiveness Sunday,” just passed.
Orthodox Christians enter Lent with a special post-Liturgy or evening vespers service that launches us into “Clean Monday,” the first day of the rigorous Lenten fast (about which more below).
The forgiveness service begins as any other vespers, but it soon changes with different hymns and more mournful prayers. In the midst of the service, Lent begins as the choir cries out in earnest supplication:
Turn not away thy face from thy servant; for I am in trouble: hear me speedily. Attend to my soul, and deliver it.
From the ends of the earth I cried unto thee.
I shall be protected under the cover of thy wings.
I will praise thy name forever.
As they mournfully sing, the altar cloth is changed to Lenten purple and the priest changes into dark vestments to symbolize mourning.
At the service’s end, our first Lenten act is to ask from and offer forgiveness to everyone present—not collectively, but individually from person, to person, to person. This is one of the most powerful moments of the Church year. One by one, each parishioner bows or prostrates, first before the priest, and then each other, asking, “Forgive me, a sinner.”
Each responds with a bow or prostration, asking also for forgiveness and assuring, “God forgives.” Each then exchanges the kiss of peace.
The service is a healing balm. It is hard to bear grudges when all have shared such an intimate mutual humbling. Indeed, Forgiveness Vespers is emotionally intense, tears often flow and hugs of true reconciliation are common.
Why start Lent with a service that almost forces us to forgive? “Lent calls us to spiritual perfection,” explains Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou in Meditations for Great Lent, “which is impossible without love and forgiveness. Thus before Lent begins, we are called to forgive all who have wronged us. Only then can we hope to attain perfection, which is the likeness of God.”
Having given and received forgiveness, we enter the desert journey of the Great Fast. Unlike many Western traditions, we Orthodox don’t choose what to “give up” for Lent (although we often do that as well—for example, a friend in my parish is foregoing all social media). Rather, during the forty days of Lent (and Holy Week thereafter), we are asked by the Church to become essentially vegan: No meat. No dairy. No fish (other than shellfish). Not only that, other than on weekends, we also abstain from wine and olive oil.
Why such a rigorous course? Papavassiliou again elucidates (my emphasis):
The purpose of our fasting is spiritual. Spirituality must not be viewed as something that does not concern the body, but as something that is made possible through and within the body. . . . The desires and needs of the flesh can all too often overpower the spirit. Fasting is a means of restoring balance between soul and body, a means of bringing the flesh under the control and will of the mind and spirit.
The Great Fast is one of those times when we must journey alone. Yes, it helps to know in times of weakness that we are simultaneously sharing the same struggle with three hundred million others. But Lenten ascesis is a matter of solitary steps through the desert.
This discipline is not intended to draw us away from others. Moreover, the Church is very clear that fasting per se is not virtue, nor is failing to fast sin. Indeed, we are strictly instructed not to judge in this regard. If we see someone we know to be Orthodox eating a hamburger, it is none of our business. We have our own vegetables to fry. The arduous Lenten disciplines of the Great Fast help us, again in the words of Papavassiliou, “turn back to Paradise to the Life of Eden” so that “like Moses, we too may see God.”