Last Sunday night we began Great Lent, the annual season of spiritual training, with Forgiveness Vespers. This is one of the prayers chanted during the service:
As the Prodigal Son, I also come to Thee, O compassionate Lord, and I fall down before Thee. Accept me as one of Thy hired servants, and have mercy on me.
As the man who fell among thieves and was wounded, I too have fallen through my sins and my soul is wounded. To whom shall I flee for refuge, guilty that I am, if not to Thee, the merciful Physician of our souls? Pour on me, O God, the oil of Thy great mercy.
Sinner though I be, O Saviour, cut me not down as the barren fig tree. Grant me forgiveness for my many years of sin, and water my soul with tears of repentance, that as fruit I may offer Thee acts of mercy and compassion.
Thou art the Sun of righteousness; illumine the hearts of those who praise Thee, singing: Glory be to Thee, O Lord.
The story of the prodigal son is about us and our relationship with God. Although His love for us is infinite, we sometimes act more like self-absorbed rebellious teenagers than mature loving and loyal sons and daughters. Nevertheless, no matter how distant from God we find ourselves and how irresponsibly we live, the way back to God is repentance, changing our minds and hearts about how we are living, and returning to the Father’s warm embrace. Since we constantly fall into sin, which not only injures our relationship with God, but also damages our relationships with others and wounds our own souls, then the spiritual life is a life of constant repentance, turning away from sin back to God. The more spiritual we grow, the more self-aware we become, and the more self-aware we become, the more clearly we see our own faults that keep us from perfect, harmonious spiritual communion with God and others. When we see a fault, we throw it off, turn away from it, look to God, and God forgives.
One of our most familiar prayers of forgiveness is the one Christ taught us:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and glory, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Another way of saying, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” is “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” As God compassionately forgives us, we are called to compassionately forgive others. As we received God’s healing grace, we have been appointed ministers of His healing grace to those around us. Through the act of forgiveness, we restore relationships, remove pain, heal wounds, throw off pride, and disarm our spiritual enemy. Forgiveness is a divine medicine bestowed upon us and given to us for use in the name of Christ, the Physician of our Souls.
When St. Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how often should I forgive my brother if he sins against me? Up to seven times?,” Jesus replied, “I’m not telling you to forgive him up to seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matthew 18.21-22). As God’s mercy and love flows freely toward us, may selfless, compassionate forgiveness flow from our hearts to others as spiritual acts of worship offered from pure hearts.
At the conclusion of Forgiveness Vespers on Sunday evening, our senior priest asked us to forgive him for anything he has done or said in the past year that didn’t live up to his title as “Father.” All of our priests asked each other for forgiveness and stood in front of the congregation to receive us. One by one we walked forward. When I reached the priests I embraced them and asked for their forgiveness as they asked for mine. After speaking with the priests, I made my way down a long line of my brothers and sisters that stretched around the interior of the church. After exchanging forgiveness, we kissed each other three times, a kiss on one cheek, then the other, then back again. When I reached the end of the line, I joined it, another link in the chain, to receive those coming after me.
The act of forgiveness expressed during Forgiveness Vespers is not a shallow sentimental ritual meant to make us all feel good. It’s the real thing, an actual opportunity for us to heal and experience the healing that forgiveness brings. It’s a chance for each of us to give the forgiveness we expect God to give us during our journey of repentance. It’s a sign showing us how we must always live, a lifestyle of forgiveness. It’s a great way to begin Great Lent, when we look deeply into our souls, become more aware of our own sinfulness, and run back to the only One who can wash us clean, make us whole, and give us newness of life.
If I have sinned against you and wounded you, please forgive me.
O Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us all.
Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. (Text of Forgiveness Vespers from The Lenten Triodion, trans. by Mother Mary and Bishop Kallistos Ware. St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2001. Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son is in the public domain, available at the Art Renewal Center, artrenewal.org.)