Among my favorite traditions of the wider church comes on this final Sunday before the start of Lent, which is known as “Forgiveness Sunday” in Eastern Christianity.
Now, the Eastern Church uses a different calendar from us Westerners, so their Forgiveness Sunday is not until next week, but we can reflect upon this beautiful tradition a week early.
In Eastern Christianity, forgiveness is as much a part of Lent as fasting. It’s understood to be the final step of preparation for Lent. On Forgiveness Sunday, during the mid-evening vespers service, the congregation enters into an act of mutual forgiveness in order to welcome Lent with a pure heart and a clean conscience.
The priest and deacon first stand before each other and ask forgiveness, then one by one each member of the congregation processes forward until every member of the congregation has stood before each of their brothers and sisters in Christ to ask for and offer forgiveness.
Friends have told me that, in practice, this service can be a bit long and tedious—that’s a lot of forgiveness to be offered and received! But for me that is part of its testimony. Forgiveness—offered or received—is not often a beautifully crafted thing. It often takes longer than we would like.
I’m told this practice dates back to the fourth and fifth centuries when monks would retreat alone into the wilderness for the season of Lent, a practice that still happens today. Before departing on this dangerous journey—the desert was scarce in food and water but abundant in wild animals—the monks would seek and offer forgiveness to each other because there was a very real danger that some of them would not return.
Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not, but the truth at the heart of this tradition is very real, and deeply true. On one level, life is short and fleeting and so committing ourselves once a year to clear our hearts and consciences of all the clutter that accumulates over time is a good thing.
But on another level, if this season of Lent is truly to be a time when we recommit ourselves to being open to God’s presence in our lives and reorient ourselves to the parts of our lives that are most important but seem to get pushed to the side, then this process can only begin by recommitting ourselves to the people God has put around us.
So, if a fast seems too much for you this Lent, consider forgiveness as your Lenten practice—a discipline, even. In the end they’re both about the same thing: letting go of the lesser things in our life so that we can truly hold fast to the things and the people and the God that give us life.