November 20, 2017

Tokah: On the Sunday of Forgiveness

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It is my second favorite day of the year, the Sunday of Forgiveness, also known as Cheesefare Sunday. We gather for the Forgiveness Vespers in the evening, candlelight dancing in front of paintings of those who have walked this path before us. Vespers starts normally enough, until we come to the prayer, “Vouchsafe, O Lord”.

This prayer is in every vespers service, but this time the reader chants it slowly and repeatedly. As she does, the colors of the church are changed from light to dark. The priest changes his vestments to the dark red. Great Lent has begun.

If you are from a different tradition, the change in the color in the midst of the service, the sudden change in the melody of the litanies might not strike you. For us, it is like a great and clanging bell. The Lenten spring has sprung. There is no turning back. The sea of the great fast is before us, and on the other side is Christ’s resurrection.

This service, which began as a normal vespers, ends in the lenten pattern instead. The prayer of St. Ephraim makes its first appearance. “O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust for power, and idle talk. Grant instead a spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant. Yea Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother. For blessed art Thou unto ages of ages. Amen.”

16424597929_8639224fb1_bThen, in the midst of a church shrouded in dark vestments and lit mostly by candlelight, an amazing thing occurs. That night’s choir director puts a different binder on her stand, and a small group gathers around her. She gives the pitch, and the sound of the Paschal canon quietly fills the church with all of its joyful news of Christ’s victory over death. As the rest of us get on line for what happens next, we quietly sing along with our favorite parts. How can we not? Christ is risen from the dead!

I am not the first person on line, I need a few moments to compose myself. When I am ready, I take my place. When my turn comes, I approach the priest. He crosses himself and bows before me in full prostration. “Forgive me, a sinner.” When he stands, I scoot my wheelchair back and do the same. (Prostrating looks more exciting when done from a wheelchair, it is something of a planned fall, but they know me here and no one tries to catch me when I do it.) I transfer back up into my wheelchair, and he bends down to my level. His beard on my right cheek, his beard on my left cheek, then the right again. “God forgives and I forgive.” He looks me in the eye as he pronounces a blessing.

Like a reception line at a wedding, I move on to the next person. We each cross ourselves, bow, and attempt to touch the floor. He bows stiffly and I try to sit as high as my wheelchair will take me, as he is among the ambulatory disabled. He rubs the middle of my back as I depart.

The next, the wife of one our priests, uses my name, a mark of extra thought and attention. “Tokah, forgive me, a sinner.” I do the same. We exchange the kiss of peace, our assurance of God’s forgiveness, and our own mutual forgiveness. Then we hug, and it is a long hug.

The next woman in line has dementia. I ask her forgiveness. Even if she doesn’t understand why, it is important to do so, for she bears the image of God. Later I will have a similar exchange with a girl that has Down’s sydrome. She isn’t big on the words, but she loves the hugs and is grinning by the time she reaches me.

Several people down is a friend. I had dinner at her house a few weeks earlier. She too says my name with great care as we exchange forgiveness. The next day she will suddenly be in the hospital with a difficult diagnosis, but tonight she looks fine. I am glad that she and her husband know she is part of our army, that she goes into this new fight with a clean slate and the love of every one of us.

She is the last one on the reception line at that point, so I take my place next to her and wait for the person who will be taking their place beside me. When she arrives, she finishes off the ritual with, “You know I love you, Tokah?” and a pat on the shoulder.

cheesefareSo it continues, bowing to the floor, embracing cheek to cheek, the ritual words and sometimes a little extra. One person has confessed a sin against me in the past year, and we take the time to make our exchange particularly meaningful. Another person looks me in the eye and then makes a joke about how much we’ll be seeing each other. Someone who has not always been willing to interact with me any more than necessary exchanges forgiveness with a very warm smile on her face. There is peace between us.

The kids are funny. Some are old enough to get it, but hate the kiss of peace portion. The babies and toddlers are carried, and probably do not understand why they keep getting kissed on the head. They too are worthy of recognition, little brothers and sisters all.

A woman who speaks almost no English approaches. As we go through the motions of the ritual, she speaks in Russian and I in English. The actions speak louder than words. She is deliberate in her motions, and finishes them with a hug that surprises me. Before she goes, she grabs my hand in hers and looks me in the eye, her own eyes shining with tears. I don’t understand what she says, but the sentiment is unmistakable.

Eventually the Paschal canon stops, and the mix of tears, laughter, names, and the words of forgiveness becomes the dominant sound. It is time for those who sang to take their turn. When they are done going through the line and adding to its number, we circle the greater part of the nave. The priest tells us to go in peace, and on this night of all nights, we certainly do.

Lent has begun, but we go into it together. These are the people we will spend the extra services with, eat lenten potlucks with, and the people who will take on this season’s offensive push against sin and death together. This is our army.

Most disperse quietly, but I sit there a while longer. I who in many christian’s books would be untouchable, who grew up thinking I was, have been touched by each and every one of my fellow parishioners. Many have done so more than is part of the ritual itself, more than was necessary. I too am part of this army, though I struggle to comprehend how true that is.

If the Kingdom of God is indeed breaking into this present world and time, it looks and feels like this.

Brother and sisters of Internet Monk, forgive me, a sinner.

Comments

  1. This is obviously a meaningful and powerful service, and there is great beauty to it. Thank you for sharing your experience, Tokah.

    I do have questions: are people obliged by custom or doctrine to engage in this service? Is there congregational pressure on people to participate? For some people who have experienced transgressive touch from sexual abuse, and who now struggle with PTSD, a ritual involving so much touch could be traumatic; if there is an expectation that all in the parish will participate, this might lead to people who have been the victims of such abuse becoming disengaged from the parish, or even the Orthodox Church.

    • I’m Orthodox and experienced this beautiful service on Sunday (my legs are still sore from prostrations!).
      My 13 year old daughter did not participate because she is kind of shy. I told her that was OK, and later was talking to our priest who said she should never be forced to participate. If a priest tells you otherwise, I would go to another church!

    • One of C.S. Lewis’s “Letters to Malcolm” on prayer described the lack of congregational pressure in general that exists in Orthodoxy and how amazed he was that people payed so little attention to what everyone else was doing and how they were doing it. I have found the same to be generally true.

      If someone sits out of this portion of the service, I imagine someone would check to make sure it wasn’t conquerable physical limitations that was holding them back, but that would be the end of it. People would probably ask their forgiveness in a more verbal and less formal way later.

  2. God forgives, and I forgive.

    Orthodoxy is the only tradition, apart from Roman Catholicism, that I have not been a member of at some point. You almost make me want to sign aboard. 😉

  3. Christiane says:

    so beautiful . . . reading your post was in itself a blessing for me . . . thank you, TOKAH

  4. Forgive me Tokah for I am a sinner. Tears run down my cheek

    • God forgives and I forgive, W.

      Thank you for your own personal sharing you have done this past year.

  5. What a beautiful post, Tokah! Thank you for taking the time to share this with us all.

  6. I was trying to articulate with the right words but all I can say is Beautiful.

  7. My family and I experienced the profound beauty of this service for the first time on Sunday. Unbelievably amazing. Thank you, Tokah, for sharing this beautiful description, and forgive me!

  8. The words that came out of Pastor Anderson’s mouth (about Baptism) at last nights service, brought tears of joy to my eyes, also:

    http://theoldadam.com/2015/02/26/the-surefire-step-to-get-you-where-you-need-to-be-in-your-christian-life/

    Probably the best sermon I have ever heard on just exactly the effect that Baptism has on us. What it accomplishes.

    Thanks.

  9. Thank you Tokah! Forgive me I’m a sinner! God forgives and so do I. What a deeply meaningful post – had me in tears. I would welcome the special, pure, non-sexual touch of all my brothers and sisters in the family of God even though I was sexually abused as a child. Though one person abused and molested with threats of killing this then 9 yr. if she revealed it, I have found that wholesome, loving, un-perverted touch and the purity of love has been a huge part of the healing journey sent by God. So thankful for every male who proved to me without a doubt that not all men were “like that!” I had forgiven my father, even before he asked for forgiveness – which he did way before he died – as I have been forgiven so much in my 70+ years! I just wish we didn’t save this Sunday of Forgiveness for just once a year celebration, but kept a clean slate with everyone all the time – perhaps many do!

  10. I have a slightly different take on this. The first year I was Orthodox, I attended a small mission church and Forgiveness Vespers consisted of about 50 people, all of whom I knew and had interacted with at some level. It was ok, nothing profound. Last year, due to geographical considerations, I started attending a much larger parish. The service was extremely uncomfortable for me. Just under 200 people, 90% whom I did not know at all. I went home with a headache and felt the whole thing had been very forced. As this year’s service approached, I could not do it again. For me, there’s just too much touching from people I do not know. And in the end, we are responsible to extend or seek forgiveness from those we offend and have offended us. Not once a year as part of a ritual, but when the incidents happen. For me, this type of service would never get to the root of any real issue.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Bella.

    • Bella I have heard this opinion most of my life, but I have to confess I don’t understand it. It seems to come only from a certain religious perspective. I don’t hear patriotic people saying we should just be patriotic every day and not have special formal commemorations in which we express our patriotism. I know I should love my wife every day, but that doesn’t stop us from having special celebrations and special days during which we say “I love you.”

      Life is a constant mix of formal and informal, each complementing the other.

      • I see nothing wrong and much that is good about having formal commemorations, as long we actually practice and embody in community the loyalties and values symbolized by the special event; when the event is really a pretense covering the truth that we in fact do not practice and embody those loyalties and values, though we like to pretend that we do, then formal commemorations are essentially lies.

        • I think the “practice and embody in community” thing is the key. Without community, you can’t really have authentic Christianity, at least not as it is envisioned in the NT.

          • Yes. And as the Sunday of Forgiveness reminds us, what the Church needs to practice and embody in community, in order to be authentically Christian, is confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation, and these three grounded in the grace of God given in Jesus Christ.

  11. Forgive me, Tokah, I am a sinner.

    What a beautiful, liberating description of ancient rite. Thank you so much for sharing, Tokah…

  12. Tokah, I can feel myself there with you, transported by your words and the spirit behind them. Thank you does poor justice to my joy at reading this!

    Were that the world could ever understand that we are sinners, led by sinners, living and working and worshipping with sinners…..but that only in such a sacred place and time can we be open to others in the safety of the Holy Spirit. SOOOO many people think the Catholic-Orthodox journey is about rules and ‘thou shalt nots’, when in fact it is following the spirit of Truth as revealed by He who made us.

    Our sins are not sins because they break some antiquated rule~our sins are sins because we fail to choose the operating instructions that our Maker gave us out of Wisdom far and incredibly exceeding our meager understanding.

  13. Tokah (and all at this site), forgive me, a sinner. God forgives all!

    Thank you again for your writing.

    I always start to cry when we start the Paschal Canon. The point is that the basis of our lives, first, last and foremost, is forgiveness. “Let us call ‘Brothers’ even those that hate us, and forgive all by the Resurrection.” We certainly are encouraged to ask people for forgiveness and give it all the rest of the year, but with Forgiveness Sunday we do it at least that one time per year.

    Dana

  14. Thank you for this.

  15. Tokah, I forgive you. Forgive me, Al, a fellow sinner.

    And thank you so much for sharing this amazing, beautiful gift of Orthodox spirituality with a Lutheran like myself. My eyes are full of joyful, holy tears and my heart is full of blessing as I type this.

  16. Like most everyone else who’s posted, I thank you for sharing your experience. Beautiful piece of writing, Tokah.

  17. God forgives and I forgive, Tokah. Tokah, and all my iMonk conspirators, forgive me, a sinner.

  18. Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you, in thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have failed to do. We have not loved you with our whole heart, and we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent. For the sake of your son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us, that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your name. Amen.

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  20. I read this yesterday and wondered why other churches don’t do this. We often shake hands and greet each other (that’s considered a little daring in our church), but what if we said, “Good morning, forgive me, Betty (whoever).We don’t have to prostrate. I will bring this to my pastor’s attention. I WANT to ask for forgiveness and this is a perfect setting. I thought about this throughout yesterday, several times I asked myself for forgiveness., it’s hArd to explain. Bless you Tokah. Also, just my thought, I need to forgive before discussing an issue. Why not?

  21. Tokah, I was not aware of this service. Thank you for sharing it with us, and your heart as well. This is a poignant reminder of the heart of what we confess.

  22. Another Mary says:

    A lovely post. So glad I that the time to read it. I live in a small communit where the nearest Orthodox church is more that 200 miles away. I so appreciate your sharing this, Tokah. I have been preparing for the past month to speak on forgiveness at a women’s conference next month. Your sharing added another layer of depth to this gift we have been given. Thank you and God bless.