“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you (Matt. 6:14).”
My wife and I are members of an Eastern Orthodox Christian church. Our spiritual journey seeking peace, a place to belong, and a caring community, ended with our being embraced by Orthodoxy three years ago. Every step of this journey is worth it.
Eastern Orthodox Christians observe fasts all through the year. For instance, we refrain from certain foods every Wednesday and Friday. There are also Communion fasts which means we abstain from food after dinner Saturday evening or midnight (whatever comes first) until we receive the Eucharist at Sunday liturgy.
Great Lent is the most important fast in Eastern Orthodoxy. Great Lent leads into Holy Week then Pascha (Eastern Orthodox Easter). This year Great Lent began on March 2 and Pascha is April 19. Pascha is the most important celebration of the year.
Here is what one of our Orthodox Bishops notes about Great Lent.
"As with our whole life in Christ, this Lenten journey will not be without difficulties. Spiritual health is like physical health, requiring a paced effort, with love, patience, and forgiveness – for self and for others – allowing God to work within us, transforming us into the Body of Christ. The Church offers us the Great Fast as a period of sobriety, wherein we focus on an internal change of heart, bearing fruit in our external actions with those around us. Indeed, the promise of the Resurrection enables us to call brothers even those that hate us, forgiving and loving others regardless of what they may have done, or not done.” --- Tikhon, Archbishop of Washington, Metropolitan of All America and Canada
Forgiveness is central to Great Lent.
On the last Sunday before Great Lent, Eastern Orthodox believers participate in, Forgiveness Sunday. This is one of the most beautiful and meaningful gatherings of the year. Eastern Orthodox churches all over the world take part in Forgiveness Sunday.
This is how our church participates in Forgiveness Sunday. After our Sunday morning liturgy (church service) the congregation has lunch together, just like every Sunday. The difference from other weeks is when lunch is over we all head back into the Nave (where church services are held) for a brief vespers time. After vespers and beginning with our priest he stand in front of the congregation and asks forgiveness of them. Each member of the congregation then asks the others, one by one, for forgiveness. The wording we use is, “forgive me brother/sister” The other person responds “God forgives and I forgive.”
My first Forgiveness Sunday felt foreign and somewhat uncomfortable to me. I now look forward to this significant day of the Orthodox calendar. Forgiveness Sunday offers a unique and beautiful preparation for Great Lent.
Through Forgiveness Sunday the Christian is reminded not only of one’s sin but also that sins can be forgiven. As Orthodox Christians we are on a spiritual journey and recognize we do not journey alone. From Forgiveness Sunday all the way to joyous Pascha includes a time of self-examination, fasting and giving to people.
Great Lent allows Christians a time to reflect on Christ’s death for us. The season includes a sense of sadness where we recognize we may have lost relationship with God. During Great Lent we also recognize a recovery of this relationship is needed and is indeed possible. Although a spiritual darkness resides in Great Lent, God’s Holy Spirit works in our hearts and leads us to the brilliance of the Resurrection. The time of self-reflection and examination although at times painful, is worth it.