Alexander Schmemman was the Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Crestwood, New York and one of the leading liturgical scholars in Orthodox Christianity in the twentieth century. Over the years and especially when I was a parish priest, I returned again and again to his little book,
Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, which is about Orthodox Lenten practices, for ideas and inspiration.
In Western Christianity (by which I mean Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Protestants) we move through the season of Epiphany from the arrival of the magi to the Jordan River (Jesus’ Baptism) and then all those various little epiphanies along the way, including the miracle at Cana in Galilee and the many healing stories that reveal who Jesus is as the Christ and Light of the World. That journey concludes on the Mount of the Transfiguration which we recalled this past Sunday. It is the greatest “epiphany” of all, where the post-Easter Jesus is glimpsed in all his glory. We then come down from that mountain to Ash Wednesday, three days later, to join Jesus and the disciples in “setting our face toward Jerusalem.” It is a powerful metaphor that suggests that once we grasp that Jesus truly is the Son of God (and then resist the temptation to build booths for him on the mountaintop) we too will hear and respond to that same Voice that tells us to listen to him. And what does he say? “
Follow me.” And not just follow me anywhere, but follow me to the Cross. And we are on our way, once more, into a holy Lent.
Among Orthodox Christians, Epiphany is an even bigger deal than it is in the west. But the days leading up to Lent are different. Before the Lenten Journey begins, the Orthodox prepare by focusing on five themes:
Desire for God (the story of Zacchaeus),
Humility (the Publican and the Pharisee),
Return from Exile (the parable of the Prodigal Son),
Last Judgment, and then finally,
Forgiveness Sunday. It is the last of these that I want to focus on here:
Forgiveness Sunday, also known as Cheesefare Sunday. (This year, with Orthodox Easter coming one week later than western Easter, Forgiveness Sunday is coming up this Sunday, March 10.) The liturgy for this day involves an elaborate dance as each person in worship says to every other person gathered there: “
Forgive me, for I have sinned.”
Now most of us know how hard it can be for us to forgive someone who has hurt us very badly. And the chances are good that among family and friends and neighbors in congregations across this diocese there will be, at any given time, someone in the congregation who has hurt us and perhaps even hurt us very badly. But at the very least, even when
we aren’t yet able to forgive someone, we can remember that
God forgives all who confess their sins and are truly penitent.
So the liturgical response to the one who says, “Forgive me for I have sinned” is not “
I forgive you.” Because, to be honest, that might not yet be true; even if we are working on it. Rather, the liturgical response is: “
God has forgiven you.” Even as this dance is unfolding, Schmemman suggests that the choir sing Easter hymns to remind the gathered community that Lent is not an end in itself, but the pathway to the empty tomb. It is the journey to
Pascha, which is to say, Easter.
The theological point is clear and it holds true whether one is shaped by eastern or western Christianity:
Lent gives us roughly one tithe of a year to work on forgiveness and reconciliation. (I actually think that Shrove Tuesday is meant to function in a way similar to Forgiveness Sunday, but we sometimes lose that meaning in the midst of all the pancakes and jambalaya and chocolate. The difference is that Shrove Tuesday provides an opportunity for private confession and the priest pronounces God’s absolution, while the latter makes this the work of all of God’s people in public worship.)
Both east and west agree, however, that when it comes to forgiveness, God gets there before we do. This may be especially true when we are trying to forgive ourselves. We do well to remember that God is already waiting for us with open arms, prodigals though we may be.
For all Christians, the Season of Lent becomes a time for us to try to live more fully into God’s reality, which is what the journey toward Pascha is about. From east to west, Lent is about forgiveness and new beginnings, not shame or fear.
There is an atmosphere created in Lent, Schmemman says, a
state of mind that our worship creates. The spirit of Lent, he says, is meant to help us to experience a “bright sadness” that he sees as the message and the gift of Lent. I have grown to love that phrase, and I find it particularly helpful as we begin this Lenten journey in this year of our Lord. We are invited to enter this season of “bright sadness” in order to experience that mysterious liberation, a liberation that makes us “light and peaceful” by illuminating an inner beauty. It brings us a peace the world cannot give.
Schmemman compares this season to “an early ray of the sun which, while it is still dark in the valley, begins to lighten up the top of the mountain.” Maybe that is where the Mount of the Transfiguration converges with Forgiveness Sunday: in those places where an early ray of morning sun illumines the top of the mountain. Or whenever one sinner says to another:
Forgive me, for I am a sinner and then hears the words we all long to hear
: God forgives you, be at peace.
May this simple prayer lead us through the bright sadness of a Holy Lent to the dawn of Easter morning where we embrace the liberating life that is ours as a forgiven and reconciled people, called to live at peace with God and neighbor. May it renew our commitment to travel the way of love together, always with God’s help.
Yours in Christ,