Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Forgiveness Sunday in the Byzantine Rite: Guest Article by Philip Gilbert

As we begin the Roman Lent, we are happy to share with our readers this guest article by Mr Philip Gilbert on the first ceremony of Lent in the Byzantine Rite, Vespers on the Sunday of the Expulsion of Adam from Paradise, also known as Forgiveness Sunday. We recently published photographs and a video of Mr Gilbert’s subdiaconal ordination, which took place on December 31st at his home parish, St Peter Eastern Catholic Church in Ukiah, California, also the setting of the photo and the three videos below.

In the Byzantine tradition, the Great Fast begins on a Monday, two days before the Ash Wednesday of the Latin tradition. Lent is a time of preparation for the celebration of the passion, death, and resurrection of Our Lord, which have granted us salvation. However, in order to fully enter into the events of Holy Week and Pascha, man must be restored to communion with God through repentance. Through sin Adam was barred from Eden, and by sin each of us joins him in his exile. In the liturgical books, the Sunday before Lent is known as “The Expulsion of Adam from the Paradise of Bliss”, but also called the Sunday of Forgiveness. Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) writes in his introduction to the Lenten Triodion, “Lent is a time when we weep with Adam and Eve before the closed gate of Eden, repenting with them for the sins that have deprived us of our free communion with God. But Lent is also a time when we are preparing to celebrate the saving event of Christ’s death and rising, which has reopened Paradise to us once more. So sorrow for our exile in sin is tempered by hope of our re-entry into Paradise.”

A Russian icon of the 16th century, representing the Holy Trinity, the expulsion from Paradise, and monks contemplating mortality as they see an open coffin with a half-decayed corpse in it.
Fallen and exiled man can only find God and be united with Him—re-enter paradise—after leaving behind those things that pull him away from God. Man needs cleansing and repentance. This aim of Lent is indicated by the popular name of the first day of the Fast, “Clean Monday.” The hymnography of the first half of the Fast contains very little mention of Our Lord’s crucifixion and death on the Cross, and instead focuses on our being cleansed from sin and from the passions that lead us there. The first four days of Lent feature the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete, which is a unique, beautiful, and incredibly long work of hymnography, sung with the refrain “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!” This canon is split into four parts and sung at Great Compline on the first four days of Great Lent, and again in its entirety on Thursday of the fifth week. For the sake of example, some troparia from the portion of the canon sung on Clean Monday:

Adam was justly banished from Eden because he disobeyed one commandment of Thine, O Saviour. What then shall I suffer, for I am always rejecting Thy words of life? (from the 1st Ode)
When Saul once lost his father’s asses, in searching for them he found himself proclaimed as king. But watch, my soul, lest unknown to thyself thou prefer thine animal appetites to the Kingdom of Christ. (7th Ode)
Riding in the chariot of the virtues, Elijah was lifted up to heaven, high above earthly things. Reflect, O my soul, on his ascent. (8th Ode)
I have put before thee, my soul, Moses’ account of the creation of the world, and after that all the recognized Scriptures that tell thee the story of the righteous and the wicked. But thou, my soul hast followed the second of these, not the first, and hast sinned against God. (9th Ode)

Yet before we set out on the journey of the Fast and fully enter the time of purification and repentance, there is the Sunday of Forgiveness. The season of the Great Fast begins liturgically on Sunday evening, at what is known as “Forgiveness Vespers.” This service begins with bright (festive) vestments and altar cloths, but halfway through, these are exchanged for dark-colored Lenten ones. The altar is vested, but otherwise left bare until the Presanctified Liturgy on Wednesday, for it too is fasting. At this point the music also changes to the more somber music of the season.

The most notable feature of the service is the asking of forgiveness. At the end of Vespers, all of those present, starting with the priest and clergy, approach every other person and ask forgiveness. The two people prostrate themselves, and the first asks, “(name), forgive me a sinner.” The second person then responds, “May God forgive us both,” and they exchange the kiss of peace. (The form of this varies from place to place.)

God is ready and willing to forgive sinners, but we sinners must be ready and willing to be forgiven. For the Lenten journey to be of any effect, we must be open to be forgiveness; if we cannot forgive others nor admit our faults and be forgiven by those we have offended, there is no room within us for God’s mercy. Father Alexander Schmemann writes in his book Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, “the triumph of sin, the main sign of its rule over the word, is division, opposition, separation, hatred. Therefore, the first break through this fortress of sin is forgiveness: the return to unity, solidarity, love. To forgive is to put between me and my “enemy” the radiant forgiveness of God Himself. . . . Forgiveness is truly a ‘breakthrough’ of the Kingdom into this sinful and fallen word.”  God’s forgiveness is given to us via others, not alone; thus it is through mutual forgiveness that we truly begin the journey to the Resurrection. This is especially evident at Forgiveness Vespers, for the Typicon prescribes that as the faithful exchange forgiveness, the cantors sing portions the matins of Pascha.

We begin Great Lent with our eyes on the goal, singing “This is the day of Resurrection, let us be illumined by the feast! Let us embrace each other! Let us call brothers even those that hate us, and forgive all by the Resurrection. And so, let us cry, Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: