Forgiveness Vespers

Embracing Great Lent

I am excited about this weekend.  Sunday is Forgiveness Vespers and the beginning of the greatest period of reflection and renewal in the Orthodox Church, Great Lent.  I half jokingly believe my excitement will die down after drool myself silly over the umpteenth Hardee’s Monster Burger commercial.  But, this is a time that I have been looking forward to.  Last year, I participated as an outsider looking in.  This year, I am a part of the brothers and sisters in Christ who will ask each for and forgive each other with the kiss of peace.  Along with the fasting, we will devote ourselves to being more intentional in our prayers and giving our time and talents as well as our treasures to the less fortunate.

Prostrations in Prayer

While many non-denominational churches are embracing fasting in some form or another during different parts of the year, Great Lent is the central fast in Eastern Christianity.  Antiochians and Greeks may observe the Nativity of our Lord (Christmas) on a different date than our Slavic brethren.  Ethiopians celebrate Timket (Epiphany or Theophany) more elaborately than Armenians.  But, as the great feast of Pascha (the Resurrection of our Lord, Easter) is the same through out the Orthodox world.  The forty days before the great feast is a time we prepare our hearts, minds, and souls to celebrate our Lord’s conquest of death by His death and the renewal of life by His Life victoriously restored.

I am embracing this great season not only because it is my first time doing this as an Orthodox believer.  I can’t help but to believe that Lent is a preparation for me to do some good work in the church.  Friends inside and out of Orthodoxy have asked if I am interested in becoming a priest.  Slow down, it will be about five years before I would be considered for seminary in the Antiochian jurisdiction and even then, a M.Div does not necessarily mean instant ordination into the priesthood.  Looking at the complexity of of Divine Liturgy and other services and remembering the challenges I had as a Baptist pastor, I am in no rush to assume that office again, if ever.

Forgive one another their sins

One of the readers has approached me about chanting during Matins.  The head of our Christian Education Dept. asked if I was interested in teaching an adult Sunday school class.  I accepted and am waiting on a date.  I am also a part of the parish evangelism group and will soon announce the inaugural meeting of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black/VA Chapter.  So, I am and am about to get some things done.

But, I can’t help to believe there is something deeper to be done and starting with myself.  I have some sins that I kinda swept under the carpet and made more than a few excuses for.  They need to be resolved.  Despite my reputation as an easy going guy, I do have issues with insecurity.  My loud voice and friendly personality hides the fact that I am often lonely and withdrawn.  More than I care to admit of my personality looks like a bungee jump gone wrong.  So, if I am going to be this wonderful chanter, reader, evangelist, teacher, organizer, and (dare I say) priest; I have quite a bit to work on.  I pray that God will cause me to dig deep within myself to recognize my flaws and begin managing them if not correcting them all together.

St Ephrem of Syria

 

The Prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian is traditionally said many times throughout each day during Great Lent, in addition to our daily prayers.

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faintheartedness, lust of power, and idle talk. (+)

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to your servant. (+)

Yes, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sin and not to judge my brother, for You are blessed from all ages to all ages. Amen. (+)

(The “(‘+)“ indicates that those praying make a deep bow or prostration at this point.)

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Journey Into Great Lent (Day Five): Broken

Oh Lord and King, grant me the grace to be aware of my sins and not to judge my brother and sister …

From the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian

As with most men, lust is a problem that I struggle with.  In today’s society, it is tolerated as long as one keeps his hands to himself.  In fact, lust is expected, celebrated, and used for commercial purposes (Hooters, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, and the like).  The ease in which one can access the most abusive and cruel forms of pornography on the internet makes this sin even more dangerous.  Since taking up the journey toward Orthodoxy, I have put aside my worst manifestations of this sin.  Yet, I still succumbed to my eyes and imagination more times that I wish to count or share. 

This Lent, I have made it a special point to refrain from such wicked imaginations.  I tell myself that if an Orthodox married man refrains from touching his wife during the fast, what gives me the right to fantasize being with any woman.  My wife suffers from both Bipolar Disorder and Multiple Sclerosis.  Thus, lust has been a great burden on me.  But, I went into the fast believing that God will deliver me from this chronic problem.

Monarchs (© John Gresham)

Monarchs (© John Gresham)

A necessary part of the spiritual healing process is to be made fully aware of one’s sin.  By indulging in lust, I separate myself from the greatest icon I have in my home.  My wife is my greatest icon for Christ counts Himself with the lowly and afflicted:

‘In as much as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”   (Matthew 25:40)

The other icons I have in my home, if I ignore or misuse them, that would be bad enough.  They are man-made widows into heaven.  In fact, I can change windows and move them around as I see fit without any consequences.  But, how many times have I ignored, shut out, been angry with, neglected, and belittled my wife desiring someone else?  How many times have I failed to pray for, pray with, and show affection for my wife?  Again, since being on the Orthodox journey, I have improved.  Praying for her, struggling against my passions, and offering the Lenten Prayer has broken me to see how far I have fallen and how far I have to go.  What I have done to her, I have done to Jesus.  What I do to her, I do to Jesus.  No wonder Paul advises us to “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling”  (Philippians 2:12).

It is no wonder why the Early Fathers (some date back to Irenaeus for this tradition) prescribed the 40 day Lenten Fast.  Once when we are broken by the awareness of our fallen state, it takes time to be moulded into useful vessels of the Gospel.  Orthodoxy calls for fasting throughout the year to help remind us that we are still a work in progress.   In the Trisagion Prayers, we constantly ask for the mercy of the Holy Trinity.  The Jesus Prayer underscores the fact that we are to be the tax collector and not the Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14).   In the Ancient Faith, confession is a sacrament before God with the priest as a witness in the body of Christ as well as a private act.  And that we begin the fast with Forgiveness Vespers where we all ask each other, including the priest and bishops present, to forgive our sins. 

I am broken as I have seen and understand that I have not been a good husband nor as good as others think I am.  It is not my place to compare myself to other men.  I will be judged on my actions, words, and THOUGHTS (Matthew 5:27-30).  I acknowledge my broken state.  I have faith in the healing process.  I have hope that the Lord will restore my wife.  I have hope that He will restore me for her according to His will.

Journey Into Great Lent (Day One): Forgiveness With Friends

I had a very good worship service this morning with my church family at Trinity this morning.  Plus, we had a rehearsal for our Easter program after service as well.  I ate half a  large veggie lovers cheese stuffed crust pizza and was tempted to call it a day.  I could have called it a day.  But, I knew that nothing would replace the blessing of attending my first Forgiveness Vespers service.  As a Baptist, the idea of such a prayer service was a bit daunting.  To ask everybody in church to forgive you of your sins and then forgive everyone who ask as well is pushing it.  I mean, we all have been in those services where we are told to turn around and to your left and right to say to your neighbor whatever the preacher tells us to repeat.  This was deeper.  Even the priest ask each person for forgiveness.  The gift is given and the symbolic holy kiss is exchanged. 

Yeah, now you want to talk about bringing people together, the nearness of simulating and giving three kisses to either side of one another’s face and exchanging the gift of forgiveness is deep.  I didn’t know how I was going to react.  All of this was strange to me.  Yet, the quiet warmth we shared with each other in this offering was very special.  We were all making a bold, first step into the challenge of Great Lent.  The struggle against our sinful selves and the striving to grow in God’s grace.  We were all going together as it was being done in other Orthodox churches around the world, as it was done for nearly  2,000 years. 

My First Orthodox Cross (© John Gresham)

My First Orthodox Cross (© John Gresham)

Traffic around the Jefferson Ave. interchange was no fun.  In fact, things were slow through Ft. Eustis.  Needless to Say, Satan was waiting for me.  No doubt, he will constantly await moments to distract and tempt me.  Needless to say, maintaining The Hours will be very important to me.  I may put an icon in the car as I already have a corner in the living room, bed room, and a couple of them at my desk at Trinity and York River. 

So, now it is into Clean Monday.  My wife is not joining me in the fast and has free range on the good stuff in the fridge and freezer.  But, I did find a very delicious vegetable soup mix not long ago.  That and a good, crusty bread will be dinner after Vespers.  Ah well, it is bed time.  I feel excited about tomorrow.

This Journey of Great Lent: My Pre-fast Intimidations

I knew that fasting was a part of my learning process in Orthodoxy when I first became an inquirer.  Going vegan twice a week didn’t frighten me one bit.  I did the Apostle’s and Dormition Fast with some difficulty in the first few days.  But, by the sixth day, it was a bit of a cakewalk.  As for the Nativity, it was kinda rough avoiding Christmas parties and the day after Thanksgiving turkey and ham sandwiches.  I have had my occasional slips and made a couple of loopholes for myself at times.  But, for a rookie, this Orthodox fasting thing really hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would be.

Fr. James Purdie, Priest of St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church.  My guide int this journey.  (C) John Gresham

Fr. James Purdie, Priest of St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church. My guide in this journey. (C) John Gresham

Great Lent, however, is more intimidating both in diet and spiritual expectation.  Clean Monday arrives about the same time the shad start running in the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Rivers.  I am not allowed to eat any fish with bones in it and there is no fish with more bones in it than shad.  Ah well, at least I can salt a few down for the winter.  But, my old man will be smoking his from day one.  Kicking red meat for 40 days this time of year will also be more difficult since it is the beginning of backyard barbecuing season.  Granted, oysters will still be in season and crabbers will start pulling pots again.  But, shellfish will not be cheap with this economy.    I had better learn to love tofu.

What really scares me about Great Lent is the significance of it all.  The Forgiveness Vespers where everyone, including the priest, ask each other to be forgiven for what they have done wrong to the other?  First of all, about the worst thing I can think of that I did wrong to anyone at St. Basil is that I forgot their names.  And then they also asking my forgiveness?  Who am I that any of these kind people should want such a blessing from me when they have always welcomed me with open arms.  And Fr. James to ask me for forgiveness?  We aren’t even in the same denomination.  Who am I to participate in such a practice?  It is at this point that I probably could and should go back to my comfortable corner of Christianity.

I can’t help but to see the beauty and power in such a pre-fast preparation.  When we face each other and ask for forgiveness, we will be facing the ultimate icons.  The ones God made in his image and likeness.  Even for those who have not directly said, done, or thought harm to one another; all are admitting their human problem of sin and seek forgiveness from Christ and each other.  I am scared because I know of my own sinfulness.  I am intimidated also because I am unworthy to have someone who I just met ask me to forgive them.

Yet, I believe I need to go forward with preparing for and observing Great Lent.  I can’t help but to think that there is something very special at the end of this journey at Pascha.  Not bragging rights.  No, boasting is not the goal here.  One of the saints said that if you fast only to boast of your own righteousness, you may as well eat meat.  This journey will probably not mean that I will leave my role as Pastor of Trinity Baptist Church.  There is a bit more work I need to do in my community and I have a mortgage to pay.  Besides, I have not yet been on this Orthodox journey for a full year.  Many converts don’t take the plunge until two or three years.  Fr. James has told me that the church will be here when I am ready. 

Yet and still, there is bound to be something special at the end of this journey of Great Lent.  Just like pledging my fraternity and doing my first overnight backpack trip  alone on the Appalachian Trail go through this process, I will only kick myself for not having the nerve to do it.  Any time a spiritual journey brings us to a point of absolute humility with Forgiveness Vespers, the end must be an incredible celebration of the soul. 

I imagine this will not be easy.  Easter Sunday, my father will have baby back ribs coming out of the smoker fully infused with apple wood or hickory.  Tofu will not be able to compare to that.  Knowing that I will have no excuse for not, at least, calling someone who is ill and homebound other than my wife will be a challenge as well.  I admit, my pastoral care could be better.  Although my prayer life has grown by leaps and bounds since joining the St. Philip’s Prayer Discipline, it isn’t as tight as it could be.  I will have to read and study when I want to waste time with mahjong and You Tube.  Nope, this isn’t like my good old, “do it yourself” fast when I could just give up caviar, champagne, filet minion, and lobster. 

But, I remember the way I felt when my Dean of Pledges declared, “You Are Now Brothers” and was presented with the letters “Alpha Phi Alpha.”   I remember the way I felt when I reached the intersection of the Old Hotel Trail and the AT at the Hog Camp Gap parking lot where I resolved to go through with a journey that I could have easily chickened out of (especially seeing the bear on the side of the road).  In both cases, it wasn’t just a feeling.  I had a unique change of perspective.  The change I am about to go through will be more profound.