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A slightly lesser-known event is slowly crossing the world today. Today is the Sunday of Forgiveness in the Orthodox Christian Church.
It marks the final day of a modified period of abstinence from meat, but no fasting, and heralds the beginning of the Great and Holy Fast of Lent, a forty-day period of intensified church services and rigorous activity in preparation for the events of Passion (Holy Week) and Pascha (called “Easter” in most English-speaking countries).
Western Christendom already began the Great Fast this past Wednesday with the ritual of putting ashes on people’s foreheads as a mark of repentance and remembering who we are as sinners, and remembering that we will one day face our own death and judgement before the Lord.
The Orthodox Lent begins on Monday, actually liturgically it begins Sunday evening after a special Vespers service. This service is remarkable, as the Church is transformed from the usual rather bright aspect of the normal time of the year to a darker, quieter and more somber mood. Some churches have a special observance in the Vespers where the whole temple is redecorated from gold to black or dark purple candle holders and vestments, for both the clergy and the various tables and the altar. Flowers are removed, and the always beautiful Orthodox temple is given the most austere appearance it gets during the whole year.
Orthodox Christians are quite an observant body of believers. Where many Western confessions of Christianity have modified the fasting that is prescribed in this time of year, or even eliminated it altogether, the Orthodox still follow the prescribed rules that the Church has held for at least 1,600 years.
Orthodox Christians commonly abstain from eating any meat, poultry, or fish, or dairy products through not only the forty-day period of the Lent, but all through Holy Week, and meat is even abstained from for an additional week. In all, the fasting time is about 55 days. In Orthodox countries, the services usually happen daily all the time, but the Lenten character of the services changes, and there are special services in the first week that are highly reflective services where one can listen to the text and examine the state of their own spiritual life.
This experience is grueling, difficult and yet, it is met with joy by most Orthodox Christians, because in the midst of the ascetic difficulty is sheer beauty, and a chance to encounter Christ in a deeper manner.
The Russian Orthodox Church is presently the largest of the 15 Orthodox national jurisdictions, and due to the geographic location of Russia, mostly Russian churches will enter the Great Fast first. Gradually, the entire Orthodox Christian population will take a step deeper, as it does every year, in preparation for the great Feast of Pascha, which, if you have not ever seen or experienced it, is highly recommended.
On the Sunday of Forgiveness, the custom is to ask everyone around us to forgive us for the things we have done (whether they know it or not) and some of us get pretty specific. We remember the saying of Christ that if we do not forgive others, God the Father will not forgive us. And the ritual of asking and granting forgiveness is both real in the moment and symbolic of the great reality that we should do this all the time. So dear readers, we wish you God’s forgiveness and ask yours for our own failings, whatever they may have been, and we progress into this amazing season.