“O, sweety, there is nothing to forgive.” How many times has our attempt to make amends with another we have offended end in this kind of dismissive, shrugging off of responsibility which is supposed to help the offended party feel better? Yet, when any of us takes a deeper look at ourselves, what the twelve steppers call making a “searching and fearless moral inventory”, we find that not only are we filled with sinful thoughts, inclinations, motives and actions, but ignoring and sweeping them under the rug of forgetfulness will only make matters worse, not better. Those not practiced in the Christian art and divine gift of forgiveness may be tempted to dispense with it as a necessary step to restoring peace in human relationships, but this morning’s Gospel lesson makes it clear that it is a non-negotiable.
In fact, the Church finds it so important, that we are forbidden to even start the dangerous journey of Great Lent without it. This Sunday evening, the faithful gather in the evening to individually beg forgiveness of one another in a ritual that has begun Great Lent for centuries. First the priests and clergy beg forgiveness of everyone individually, then everyone else stands in a long line and one by one prostrates themselves before the other saying simply, “Forgive me a sinner,” to which the other responds, “God forgives.” That’s it. No presumption on our part on how much sin really exists or who even has the right to forgive another one. Just a simple trusting in the hand of divine providence to be the ultimate judge and arbiter.
“But if we don’t get down to the nitty gritty,” some might say, “How can we expect this to accomplish anything? Doesn’t it become just empty ritual?” It is true at least in our own parish’s practice that the priest encourages those who might need a lengthier conversation to have one before the service. However, this objection diminishes the power of ritual in transforming our outlook toward our brother and sister. This is one time of the year that the church gathers in force to practice the ritual of forgiveness, but she proscribes its healing activity throughout the year. In the monasteries, for instance, the monks often practice it daily as part of Compline prayers. I remember in my own experience, before I was married, we did it every night with the other men with whom I was living in Christian community. Even if we were not able to say nighttime prayers, we ALWAYS begged forgiveness in the same simple way outlined above. I remember how hard feelings about undone dishes and inconsiderate parking places would melt almost instantaneously in the warmth of brotherly kindness, and if they did not, begging forgiveness provided the occasion to talk about it.
So, as we start together the journey of Great Lent (just this Wednesday if you are on the Western calendar!), let us not presume upon the absence of sin (“nothing to forgive”), pretending that everything is “fine” and everyone else is “all set”. But let us make forgiveness a ritual, as compulsive as checking email and as regular as our morning cup of coffee. Amen. Lord have mercy on us sinners!