Several years ago, after very emotional struggles with infertility and two heartbreaking miscarriages, we began our first adoption. It was a complicated affair, & after much ado, it ended in a devastating loss; our daughter (who had been with us for six months at that point) was taken back by her birthmother. It felt worse than losing her to death, because we were worried about her & her care was completely out of our hands. I have never experienced anything so horrific, & I struggled for years with unwanted anger towards that birthmother. If her name was mentioned or I thought about our precious daughter, my stomach tied itself in knots, I would sometimes vomit, my jaw and fists would clench - all involuntarily. I hated it, and I wanted to end it. I made the decision to forgive her & let it all go again and again. I prayed for help, but then her name would make me ill again & I would wonder. I knew forgiveness was an act of the will, but my emotions were not falling in line. Would forgiveness as an act of the will eventually help those emotions to subside? When & how?
Four years after our baby's departure, a series of events lead to a brief communication with her birthmother, & we received an apology for the pain caused us & some details about the situation that we had not known. In what truly seemed like an instant miracle, my anger was gone. I know it was a long spiritual process, but I finally felt a lightness at that very moment - tension disappeared, and I felt empathy for this birthmother. I had a revelation that though I was angry at her for her choices & mistakes, I was also to blame - not because I directly contributed to her error, but because I was a sinner as well. I had also wounded the Body of Christ. After all, “We are all responsible for all, apart from our own sins,” as we learn in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov. Our own sins have a ripple effect; what we do, without realizing it, may lead to the sin of another.
But our love also has a ripple effect, and healing the rift caused by sin begins with forgiveness.
Was the apology the catalyst for the elusive feelings that finally arrived? It is still mysterious to me, but I know that it started with the willful act of forgiveness years before. If we hope to be reconciled with God in order to reflect his peace in our lives (& complete the fast sincerely), we must first be reconciled with each other, making that decision despite any persistently negative feelings. God wrote this prescription into our liturgical year with Forgiveness Vespers.
We are coming to the end of the Triodion - a three week period that leads us to Great Lent and our most intensive fast of the liturgical year. This coming Sunday is Forgiveness Sunday, or Cheesefare (the day to finish consuming all dairy products, eggs, and oils since Great Lent begins for us on the following day, Clean Monday).
On this Sunday, we focus on Adam and Eve's exile and our need to both give and receive forgiveness. We hear the Gospel of Matthew 6:14-21, which begins with forgiveness: "For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."
We return to this theme later that day, at one of my favorite services of the year - Forgiveness Vespers, which begins Great Lent.
It is at this vespers that each person in the church asks for & receives forgiveness from every other person. It is a beautiful thing to see and take part in. Each person approaches the priest, and the priest implores, “Forgive me, a sinner,” and the person responds,“I forgive you and God forgives you.” The roles are then reversed, with the person asking forgiveness & the priest repeating, “I forgive you and God forgives you.” Every person present performs the ritual of forgiveness with every other person.
It is especially poignant when people have personal grievances to forgive against one another, but even when there is no specific offense to forgive, it is powerful and necessary. It is necessary that we give and receive this forgiveness aloud; God knows that this makes a difference in how we process things. He also arranged Confession for us to speak aloud our sins and hear with our physical ears that we are forgiven.
This mutual exchange of forgiveness allows us to begin the Lenten fast as a family united, traveling together in repentance towards freedom from sin and wholeness with the Risen Christ.
Photo: When one of the kids does an act of kindness, he or she gets to pull a thorn
out of the crown...hopefully by the end of Great Lent, the crown will be free of thorns
& it will become our crown of lilies for Pascha.
Read more about our Lenten traditions & get this helpful Lenten download...