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Forgiveness Vespers

[NPR, "All Things Considered," March 2, 1998]

On the first night of Lent, as Vespers comes to an end, my husband turns from the altar. He asks everyone to form a circle around the interior of the church, and when we’re in place, the person next to him—in this case, our son David—steps over to face his dad. My husband crosses himself, bows to David, then says, "Forgive me, my brother, for any way I have sinned against you. " David says, "I forgive you," and they embrace. Then it’s David’ s turn to bow to his dad and ask the same question, and receive the same forgiveness and embrace.

The ancient rite of forgiveness has begun. David steps to the next person in line to repeat the exchange, and a different parishoner faces my husband; before the evening is over every single person here will have asked for and received forgiveness from every other.

Orthodox Christians have done this for centuries, every year on the first night of Lent, to cleanse past wounds and allow a fresh start. When I next look up I see David embracing his younger brother Stephen. Where David is quiet-natured, a cool stream, Stephen is a geyser, full of passionate opinion, wide-flinging love and, not infrequently, anger. There were things to be forgiven there.

At last the rite has reached my point in line, and one at a time I bow to people I worship with every week, looking each one in the eye. Each moment is intimate, and I feel on the wobbly border between embarassment, laughter and tears. When I ask 12-year-old Melanie to forgive me, she says, "Not that you’ve done anything, but okay."  Basil is giving out enveloping bear hugs with exclamations of "Praise Jesus! Praise Jesus!" Down the line, worshippers dip and bend as in a country dance.

I come to my daughter Megan, who will be eighteen in a few days. She has made it safely to adulthood past an adolescence that had it rocky places; yes, there are things to forgive here too. I bow to her and manage to say, past the lump in my throat, "Megan, please forgive me for any way that I have offended you." I could think of a million mistakes I had made. She looks at me, her lashes wet, and says,  "I forgive you, Mom." Then she bends to touch the floor and stands again, and says to me, "Please forgive me, Mom, for everything."

Can a mother do such a thing? You bet. A moment later we are in a marshmallowy embrace.

Soon we are headed across the parking lot, the boys racing ahead. Megan puts her arm around me as we amble along, and I look up at a black sky spattered with stars. From this night to Easter morning a desert stretches, but it has begun with light.

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