In the Orthodox Church, Lent is commences after the Sunday Vespers Service on Forgiveness Sunday. I attended this service last year, and I still remember the unique spiritual encounter I participated in with complete strangers.
After the liturgy, the Priest of the church looks out on the congregation and with believable sincerity confesses that he is a sinner and asks forgiveness for the ways he has failed. We feel his pain and recognize his predicament of ever desiring to fully receive the grace and victory over sin yet coming up short. After he begins the lesson on forgiveness the Assistant Priest walks up to the Priest and looks at him eye to eye and confesses that he has sinned and asks for forgiveness. The Priest replies: “God forgives you and so do I.” Next, the Deacon stands before the Priest, and then the Assistant Priest, and they make the same confession, one person at a time. Slowly the whole Altar Party follows in suit and then the congregation is dismissed, row by row, to form a circle around the church so that every last person in attendance has confessed that they have sinned to every other person in attendance and has heard the good news proclaimed again and again: “God forgives you and so do I.” They begin Lent that evening, three days ahead of the Catholics and Protestants.
As we enter into another Lenten Season, I want to encourage us to begin reflecting on the foundation of forgiveness. Forgiveness is what Lent is all about. There is a freedom to fully embrace your own sinfulness when your spiritual leader exposes the truth that with deep regret he must admit that all his best efforts to follow God have included sin and that he too is in great need of forgiveness. When you stand with people who usually observe you at your best—at church—honestly look them in the eye, and in naked truth admit that you have sinned, you begin to recognize what the Lenten Season is meant to show us, what a great salvation we have been given.
When all the best efforts of church people fail to get the results intended, we know we are without hope apart from the forgiveness offered through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
On Ash Wednesday Christians are asked to consider the reality of sin as they face the mortality of life by remembering that they will return to dust. The reason that we are become dust is death, and death is part of our life because of sin. The death of Christ, His burial, and Resurrection reverse the curse of death and sin. Christ alone has overcome. Christ alone is sinless.
The ashes are made in the shape of His cross to remind us what is possible through Christ. We can be forgiven. Once forgiven, we become free to forgive.
When I left that service, I felt spiritually clean. I can’t describe it. The people to whom I confessed my sin and requested their forgiveness were strangers to me and I wasn’t conscious of anything purposeful I had done to sin against them. Yet my spirit had taken in on a whole new level the truth of what Jesus has done in forgiving me.
Lent begins this week. I encourage you to begin by confessing your sins and receiving the cleansing that God promises in 1 John 1:9:
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.