In the Orthodox Church, the last Sunday before Great Lent is called Forgiveness Sunday. On the morning of this Sunday at the Divine Liturgy, we hear the words of Christ:
“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” (Matthew 6:14-15).
The triumph of sin, the main sign of its rule over the world, is division, opposition, separation, hatred. Therefore, the first break through this fortress of sin is forgiveness—the return to unity, solidarity, love. To forgive is to put between me and my “enemy” the radiant forgiveness of God. To forgive is to reject the hopeless “dead-ends” of human relations and to refer them to Christ. Forgiveness is truly a “breakthrough” of the Kingdom into this sinful and fallen world.
Father Alexander Schmemann, the former Dean of St. Vladimir Orthodox Seminary, succinctly communicated the prominence of forgiveness in the life of an Orthodox Christian, especially during the lenten season:
“Now, forgiveness stands at the very center of Christian faith and of Christian life because Christianity itself is, above all, the religion of forgiveness. God forgives us, and His forgiveness is in Christ, His Son, Whom He sends to us, so that by sharing in His humanity we may share in His love and be truly reconciled with God. Indeed, Christianity has no other content but love. And it is primarily the renewal of that love, a return to it, a growth in it, that we seek in Great Lent, in fasting and prayer, in the entire spirit and the entire effort of that season. Thus, truly forgiveness is both the beginning of, and the proper condition for the Lenten season.”
On this last Sunday before entering Great Lent, the Eastern Church accentuates our need for forgiveness, reminding us that there can be no true fast, no genuine repentance, no reconciliation with God, unless we are at the same time reconciled with one another. This theme is especially poignant in the rite of mutual forgiveness and reconciliation at the end of the Vespers on Sunday evening, wherein we ask forgiveness from each other. As we approach one other with words of reconciliation, the choir intones the Paschal hymns, filling the church with the anticipation of our Lord’s joyous resurrection.
To anyone I have wronged, knowingly or unknowingly, I ask forgiveness. To anyone I have taken for granted and failed to express appreciation, I ask forgiveness. To anyone I have neglected or failed in times of need, I ask forgiveness. To all who have helped me, I humbly thank you. May God forgive me, a sinner!