On the last day of the Maslenitsa festivities, before the beginning of the Great Lent (this year, it begins on 10 March), Orthodox Christians gather at church and ask forgiveness from one another. Therefore, this Sunday is known as “Forgiveness Sunday”. Patriarch Aleksei of Moscow and all the Russias shall offer the Divine Liturgy at Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow on Sunday morning, and in the evening, he shall serve vespers and lead the rite of forgiveness, the press service of the Moscow Patriarchate reported to RIA-Novosti.
On Forgiveness Sunday, in all Orthodox churches, the presiding clergyman reads a special prayer after the conclusion of the Vespers service that beseeches God to assist the faithful in the keeping of the fast. After it is read, all the clergy, starting with the patriarch, request forgiveness from all the faithful present in the church, and the laity request forgiveness from the clergy, and from one another personally. One says to another, “Forgive me”, and the traditional answer is “God forgives. Please, forgive me, as well”.
In addition to the church ritual, believers request forgiveness of all those in their households and of all their friends so that they may enter the Great Lent with a good spirit, without holding anger in their heart against their neighbour. The Gospel of Matthew tells us, “If you shall not pardon the sin of your brother, neither shall the Father forgive you your sins”. The custom of mutual forgiveness before starting the Great Lent arose in the very first centuries of Christianity. In the early monastic abodes in Egypt, the monks gathered together, they prayed, and they requested forgiveness of one another before they departed into the desert. Some of them did not return.
The Great Lent is considered the most important of the four Lents, and it is connected with the Gospel account of how the Lord Christ fasted for 40 days in the desert. Immediately following the Great Lent proper is Holy Week, which is dedicated to commemorating the final days in the earthly life of Christ and his Holy Passion. Lent consists in not only abstaining from certain foods, but, it also includes avoiding all detrimental habits and amusements. It is a time for repentance, meditation, and heartfelt prayer. There is a purpose to the Lenten effort. One practises abstention, one purifies the soul from carnal passions and sinful thoughts, and one submits the body and the soul to the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, to become angry or to despair during the Lent is so sinful, that it would have been better if you had been drinking wine and eating meat. It is better to pour scorn on one’s pride and conceit rather than shun contact with family members who are not keeping the Lent. The Gospel of Matthew says, Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly (Matthew 6:16-18).
The Holy Fathers of the Church, when they discussed the observance of physical fasts, called them “not the hating of the body, but, rather, the killing of sin”. In pre-revolutionary Russia, those who were seriously ill, pregnant women, nursing mothers, soldiers, manual labourers, and travellers were considered exempt from following the rules concerning abstention form certain foods. However, such people were still held to an observance of the spiritual fast, so, they abstained from attending entertainments, and they sought absolution in confession if they violated the fast from the passions.
During the weekdays of the Great Lent, that is, from Monday to Friday, the normal Divine Liturgy is not served, with the exception of the great holy day of the Annunciation on 25 March/7 April. In place of the normal liturgy, on Wednesday and Friday evenings the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is served so that the faithful can receive the Eucharist during the week. It is usual practise amongst believers to devote one of the six weeks of the Lent (most commonly, the first week) to a more rigorous observance of prayer, fasting, and attendance at various services. Then, on the Saturday or Sunday of that week, they go to confession, are absolved, and receive the Eucharist.
During the entire course of the Great Lent the Church asks believers to abstain from meat, milk, eggs, and fish, in all their forms, and they should not even be an ingredient of the foods we eat. Fish is permitted only on the great holy day of the Annunciation of the Most Holy Mother of God on 25 March/7 April and on Palm Sunday/the Entrance of the Lord into Jerusalem, which this year falls on 20 April. However, on Lazarus Saturday (falling on 19 April this year) we are allowed to eat caviar/fish roe. Forgiveness Sunday, the last day before the start of the Great Lent, is the last day that we eat non-Lenten food. That is, non-Lenten food that is not meat, for we abstain from meat during the week of Maslenitsa.
The lamps are dimmed in the churches during the Great Lent, and the clergy dress in sombre dark purple vestments, which strengthens the spirit of prayer and repentance amongst the faithful. The Great Lent concludes (after Holy Week, which is not technically a part of Lent) with the greatest holiday in the Christian calendar, Easter, the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Christ from the dead in the flesh. This year, Easter shall fall on 27 April.
9 March 2008