Western Easter and Eastern Easter are more than a month apart this year, so as the West gets ready to celebrate Palm Sunday, we are just entering Great Lent. A gap this wide is hard to bridge, and it’s tough explaining to a seven-year-old. G’s just barely getting the concept of birthdays (so far he’s had three this year—his, Jonah’s and his dad’s). An understanding of Easter (or Pascha) will be a few years coming.
In the Russia church we attend, Forgiveness Vespers (a service akin to Ash Wednesday) is celebrated directly after Liturgy (in some churches, the service is held in the evening—making it easier to attend alone). Instead of being anointed with ash, the Orthodox shift into the season of repentance by asking forgiveness of every one attending the service. The first half of the service reads like a typical vespers until halfway through. As the choir sings a penitential hymn, the colors of the church—vestments, altar cloths, etc.—are changed from gold to dark purple. I missed most of the prayers while I tried to keep J and G fed and in the pew, but the phrase “bring me out of my affliction” caught my ear. Gabriel was sitting on my lap, and I asked him, “Are you afflicted?”
“I’m not afflicted, you’re afflicted!” he returned. From the mouth of babes.
This word pleased him to no end, and he continued to repeat his phrase with mischievous glee. “You’re afflicted! I said you’re afflicted mommy!”
A little later, both the boys were intrigued to see everyone drop to their knees, pressing their foreheads to the floor. We did a number of prostrations during the Prayer of St. Ephrem, and by the last few, G and J were laid flat out on their bellies at the appropriate time, or thereabouts. By this time Gabriel was super antsy. We’d been in church for more than two hours, and he was dancing around at the entrance to the pew as Fr. Nicholas gave a short homily. But he was still listening. At one point, Fr. Nicholas made reference to “the tools we use” in the Lenten season (prayer, fasting, alms), and G called out in the megaphone voice he saves especially for church, “He said the tools we use!” And then, “Mommy!”—as if it was possible not to hear him the first time—“He said the tools we use!”
Then it was time to make the rounds. The priest started, prostrating himself and asking our forgiveness. The altar servers and deacon followed. Two-thirds of the congregation was ahead of us, so by the time it was our turn, Jonah had a good sense of what was going on and was understandably nervous about the whole deal: “I can’t do it. I’m too shy.” I gave him the option of just kissing Fr. Nicholas and then returning to his seat to read a book, but he hung in there, pulled along by welcoming hugs and head pats. The Russians like to kiss. One gregarious old man gave Gabriel three kisses on the lips. By the last kiss, G’s expression could be read as either “Who the heck is this guy?” or “Get me out of here!”
On we kissed, asking forgiveness of every man, woman and child. Old and young. J hung in there, and by the end was giddy with all the love. “Mom, I did it! I was too shy, but I did it!” As we waited in our arc of the circle for the rest of the congregation to greet us, two teenage altar servers kept an eye on the nursery door while G played. It worked out just right—better than I could have hoped or planned.
In years past, we either fled before the service started or didn’t make it at all. I am grateful for the grace of these people, for Gabriel and Jonah keeping me occupied during the service so that I didn’t have time to worry about the logistics of moving two more-than-slightly feral children through a line of strangers patting, kissing, hugging and shaking their hands. If Lent is a great sea, my children—and these people—are my life rafts. Bringing me along, out of myself.
Your grace has shone forth, O Lord:
the grace which illumines our soul.
This is the acceptable time!
This is the time of repentance!
Let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light,
that passing through the Fast as through a great sea
we may reach the Resurrection on the third day
of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of our souls.
(Aposticha from the Lenten Triodian for Forgiveness Vespers)