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Why Ask for Forgiveness if I Have Done No Wrong?

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In just a few days, Orthodox Christians around the world will participate in Forgiveness Vespers. For those of you who are unaware of this tradition, participants bow before every other person individually and ask for his/her forgiveness. Then the other person says, “God forgives.”

For many, this can be a very uncomfortable practice. I, too, struggled with the whole concept of this service the first several times I participated in it, and to be honest, I am not entirely comfortable with it. In fact, I have to face this issue every Sunday. Several monastics attend the church where I am at now, and therefore, the church has adopted the monastic practice of asking for forgiveness from each other every Sunday before the Eucharist. The women sit on one side and the men on the other. The women always bow before each other individually before the Eucharist and ask for forgiveness and the men do the same.

Some of the most common thoughts that I have are, “I don’t want to bow before and hug that person. I don’t know them. It would be awkward.” and “Why ask for forgiveness if I have done no wrong? I have never ever seen that person before. How can I have sinned against them?”

I once had a priest who, when asked about this, would quote Elder Zosima from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s book The Brothers Karamazov.

"My young brother asked forgiveness of the birds; it seems senseless, yet it is right, for
all is like an ocean, all flows and connects; touch it in one place and it echoes at the
other end of the world.Tormented by universal love, you, too, would then start praying
to the bird, as if in a sort of ecstasy, and entreat them to forgive your sin.There is only one
salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For
indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself responsible for everything and
everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all
for all."

These words are hard to take in modern Western society where the focus is always on the individual. However, I am slowly learning that in the spiritual world the concept of individualism is not always the best way and often doesn’t make sense.

I can have no private sin. Because whether or not my sins have been concealed, they still affect all of those around me. And for that I have to ask for forgiveness. Also, how can I claim that I am not responsible for the depravity in the world when I, too, am part of the human race and have added to the multitude of sins in the world?

Those of us who are in ministry especially need to have a forgiving spirit and heart. Often in working with people in distress, it is easy to feel put out and offended. Sometimes we expect to be treated better for the work we do. However, instead we need to be forgiving and understanding. Not only that, we need to look deep inside ourselves and find out what we need to ask forgiveness for.

This Sunday, let us make a clean start to Lent. Let us ask forgiveness from each other for all sins “whether in knowledge or ignorance, in word or in deed.”

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