Forgiveness Vespers // 2015

A little bit of context: Forgiveness Vespers is the first service of Lent in the Orthodox Church, where we ask forgiveness of everyone in the parish. It’s an absolutely beautiful service, and we actually sing the Pascha (Easter) hymns during it, which was a wonder surprise for me my second Forgiveness Vespers, when I could actually recognize them. 

When my family began the journey to the Orthodox Church, I began to journal it, writing up in detail each new service we attend. It’s my hope to someday publish this, as when I went looking I couldn’t find a single book for Protestant teens coming to the Church. The project’s taken a somewhat back-burner spot at the moment (and I have no idea how I’m going to re-capture my 14 year old voice, it’s a lot more mature now). But one of the services I managed to write up was Forgiveness Vespers. Here it is, mainly preserved as my 14 year old self wrote it:

Forgiveness vespers was, I think, when I first started accept Orthodoxy as being true. Until that point I had just been following along. Yeah, I believed (and still do) everything Dad tells me, and I had been learning quite a lot about the faith, but I never, I think, realized it in my heart. Indeed, when we first started going to Holy Trinity, I wasn’t even a Christian! I didn’t really believe in God at the time. But anyway, by the time Lent rolled around, I was becoming comfortable in an Orthodox church. I sorta-kinda-maybe understood the doctrine, and I could go through most of the motions. There were quite a few things, though, that I wasn’t comfortable with. For example, confession. (And the first, second, and third findings of the head of the John the Baptist. Seriously, how many time can you lose a head? But that’s beside the point…)

Anyway, during the day, around lunch time, Dad called us and told us that we would be going to the service that night, and that, while he would like us all to participate, we didn’t have to. Now, before this, I had begun to read ‘Facing East’, Fredricka Mathews-Greene’s book, which happened to include an account of Forgiveness Vespers at her parish.

I most emphatically did not want to participate in that. Not that I was against the idea, it was just the awkwardness factor. I didn’t know how to make a prostration (certainly knew by the end of Lent!), I didn’t know practically anybody in the parish, despite going there for half a year, and, just, I wasn’t comfortable. I actually almost had a break down because it seemed like at first that Mom and Dad were trying to pressure me and Ian into doing it. (Ian with the broken foot at the time) Another reason – from Mrs. Mathews-Greene’s account, this was something that was very private and moving, and as I knew practically no one there, and hadn’t really offended anyone, I didn’t see the point.

We ended up going, obviously. It was my first service with prostrations. I take that back, my first service with prostrations was the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, or something like that. I really don’t count it, as I had no idea what was going one. We had arrived late, and found the entirety of those in the nave waving their bottoms in the air. (Can you tell I was new to Orthodoxy at that time?) Anyway.

It was also my first Vespers service. I honestly don’t remember that much of it. I’m assuming that it had most of the normal parts of a Vespers service, but I’ll have to wait until next year to be sure. It was towards the end, though, when the Lenten prayer of St. Ephraim was said. I’m pretty sure that at that time I had no idea what was being said, not really. It was late, I was confused, I was nervous about the ‘Forgiveness’ part of Forgiveness Vespers, and honestly was paying more attention to learning how to prostrate than learning the words to a prayer. I now know it, it comes from saying it every day during Lent:

“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.”

Honestly, I think this may be one of my favorite prayers.

Bye the time that everyone was praying this, Mom and Dad had had to leave the nave. We had brought the twins, and they were really starting to act up. So it was just me, Ian and Nathaniel sitting in our seats. Nate was playing with something from the diaper bag, like most children in the service, and Ian was sitting down looking mildly interested, but, knowing Ian, probably board.

I was mainly standing there awkwardly as everyone around me went to their knees. As I glanced back to the door to see if Mom and Dad were any closer to coming back in, I noticed Father Chris standing against the wall and beckoning to me. After checking to make sure Nate was occupied, and letting Ian know where I was going, I went back to him. As we stood next to each other, he started whispering to me, explaining the prayer, what it meant, and what a prostration was, as well as demonstrating for me.

When the prayer was done, Father Tim pronounced the dismissal, and then we all sat down again. He began to explain what Forgiveness Vespers was, for those who might be visiting and didn’t know, and how it worked. After that he encouraged everyone to participate, even if they didn’t know anybody. He mentioned one lady who was there, who her first night at Holy Trinity had been this Vespers. I really can’t imagine how awkward that must have been. For me, at least, I knew by site everyone there.

After all the talking was finished, Father Tim went up to the front, and both he and Father Chris made a prostration to each other, hugged, kissed (on the cheek), and then Father Chris came and stood next to Father Tim. Father Mike was next, and he did it was Father Tim, then Father Chris, and the stood next to Father Chris. It would keep going like this, with the line ending up wound around and around the church building. I still don’t know how they managed to fit everyone inside like that.

For some odd reason, I began to have this ‘apprehensive but looking forward’ feeling building up inside me as I watched. I don’t entirely know why, but as more and more people went down the line, I started tearing up.  It was weird, but they weren’t sad tears. They weren’t exactly happy either. I honestly don’t really get it.

Mom and Dad had come in by now, and they were standing in the back. That didn’t help matters much for me. It was one thing to cry, it was another entirely for my family to see me doing it.

I think what made me get up out of my chair and get in line was the fact that it didn’t seem awkward. Well, it did, but it didn’t. I’m not making much sense, am I? Anyway, I got in line, and right behind me were the Lockridges. Mr. Lockridge started talking to me about the Odyssey, and I almost forgot to go forward when it was my turn. At first it was embarrassing. I was probably the only one who thought so, of course, but all the same, my face was very hot, and I’m sure it was red. I wasn’t exactly about to pull out a mirror, obviously.

It was a bit odd, at first. I don’t know why exactly, but it was. First was Fr. Tim, then Fr. Chris, both of whom I knew pretty well, well, well enough, and then it was the day’s altar boys, mostly from my Church School class. Mainly people I was at least acquainted with. That was awkward, especially since they were mostly preteen or early teenaged boys. Those were particularly distant hugs.

But as I went down the line, it got to be much more comfortable, even fun, almost. Then, of course, there were the complete strangers, mainly old men and women, who would give me a giant hug and three kisses on the cheek. I was sort of used to this from older ladies, but from a completely strange man that I’d never seen before…

Anyway, I was about half way around the church when I noticed that some (or all) were rather sweaty. It didn’t really bother me, and I completely forgot about it. I ended up have mini-conversations with people, and after asking forgiveness, they would ask how long we had been there, or what my name was, or if I was the girl with the twin brothers. (Why is everything about Robert and David?).

At last, after going about once and half around the nave (still not sure how they worked that) I had reached the end of the standing-in-one-place line and was now sanding myself, as the still moving line went on, and started to stand still as well, next to be and on again. It was around this time that I noticed my back was starting to hurt a little bit.

This didn’t bother me that much, not really, and I continued on, occasionally chatting with Rebecka, who was standing next to me with her mother.

I was a little surprised when I found myself prostrating in front of Dad. I hadn’t realized that they had gone through. He was holding one of the twins, I think Robert, as he went. Next was Mom and David, and then Nathaniel, who informed me that he wasn’t really doing anything, he was just following Mom and Dad. Before she went on, Mom handed David off to me, letting out a sigh of relief as she did so. I think she was exhausted.

Now that I had the heavy toddler, I stopped making prostrations, and just did bows, or however pronounce them. Where you cross yourself and reach to the ground. Anyway, it wasn’t long before it was over, after that. Matushka Jennifer was the last to pass me, and as she did so she told me I could go sing with the other kids. I didn’t. I’m really bad at singing liturgical music, not to mention that the ‘choir’ was dispersing.

After that I don’t remember much at all. I’m assuming that we all went home instead of staying for a small coffee hour or something, as we had the twins and Nate with us, and that would have been after their bedtime.

I don’t think I could pinpoint an exact time that evening that I realized “Hey, this is right,” but at the end there was a quiet acceptance. This is right. This is the way things are supposed to be.

 

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Lent Has Begun

As of Sunday evening, Lent has begun for a great part of the world. I’m an Orthodox Christian, and for 40 days leading up to Holy Week (the week before Easter), we fast, preparing for Easter.

I’m going to start this off with a full disclaimer: I’m decidedly, in no way whatsoever, an expert on the topic of Lent. What I know is what I’ve experienced, and I’ve only lived through two Lents, and only one of them as an Orthodox Christian (I was Chrismated – received into the Church – a little over a year ago). And, to be fair, my dad’s books sitting next to me and the articles I’ve googled have also contributed to this post.

Lent is, as I understand it, a period of preparation. We fast, we pray, we give alms, we confess. It’s a journey of repentance, a journey with our Savior.  Most people tend to think of Lent as a time for punishing yourself, maybe, making yourself suffer with Christ. It’s seen as gloomy, sad. But this is not the case! We’re called to rejoice. It is the season for correction, purification, and enlightenment through the fulfillment of the commandments of Christ. As a hymn that is sung at Forgiveness Vespers says:

Let us enter the Fast with joy, O faithful.
Let us not be sad.
Let us cleanse our faces with the waters of dispassion,
blessing and exalting Christ forever.

Let us begin the Fast with joy.
Let us give ourselves to spiritual efforts.
Let us cleanse our souls.
Let us cleanse our flesh.
Let us fast from passions as we fast from foods,
taking pleasure in the good works of the Spirit
and accomplishing them in love
that we all may be made worthy to see the passion of Christ our God
and His Holy Pascha,
rejoicing with spiritual joy.

But what exactly is fasting? I keep using the word; I should probably define it. Fasting is, at the most basic level, abstaining from all or certain foods. For us, that means meat, dairy (including eggs), olive oil, fish-with-a-backbone, and alcohol. But fasting isn’t just what we’re not eating, it’s also keeping our bodies and our thoughts from evil things. Of course, this is something we should be doing all the time, obviously, but Lent adds an extra reminder.

While fasting, we’re encouraged to read from the Psalms and to pray the prayer of St. Ephriam. When we pray this prayer we prostrate after each stanza. Last year I did a bit of a photo edit for it. It is a truly beautiful prayer. But for that matter, all Orthodox prayers are. prayer-of-st-ephrem

Besides decreased food and increased prayer, there are also many new services during Lent. It begins with the service of Forgiveness Vespers, this past Sunday night, where we ask for the forgiveness of everyone in the church and they ask ours. Then there’s the Canon of St. Andrew, the first Monday and Tuesday (I can’t say much about this, as we’ve yet to make it). There’s an akathist (prayer service) every Friday, at least at my church. In my area (I have no idea if this holds true for everywhere else) we have Pan-Orthodox Vespers every Sunday evening, rotating which church it is held at. Then there’s a Presanctified Liturgy every Wednesday. I’ve cried at every signal one I’ve gone to. Not from sadness, though.

And that’s Lent. Probably (definitely) not the most comprehensive explanation; I barely scratched the surface. There’s so much depth and meaning and beauty and joyfulness and blessedness in Lent, and I have a feeling that ten years, twenty years, to the end of my life I’ll still be learning.

When my family and I first started the journey to Orthodoxy, I began journaling all the services we attended. I fell off after a bit, but I did write up our first Forgiveness Vespers. I’ll probably edited it heavily and post it next week, if anyone’s interested in seeing it.

But before that happens, this Friday is the book release of A Question of Honor!! I’m part of the blog tour, and I’ll have both a book review and author interview! *dances* I’m so excited about this!

Articles I used as sources, if you want to look at them.
Antiochian Archdiocese: Fasting and Great Lent
OCA: Great Lent
OCA: Lenten Services

And the books, although these will probably be just a tad harder to get your hands on than internet articles. Unless your dad collects them, which I guess is entirely possible. Mine does.
The Lenten Spring – Fr. Tom Hopko
The Lenten Triodion – (translated) Mother Mary and Met. Kallistos Ware

 

Saint John the Warrior

 

St. John the Warrior

I’m going to talk about Saint John the Warrior. No, his feast day isn’t today, but it was last Friday by the new calendar, and he is my father’s patron saint.

St. John had a really interesting life. He was, as his name suggests, a warrior under Julian the Apostate.

A quick overview here, for those not caught up on Eastern Roman history (and I’m going entirely from my memory here, so it might be a little rusty). Since Emperor Constantine the 1st, the Roman emperors were more or less Christian, and Christianity was the favored religion in the empire. However, Paganism wasn’t entirely outlawed. Through much palace intrigue, Emperor Julian was left fairly isolated while growing up, and he read much of the ancient Roman and Greek philosophers and poets, and his teachers were pagan. Eventually, as his name suggests, when he came to power he went apostate. He did his utmost to stamp out Christianity and bring back the Roman religion, with Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, and all the rest. Thus began the last of the great Roman persecutions of Christianity.

Anyway, back to St. John. As I had said, St. John was a warrior in the Roman army at this time. On the surface he was the model soldier, persecuting the Christians and delivering them up to death. But, while with one hand saluting Caesar, with the other he ushered the Christians to safety, providing them with food, clothes, money, and warnings. A great many Christians were saved through him. As well as this, he visited those imprisoned and brought relief to widows, orphans, and the sick.

Eventually Emperor Julian caught wind of the saint’s actions and ordered him to be brought to Constantinople, there to be tried and executed. He was tortured, but to no avail, and eventually tossed in prison and left.

At last, Julian the Apostate fell in the war with the Persians, and St. John was freed. Upon his release he did not return to the army, but devoted the rest of his life to medicine and healing, spending it all in the service of his neighbors. He lived a pure and holy life and died of old age.

We do not know when he died, and the location of his grave gradually passed beyond memory. Then, later, he appeared in a dream to a devout woman and revealed the location of his grave to her. His relics were placed in the church of St. John the Theologian in Constantinople, and through them the Lord healed many.

The Orthodox Church prays to St. John as an intercessor in sorrows and difficult circumstances, and for the recovery of stolen objects.

O miracle-worker John,
thou hast been shown to be a truly faithful servant and soldier of God, the all-good Sovereign;
for, having suffered, in manly fashion,
for the Faith and finished thy course in benediction,
in the heavens thou dost behold the Lord and Creator of all most splendidly,
and helpest men who suffer amid all manner of trials.
Thou dost strengthen soldiers in battle,
rescuing them from capture by the enemy,
from wounds, sudden death and cruel misfortunes.
Wherefore, entreat Christ the Master,
O ever-memorable one,
that He deal mercifully with us in every circumstance,
that He lead us not into temptations,
but save our souls, for He is a lover of mankind.

Links:
https://oca.org/saints/lives/2013/07/30/102136-martyr-john-the-soldier-at-constantinople
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_the_Warrior
http://www.holytrinityorthodox.com/calendar/los/July/30-02.htm
http://www.holy-transfiguration.org/library_en/saints_johnsoldier.html