One of the names for the Sunday before Lent is Forgiveness Sunday since we are challenged to enter the Great Fast by forgiving and asking forgiveness of each other. We are called to express our love for God by forgiving those who have wronged us. We are also called to examine our lives and seek forgiveness from those we have hurt.
Did you know that the Great Fast actually begins Sunday evening at Vespers? Forgiveness vespers is a deeply beautiful service that expresses the spirit of the Great Lent. The priest begins the service in bright vestments. In all Vespers services, the prokimen announces the end of one day and the beginning of the next. It is at this point in Forgiveness Vespers that the beginning of the Great Fast is announced. In despair and hope, we cry out, “Turn not away your face from your servant for I am afflicted! Hear me speedily. Attend to my soul and deliver it!”
Our preparations for Great Lent have ended… We stand before God and realize that we belong to His Kingdom and it is our only goal. We also realize that we are sinners and live in the darkness of this world. We call out for help to the only One who can help us. We repeat the Lenten Prokimen 5 times and with that, Lent begins. The lights in the church are extinguished and the bright vestments are replaced with dark ones. The Resurrectional tone of the singing changes to the Lenten tone. The Prayer of St. Ephrem with its prostrations is prayed for the first time.
The priest concludes the Forgiveness Ceremony with this prayer:
“How good and how delightful it is when brothers and sisters live in harmony. Now it is required that we forgive each other. Let the right part of the church turn towards the left and the left towards the right. Look well, brothers and sisters, if there is someone with whom you personally will require to make peace. And now let us mutually forgive each other.”
The faithful approach the priest and each other to ask for mutual forgiveness while the choir sings the liturgical hymns of Easter, for even though we must journey through 40 days of darkness, we see the light of the Resurrection beckoning brightly.
Prayer of Saint Ephrem
O Lord and Master of my life,
Keep from me the spirit of indifference and discouragement,
Lust of power and idle chatter.
Instead, grant to me your servant,
The spirit of wholeness of being, humble-mindedness, patience and love.
O Lord and King,
Grant me the grace to be aware of my sins and not to judge my brothers and sisters,
for you are blessed, now and forever and ever. Amen.
Adapted from http://lent.goarch.org/forgiveness/learn/