Sunday, March 3, 2019

Reconciliation and Lent

Today was Forgiveness Sunday in my Byzantine parish, more commonly called Cheesefare Sunday, as today is the last day for eggs, milk, cheese, and other dairy products until the feast of the Resurrection. Henceforth, the Greek and far Eastern Churches embrace a vegan diet bereft even of cooking oils in the strictest observance. While food doubtless weighed on the minds of many, the dominant theme today was forgiveness, an often neglected theme of Lent.

The Greek liturgy has no "second Vespers" like the Roman rite. Tonight in the Roman rite are sung second Vespers of Quinquagesima Sunday. The Byzantine Vespers tonight begin Clean Monday, the first proper day of Lent. At these Vespers the community reconciles to one another, putting aside any differences that may sow discord in the community and impede Divine grace. The priest asks the forgiveness of the community and then, ideally, each member of the community prostrates to one another and asks for forgiveness. The congregation then enters into the Great Fast reconciled to one another and at peace with one another.

When one thinks of reconciliation in the Roman rite one immediately, and reasonably, thinks of the imposition of ashes on the first day of Lent. In ancient times, when the catechumenate existed in a substantial way and large numbers of adults were entering the Church through Baptism on Pascha, The catechumens would fast for forty days prior to their Baptism and the Church would fast in solidarity with them. When Europe found itself Christian Lent transformed into an on-going repentance from sin. Public sinners would be doused in ashes and expelled from the church until Mandy Thursday, when the bishop himself would receive them back and read prayers of Sacramental absolution. This practice persisted in some Jansenist dioceses of France until the 18th century, but became largely symbolic elsewhere.

For the layman who was not a notorious public sinner, he reconciled to the Church and to his neighbor on Holy Saturday, after the Vesperal Mass. Clergy would spend the entire afternoon hearing Confessions, but also ensuring any disputes between parties had been settled. People feared unworthy Communions and would typically only approach twice a year, once on the Sunday of the Resurrection and one other time per annum. In Stripping of the Altars, Duffy describes parish priests calling disputants to account in the church and forcing them to make amends with each other before their biannual Communions. Occasionally laymen would be noted to jump the Communion line and intercept another brother in Christ to ensure that they were in accord with each other.

What a shame that this medieval tradition, so closely aligned with the Eastern instinct, has withered away! There is no liturgical act of resolution with one's neighbor anymore in our native Latin Church and its restoration would inevitably involve some nauseating act of the same communitarianism that has repelled people from Roman worship for decades. Still, we can consider our place with our visible neighbor this Lent and how much spiritual violence we do to our community through gossip, idle chatter, and enduring in petty grudges.

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