About the Rite of Forgiveness


        Brothers and sisters!

        This Sunday, the final Sunday before Great Lent, is commonly known as the Sunday of Forgiveness, because during the Vespers service that typically follows the Divine Liturgy, everyone present asks pardon of the others for his voluntary and involuntary sins, and especially he forgives and begs forgiveness for his offences against his brethren.  In truth, there are few services during the course of the liturgical year which can match this one for its joyous, yet touching character.  Besides providing us the opportunity to ask and receive forgiveness of one another, this Vespers ushers us into Great Lent, for in the beginning it has the form of a normal, non-Lenten service, yet ends with the sound of distinctive Lenten melodies, with prostrations, and with the priest and the temple clad in dark, penitential vestments. 

        The Vespers of Forgiveness vividly reminds us of the Saviour’s words to the effect that the Heavenly Father will remit our sins only if we forgive our brethren.  Thus, as we stand at the portal of fasting and repentance, the Holy Church makes our entry conditional upon our willingness to forgive, as it were warning, “You cannot enter the house of divine mercy and forgiveness, unless you reconcile with your brother.”  The Apostle says, He shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy.[1]  Therefore, whoever is unwilling to humble himself before others, to be done with rancor and resentment, hopes in vain on the Lord’s compassion.

        In the Lives of the saints, among many other examples that show how dangerous it is not to pardon, we find the one about Titus and Evagrius of the Kiev Caves Lavra, which is perhaps the most striking of all.  It is a spur to forgiveness, so I would like to read it to you today.  Here is the account, as related by Saint Demetrius of Rostov in his Great Collection:

        “In the Life of the blessed Titus, we see clearly how the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against[2] the wrath of man and how the peace of God, which passeth all understanding,[3] keeps the heart and mind, the soul and body, of him who seeks peace.  Titus was a monk and presbyter of the Monastery of the Kiev Caves, and had a spiritual brother, Deacon Evagrius, also a monk of the Caves.  The two men loved each other deeply, so that all were amazed and edified by their friendship.  This did not escape the notice of the enemy, who hates everything good and sows tares among the wheat.[4]  The devil sowed enmity in the hearts of both monks, darkening their minds with anger and hatred, and eventually they could not even bear to look at each other, but went out of their way to avoid meeting.  If one was censing in church, the other would storm out; or if the other stayed, the one censing would pass by, ignoring his presence.  For a long time they remained in the gloom of sin.  Such was the control exercised over them by the adversary, that they would neither serve the Liturgy nor commune together, nor ask mutual forgiveness.  The brethren repeatedly begged them to make peace, but they would not hear of it.  Then Providence ordained that Titus fall gravely ill.  Despairing of his life, the blessed presbyter bitterly lamented his transgression and sent this contrite message to Evagrius:  ‘For the Lord’s sake, pardon me, Brother:  I have grieved you by my anger.’

        “The hardhearted deacon not only refused to forgive:  he cursed the dying man.  It spite of this, the monks dragged him to Titus’ bedside.  Seeing his brother, Titus rose from the bed, fell to his knees, and tearfully implored, ‘Forgive and bless me, Father!’

        “Evagrius averted his face and muttered, ‘I will never make peace with that man, either in this life or the next.’  So saying, he tore himself out of the monks’ grasp and then collapsed.  When the brethren tried to get him to his feet, they found he had expired.  Indeed, he was stiff, like a long-dead corpse, and his arms could not be folded, nor his mouth or eyes closed.  Meanwhile, the blessed presbyter rose perfectly well, as though he had never been sick.

        “Everyone was horrified and asked Titus to explain.  The blessed one testified, ‘I saw angels withdrawing from me and weeping over the ruin of my soul, while at the same time demons rejoiced at my anger.  This is why I begged you to fetch my brother.  When Evagrius turned away from me, a stern angel ran a fiery spear through him and he fell dead.  The same angel helped me out of bed and restored my health.’  The monks shed copious tears over Evagrius and mourned his bitter death.  There was no choice but to bury him as he had died, with open eyes and mouth and outstretched arms.

        “After this the brethren were extremely careful to avoid getting angry, and immediately forgave, if any man had a quarrel against any.[5]  They were mindful of the Lord’s words:  Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment,[6] and remembered the saying of Ephraim the Syrian:  ‘Anyone who dies in a state of enmity will be judged without mercy.’  And so it came to pass that this verse from the psalms could be applied to the monks, corrected as they were by the deacon’s punishment: ‘Much peace have they who love Thy law,[7] O Lord.’ ”

        And so, brothers and sisters, here is the sum of the matter:  if you are at enmity with anyone, or you have irate or resentful thoughts about your neighbor, take advantage of the day and answer Christ’s call to love, peace, and forgiveness.  Obey the Master’s summons and it will be said of you also:  “Much peace have they who love Thy law, O Lord.”

        But first of all, we, the servants of the altar and shepherds of the sheep, must ask forgiveness of you, the flock.  Because of our position, our shortcomings and failings are the most visible of all, so we must entreat you to turn away your eyes from them and to cover them with love.  We are weak, imperfect people like you, and so we have the same infirmities and temptations as everyone else.  However, besides these, we have additional, special temptations, peculiar to servants of the altar.  In our position, it is easy to give particular offence by inattentiveness to the needs of others; unfair assessments of people’s problems and other situations; careless, irreverent behavior during the divine services; and so forth.  How frequently those with weak faith or a weak understanding are driven away from the church by some failing, some careless action or word on the part of the clergy!  And besides these, there are the others who, if they are not driven away by our shortcomings and lapses, nevertheless fail to be helped by us as they should.  Therefore, on this day, it is necessary for us, the clergy, even more than for others, to take full advantage of the opportunity our Holy Church provides.

        Nevertheless, dear Christians, may all of you be right behind us in fulfilling the sacred duty.  Put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness:[8]  the charity which suffereth long, is kind, and envieth not.[9]  Clad in the vesture of love, you will easily pass through the portal of fasting and repentance, and enter and take up your dwelling in the house of God’s mercy and compassion!  Amen.


[1] James 2:13

[2] Rom., Ch. 1:18

[3] Phil., Ch. 4:7

[4] Matt., Ch. 13:25

[5] Col.  Ch. 3:13

[6] Matt., Ch. 5:22

[7] Ps. 118:168

[8] Col. 3:14

[9] I Cor. 13:4