I stayed up until 3:30 Saturday night, and that made my 8:00 alarm almost unbearable. I managed to drag my weary carcass out of bed and forced myself to get ready for church. Even though sometimes it's hard to get up, I'm always excited to go to church. That's just one thing I like about St. Nicholas'.
Thankfully, Rosey wasn't too sleepy, so she drove to Springdale. We made our usual coffee-stop at the Conoco on the way. An older man works there. He almost always wear slumpy jeans and a blue t-shirt, and he has a huge beard. Rosey and I decided a couple of weeks ago that he looks like a mountain man, and we really want to give him a flannel shirt. When we walked towards the counter with our travel-mugs of coffee (only fifty cents, by the way), he just waved us on. "You think I'm going to charge you girls when you come visit me every Sunday? Go on, now."
We got to church a little early and sat in the car talking and finishing our coffees. When we finally went in, Ray, an older man in a red hoodie and jeans, met us before we went into the sanctuary.
"Since Lent starts tomorrow, we are having a forgiveness service after the homily. You don't have to participate if you don't want to, since you're not orthodox, but you can if you want to." We thanked him, and tried to quietly find a seat. The service was already underway, but it always is like that. Their 9:00 prayer service bleeds into the divine liturgy, so we always enter in to singing, chanting, and incense.
During the liturgy, I was pleased to see how many of the songs I have memorized. I like knowing what is next, anticipating my favorite songs and prayers. We sang a new song today with a line about Christ bringing the world the Great Mercy. A beautiful line.
I had almost forgotten Ray's warning when Father James faced us at the end of the service. He explained that it was a special Sunday, a time to prepare ourselves for Lent. He asked one of the deacons to stand in front of him. He took his hands and said, "If I have offended you in anyway in the past year, either intentional or unintentional, will you forgive me?" The deacon responded, "God forgives and so do I." Then they kissed each other's cheeks three times, alternating sides. Then the deacon stood on the priest's left, and another person came up. I was a bit amazed as I watched the whole church filing up to do the same.
I hovered, and then decided to join the stream of people. Sure, I don't know half the people in the church, but it was rather wonderful to be a part of the process. I loved watching the people too. My favorite was when a mother came to her three little girls. She knelt down, forehead to forehead with each girl, asking for their forgiveness. The little girls would giggle, and whisper, "God forgives and so do I" and then throw their arms around her.
I wound around the church, hugging and greeting and kissing cheeks. Some people took my hands and others clasped their hands in front of them. Some hugged me, some patted my shoulder and some just nodded. Some kissed me on the cheek while others gave me light air kisses, skirting my face by several inches. Yet all of them looked me in the eye, smiling all the way.
I was a bit awed by the whole thing. An entire church asking each others' forgiveness? That makes it a little hard to hold grudges, at least grudges that last longer than a year. On the way home, Rosey mentioned that she liked the physical aspect of the church, especially in that service. Crossing ourselves is one way that it is done, bowing another. That forgiveness service was yet another way to use our bodies to connect, to worship. I not only heard each church member verbalize their apologies, but I felt women's soft hands squeezing my arm, old men's beards scratching my cheek, children's arms wrapping around me. The community was almost tangible.
Someone mentioned to me that forgiveness should not be relegated to one Sunday a year. True, forgiveness should happen everyday, but does it? The forgiveness given in the service is not an obligation to be performed and soon forgotten but a reminder of what should be daily behavior.
If I have done anything in the past year to hurt or offend you, will you forgive me?
God forgives, and so do I.