Orthodox Christians make a beginning of their Lenten discipline with the forgiving of everyone for everything (theoretically). This is expressed in the rite of forgiveness which is part of Vespers on the Sunday of Cheesefare. The ritual expression of forgiveness can easily and often be little more than a ritual. It reminds us of the need to forgive, but does not, on its own, achieve what it expresses. This should not be surprising – forgiveness is perhaps the most difficult spiritual undertaking. I believe the reason for this is clear: to forgive is to endure shame.
The experience of shame (how I feel about who I am) is easily the most vulnerable point of encounter in our lives. Generally, we cover our shame with any number of layers of protective identity. How we dress, how we speak, how we engage our emotions, how we use our bodies and especially our faces: all of these have a primary purpose of shielding the most vulnerable aspect of our existence. It is only in the safest places with the safest people that our guard is dropped, and we allow a level of naked vulnerability. Most of this operates on an unconscious level. We are armed at all times to shield ourselves from any assault on that vulnerability.
Any foray that another makes into the territory of who we are will immediately provoke a defensive response (in one form or another). Encounters that shame us are deeply provocative. It is in this vein that actions requiring forgiveness involve shame. Everything that we experience as a sin against us, is an action involving shame. The shame is the source of its power and is the engine of our protective efforts. To forgive is to drop our guard and expose the nakedness of our selves. The infraction need not even be a true accusation – it may very well miss the mark of who we truly are. But even as it misses the mark it asserts something about who we truly are and is therefore experienced as an assault.
I contrast this with the many, many experiences we have of painless infractions. Someone accidentally gets in our way, hesitates and says, “Excuse me.” We quickly respond, “It’s nothing. No problem,” or something like that. And what we say is entirely true. Such actions are of no consequence precisely because they are not assaults on our vulnerability (and are not shaming). But imagine standing in line and someone breaks in front of you saying, “I was here first!” We experience such a moment as a dismissal of our importance and our worth. It is shaming, even if it is slight. And now we bear a grudge. We are probably angry, or at least a bit huffy.
Certain epochs in history have given deep expression to this reality. Ancient Greece (in Homer’s time) had a very deep sense of honor and the possibility for its insult. It drove the Trojan War and most of the events within it. It is, however, a universal experience, even if various cultures give it different expression.
It is in understanding this that we can see the importance of Christ words, “Father, forgive them!” This is a profound expression of Christ accepting the shame that was His death on the Cross.
I gave My back to those who struck Me, And My cheeks to those who plucked out the beard; I did not hide My face from shame and spitting. (Isa 50:6-7)
Christ’s voluntary self-offering is far deeper than the simple willingness to have His hands and feet nailed to the Cross. It is much more the shame of being cursed (“cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”) and publicly mocked as a criminal. The gospel accounts of His crucifixion have nothing to say about the pain of crucifixion, but report in lurid detail the mocking jeers of the crowds and those around Him. It is the shame of the Cross rather than its pain that are displayed in the gospel account.
Those mocking taunts are a vivid expression of the intention behind each nail and every blow that was struck. Again, shame is the theme of the crucifixion:
Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. (Isa 53:4)
And it is at that profound point of deepest shame that Christ speaks of forgiving: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” This is absolute vulnerability, total self-emptying. He is utterly willing to endure the shame that is placed upon Him:
He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth. (Isa 53:7)
Every true act of forgiveness that we ourselves engage in, shares this same pattern. It is an act of self-offering, an act of pure vulnerability. It risks saying to the other (or it may feel that we are saying), “You were right. I am who your action says I am. I will make no effort to correct you.” Every instinct to protect ourselves, especially from the frightening wounds of shame, screams out to us that this is something we must not do! We look for some small shred of dignity and protection. We will forgive…if. The “if” sets the condition for forgiveness, and keeps our protective identity in place.
Every time I have written about forgiveness, particularly forgiving everyone for everything, there is an immediate push back. Our collective vulnerability refuses to allow such an affront. We immediately raise objections and issue caveats. Our shame cries out, “Protect me!” We absolutely want to hide our faces from the spitting and the shame. And, as such, we do not want to take up our Cross and follow Christ. We will give many reasons and plead the extenuating circumstances, but they all revolve around the vulnerability of our shame.
Thus, at the beginning of our Lenten journey, the Church invites us into the shame of the Cross. It can only invite, because the Cross can only be born voluntarily. Christ did not come to crucify humanity, but that through voluntarily sharing in His crucifixion we might have His life. And so, we see the ritualized forgiveness of that first Lenten Vespers. It is indeed “bearing a little shame.” We are made more comfortable and courageous by the crowd who share in the same action and by the fact that those of whom we ask forgiveness, will themselves ask forgiveness of us as well.
I have seen, over the years of my Orthodox experience, that every year some few persons within a congregation who will clearly avoid participating in this service. They may bear wounds of shame that are too painful to expose. Some simply find the whole thing embarrassing in the extreme and may describe it as “silly.” That, of course, is the voice of shame. But this also has to be respected. What we are invited into can only be voluntary. Great Lent is not, and must not be, the Church’s efforts to shame us. For this reason, we see in the pre-Lenten Sundays images of those who voluntarily bear their shame (Zacchaeus, the Publican, the Prodigal Son) being welcomed in safety. We are being assured that God will not use our weakness to destroy us.
Forgive me, my brothers and sisters.