SAD TO SAY, there are sincere believers who come to confession because they feel it is easier to repent before God than it is to apologize to people they have hurt! After all, God always forgives and the priest doesn’t try to make you feel embarrassed.
On the contrary, a sincerely repentant encounter with Christ, whether in confession or in the Eucharist, assumes that penitents have already repented to those whom they have offended. There is no greater sign of the authenticity of a person’s repentance than the willingness to do something concrete about it. Similarly there is no greater sign that a “penitent” is deceiving himself when he tries to apologize to God while avoiding the person he offended.
Back in the 1970s teenager Michael Goodman mugged another youth, Claude Soffel, on a New York City street and stole his bus pass. Memory of the incident never left Goodman’s conscience. Thirty-five years later he recognized his victim’s name on a Facebook posting and expressed his repentance online.
“You may not remember this (about 1976 or ’77),” Goodman wrote, “but a long, long time ago… trying to look like a tough guy… I walked up to you and mugged you for your bus pass. I have never forgotten the incident or your name. Finally I can say I’m very sorry.”
Some time later the victim, Mr Soffel, replied: “Clearly you’re a bigger man today. I recognize your name now as well. So, apology accepted. So let us now, jointly put this in its proper place, behind us.”
We do not know whether either of these men are believers, but since their story went viral they have become role models for repentance and forgiveness in the cyber world.
Repenting in Our Liturgy
Repenting to one another has an important place in our liturgical tradition, based on the injunction of Christ that wrongs should be righted before coming to worship God: “Therefore if you are bringing your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:24).
In the Divine Liturgy, having brought our gift before the altar, we are reminded, “Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess the Father, the Son…” At this point the greeting of peace would be exchanged: priests with priests, deacons with deacons and laypeople with one another. These days, the greeting is generally exchanged only among the clergy. In some churches you may still see people moving without ostentation through the congregation, asking forgiveness before approaching the holy mysteries! In other churches the greeting “Christ is in our midst – He is and ever shall be!” is exchanged without any accompanying gesture.
A moving response to Christ’s injunction is observed as we begin the Great Fast every year. The first service of the season climaxes with the rite of forgiveness. People approach the priest one at a time and each asks the other’s forgiveness for any way they may have offended each other during the year. The worshippers then ask one another’s forgiveness, forming a large a circle around the church until all the members have expressed their repentance to one another. Not surprisingly, this service has come to be known as “Forgiveness Vespers.”
Repentance Calls for Forgiveness
As difficult as directly expressing our repentance might be, extending forgiveness to others may be even more demanding for even committed church members. Offenses, whether real or imagined, can prey on one’s mind for years; grudges nursed for decades. Yet the words of Christ in the Gospel could not be clearer, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14, 15).
“Yes,” you may say, “but you don’t know what she did to me!” Other people’s sins may seem unforgivable, but once we take a step toward forgiving them, well who knows what might happen.
In 1944, the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s mother took him from Siberia to Moscow. They were among those who witnessed a procession of twenty-thousand German war prisoners marching through the streets of Moscow:
“The pavements swarmed with onlookers, cordoned off by soldiers and police. The crowd was mostly women – Russian women with hands roughened by hard work, lips untouched by lipstick, and with thin hunched shoulders which had borne half of the burden of the war. Every one of them must have had a father or a husband, a brother or a son killed by the Germans. They gazed with hatred in the direction from which the column was to appear.
“At last we saw it. The generals marched at the head, massive chins stuck out, lips folded disdainfully, their whole demeanor meant to show superiority over their plebian victors.
“‘They smell of perfume, the bastards,’ someone in the crowd said with hatred. The women were clenching their fists. The soldiers and policemen had all they could do to hold them back.
“All at once something happened to them. They saw German soldiers, thin, unshaven, wearing dirty blood-stained bandages, hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of their comrades; the soldiers walked with their heads down. The street became dead silent — the only sound was the shuffling of boots and the thumping of crutches.
“Then I saw an elderly woman in broken-down boots push herself forward and touch a policeman’s shoulder, saying, ‘Let me through.’ There must have been something about her that made him step aside. She went up to the column, took from inside her coat something wrapped in a colored handkerchief and unfolded it. It was a crust of black bread. She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of a soldier, so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet. And now from every side women were running toward the soldiers, pushing into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had. The soldiers were no longer enemies. They were people.”
A Precocious Autobiography, Yevgeny Yevtushenko (Collins, London)
O Lord, the light of Your grace has risen and shines upon our souls. Behold, now is the acceptable time: the season of repentance is here. Let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, that we may pass through the Great Fast as through a great sea, and reach the goal of the third-day Resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Lord and the Savior of our souls!