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Choral Corner #14: What is Forgiveness Vespers, and why do we sing Paschal music at the end of it?

Forgiveness Vespers is a unique form of Sunday Lenten Vespers served on the Sunday of the Expulsion from Paradise, otherwise known as Cheesefare Sunday. As Vespers is the first service of the Orthodox liturgical day, Forgiveness Vespers is the first service of Great Lent. The Lenten transition happens after the Great Prokeimenon ("Turn not Thy face from Thy servant, for I am afflicted. Hear me speedily; attend to my soul, and deliver it." — Psalm 68), when the vestments and liturgical linens are changed from light to dark, and the choir begins singing Lenten Melodies.

After the dismissal comes the beautiful Rite of Mutual Forgiveness, during which we personally reconcile with everyone present, so that we may enter the Fast in humility and tenderheartedness. During this ceremony, the choir quietly sings the Paschal Stichera ("Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered"). Why, at the outset of our Lenten pilgrimage, are we already singing hymns of the Resurrection?

Inside chronos time, the time of ticking clocks and calendars that is itself part of creation, Great Lent has just begun. Outside of created time, however, Christ is already risen, having become both the source and goal of our struggle. This is why we never say "Christ has risen," (although He certainly did, about 2,000 years ago!), but "Christ is risen." Yes, our Lord's Resurrection occurred at a specific time in human history, and is commemorated on a specific day every year, but it is also truly an eternally present reality. In Greek, this is one example of the dramatic aorist tense, which describes a complex action as happening in the present to emphasize its certainty, even if part of all of that action has already occurred in chronos time.

As we strive to make a good new beginning, embarking on the course of the Fast in loving peace with all people, we draw strength from the assurance that Christ has already shattered the gates of hell, shattering and destroying its power (Resurrection Kontakion, Tone 7), delivering His people from bondage to the enemy, so that we may obtain to the glorious liberty of the children of God (Romans 8:21).

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