The candles have been lit, the lights have been dimmed, and smoke from the burning incense is billowing out of the small censer perched on the mantle of our family altar. I quickly finished up the task I was working on as moments later my husband called us together for our annual family tradition of Family Forgiveness Night on the evening of Forgiveness Sunday where we ask forgiveness from each individual in our family during our bedtime prayers. This is a tradition in our family which started a year after our middle boys moved into our home. We were unable to go to Forgiveness Vespers that night because several of our kids were sick but we still wanted to participate in this tradition at the beginning of Lent.
My husband led our evening prayers and then we gathered in a circle from youngest to oldest. Gabriel was passed around to each of us and since he cannot say any words yet, we simply kissed him. Each year, our children set the tone for this tradition, without our influence, since we go last. We give them the choice of simply saying, “please forgive me” or saying “please forgive me for…”. It’s their choice regardless of their age. It’s not about making them feel obligated or uncomfortable. While, this year, one of our children had a hard time muffling the giggles, another child was a puddle of tears and sobs. The dynamics change from year to year depending on the circumstances and ages of the kids.
As tears streamed down this child’s cheeks, I asked this child why they were crying. (I knew but I wanted the opportunity to talk about it.) This child told us, “I’m mad at myself for doing the things I did.”
I looked into this child’s eyes and said, “We just forgave you. All of us. None of us are mad at you anymore. Tomorrow is a fresh start for you.”
Tears were wiped away and we ended our evening prayers with taking turns anointing one other’s forehead with holy water. (This is something our boys started after asking us several years ago if they could make the sign of the cross on our foreheads with holy water.)
There’s something about asking for each other’s forgiveness while in the privacy of our own homes without others watching. It allows for the tears to flow freely. It permits a choked up apology. It enables my husband and myself to show our children that we are not perfect as we ask forgiveness from them personally as we stand before them eye to eye. It lets our children see that their mom and dad recognize that we make mistakes too – even with each other – and we strive to not make those same mistakes again as we ask each other for forgiveness.
It is a time of healing. It is a time of letting our kids know that emotions are okay to share with their family. We’re here to support them and help them. There’s no need to bottle it up and allow themselves to become bitter and wounded. This is a time of family soothing – deep down inside each one of us. The change in mood last night was palpable.
Afterwards, the boys were unusually reflective and inquisitive. They asked questions about certain icons on our family altar. They asked about their birth parents. They asked questions about Lent and we talked about our family goals. We told them stories about fighting to keep them together instead of being separated in the foster system. (More tears shed.) We shared with them why we tweaked their names when we adopted them. (You should have seen the proud, joyous smiles emerge on their faces!) Les and I talked to them for at least 45 minutes after prayers because they kept asking us questions!
This family tradition is one that is near and dear to our hearts.