Massacre on Ash Wednesday? Now, Orthodox believers shot leaving Forgiveness Vespers

A few days ago, I expressed surprise that more mainstream journalists didn't recognize the poignant ties between the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and the ancient Western Christian traditions linked to Ash Wednesday.

The bottom line: How many of the dead and wounded had, earlier that day, attended rites in which a priest marked their foreheads with ashes in the sign of the cross? This was done, of course, to remind them of their mortality as they began the great spiritual journey through Lent to Easter. Thus, priest say: "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

How many of those caught up in the massacre had planned to go to Ash Wednesday services in the hours after school dismissed? Did reporters attend any of those services that evening?

I was assuming, of course, that an ordinary local South Florida newsroom -- or national-level newsrooms -- would include a few Catholics, Episcopalians or Lutherans who would immediately recognize the timing of this tragedy.

A few did. Many more did not.

Now we have a similar Lent-related story from the other side of the world. Here is the top of a typical report, at FoxNews.com:

Five women were killed and several others were injured after a gunman opened fire with a hunting rifle on people leaving a church service in Russia's Dagestan region on Sunday, Russian media outlets reported.
The shooting took place outside a church in Kizlyar, a town of about 50,000 people on the border with Chechnya. ... The gunman was shot dead by police responding to the scene, a law enforcement source told the Interfax news agency. According to Interfax, the gunman has been identified as a local man in his early 20s.

The timing? Well, the report noted that this was an evening service and:

Parishioners were at the church celebrating the end of the Russian festival of Maslenitsa, a holiday which marks the start of Lent for Russian Orthodox Christians, according to RT.

An Orthodox Christian reader sent me this item, which I read within minutes of walking in the door after services at St. Anne Orthodox Parish here in Oak Ridge, Tenn. For the reader, this story raised an obvious, powerful question: Did these people die immediately after taking part in Forgiveness Vespers?

Now, let me stress that I realize that very few newsrooms would contain journalists who know the fine liturgical details of life in Eastern Orthodox Christianity (even though Orthodoxy is the world's second largest Christian communion, after the church of Rome). Eastern Christianity is not a major player in American public life, like Catholicism. I get that.

So I share this material to remind journalists that it always pays, when faced with tragedies of this kind, to always ask questions about the details of church traditions and rites that surround them. There are often factual details that add power and depth to stories of this kind.

So what is Forgiveness Vespers, other than the moment with the Orthodox step into Great Lent?

To answer, let me point readers toward a 1998 commentary during NPR's "All Things Considered" by my friend Frederica Mathewes-Green (the wife of my family's priest during our decade-plus in the Baltimore area). Frederica is an internationally known Orthodox writer. Here is the opening of her short NPR piece:

On the first night of Lent, as Vespers comes to an end, my husband turns from the altar. He asks everyone to form a circle around the interior of the church, and when we’re in place, the person next to him -- in this case, our son David -- steps over to face his dad. My husband crosses himself, bows to David, then says, "Forgive me, my brother, for any way I have sinned against you. " David says, "I forgive you," and they embrace. Then it’s David’ s turn to bow to his dad and ask the same question, and receive the same forgiveness and embrace.
The ancient rite of forgiveness has begun. David steps to the next person in line to repeat the exchange, and a different parishoner faces my husband; before the evening is over every single person here will have asked for and received forgiveness from every other.
Orthodox Christians have done this for centuries, every year on the first night of Lent, to cleanse past wounds and allow a fresh start. ...
From this night to Easter morning a desert stretches, but it has begun with light.

It is, for many, one of the year's most powerful moments -- a wave of hope showing that we can forgive others and receive forgiveness in return. We seek forgiveness and it is granted. We forgive, as God forgives.

Now, to experience this glimpse of heaven and then to walk through the church doors and face a gunman who is prepared to kill everyone he faces and die in the process?

There's more. The Guardian report, using material from Agence France-Presse, contained more specific information, including possible links to ISIS:

Five women were shot dead in an apparent Islamist attack on an Orthodox church in Russia’s North Caucasus region of Dagestan on Sunday.
According to local press reports, an unidentified gunman fired at worshippers in the small town of Kizlyar in the mainly Muslim region. At least five other people, including two Russian police officers, were wounded in the attack, which took place after a service to mark the start of Russian Orthodox Lent. ...
The Russian RBK daily quoted an Orthodox priest as saying the attacker had opened fire on churchgoers following an afternoon service. “We had finished the mass and were beginning to leave the church. A bearded man ran towards the church shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ and killed four people,” Father Pavel said. “He was carrying a rifle and a knife.”

Like I said, I do not think there would have been many journalists on the wire desks in American newsrooms who would have connected the dots on this story -- even though the reports did note that this Sunday was the start of Lent.

But what about correspondents based in Russia and in this specific region, people who are expected to learn the details of life there and understand the traditions and symbols that are all around them? Had anyone ever heard of Forgiveness Vespers? Did anyone even do a basic Internet search for the term "Maslenitsa"?

Just asking.

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