Prepare for a Voyage on the Sea of Lent

The Christian life is a pilgrimage while we are on this earth.

Antonio Muñoz Degrain, “Jesus at the Sea of Galilee,” 1909
Antonio Muñoz Degrain, “Jesus at the Sea of Galilee,” 1909 (photo: Public Domain)

Valentine’s Day this year is a bit different as it falls on Ash Wednesday. However, unlike our Western brothers, those of us in the East are already in the full swing of Lent. In the Eastern Christian tradition, there is a preparation time that begins well before the Lenten season.


Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee (Jan. 21, 2024)

This preparation commences four Sundays in advance with the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee. On this Sunday, the story from Luke 18:9-14 is read, and that week, there is to be no fasting or abstinence, not even on Wednesday or Friday, which is customary in the East. Instead, on these days, we are to “be like the Publican.” We do not have the piety of the Pharisee, but rather, we need the contrition of the publican.

On this Sunday, we sing:

Let us flee from the pride of the Pharisee!
And learn humility from the Publican's tears!
Let us cry to our Savior,
Have mercy on us,
Only merciful One!

We know that it is only through God that man can keep the fast, and so we should not take pride in fasting all year round. It is during this week and this time of not fasting that our total reliance on the saving power of the Cross begins to orient us in preparation for the Great Fast. 


Sunday of the Prodigal Son (Jan. 28)

The next Sunday is the Sunday of the Prodigal Son when Luke 15:11-32 is read. In a sermon addressed to the soul written by St. Ephrem the Syrian for this Sunday, we read:

This story is directed at us! Do you see how much was solved by the son’s lack of embarrassment? Do you understand the Father’s goodness? You, too, Soul: do not hesitate. Knock! Do you need something? Wait at the door and you will receive everything that you require.

In the Eastern tradition, Lent is sometimes called a “Sea.” We are making a voyage, and the Sunday of the prodigal son puts us at the harbor. St. Ephrem the Syrian recognizes this and says:

Are you at rest in the harbor? Ignore the waves, lest you be snatched, all of a sudden, into the depths of the sea by an oncoming storm. Then you will begin to say, with groaning, I am come into the depths of the sea and the squall has plunged me down. I am weary with shouting and my throat is grown hoarse (Psalm 68:3-4). For the abyss of the sea is truly Hades, according to the Lord, who said that there is a great chasm between the righteous and sinners (Luke 16:26).
Therefore, do not condemn yourself to that chasm. Imitate the prodigal son. Leave the city that is in famine. Abandon the misery of the swine.

On this Sunday, we remind ourselves that we have “fed on dark and swinish thoughts when, like the Prodigal, [we] left you, O Savior, and went into a far country.” 


Meatfare Sunday (Feb. 4)

Continuing with this imagery of a voyage across the sea. The following Sunday begins the process of shedding those belongings that could weigh us down, making the ship too heavy in the event of tempest. This Sunday is called the Sunday of the Last Judgment, also known as Meatfare Sunday. Just like the true meaning of carnival is carne vale, Meatfare is “farewell meat.” Lent will not begin in full swing, but this Sunday is the last day of eating meat, and the following week is dedicated to eating up the dairy products that are left in the house.

On this Sunday, we are reminded that the Judgment is coming. But we are headed to the Cross. The faithful sing:

When You, O God, shall come to earth with glory,
All things shall tremble
And the river of fire shall flow before Your judgment seat;
The books shall be opened and the hidden things disclosed!
Then deliver me from the unquenchable fire,
And make me worthy to stand at Your right hand, righteous Judge!

Sailing across the river of fire, the Sea of Lent, we journey to the judgment seat.


Cheesefare Sunday (Feb. 11)

The final Sunday before Lent is called Forgiveness Sunday, or Cheesefare Sunday. And, just as we said farewell to meat the week before, today, we say goodbye to all dairy products until Easter. On this day, we remember the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise and how we are the heirs of death and corruption through original sin.

On this Sunday evening, a special service called Forgiveness Vespers is celebrated. The dismissal at Vespers is an extremely beautiful service. At the end of Vespers, the congregation lines up to venerate an icon and then prostrate before the priest to say, “Forgive me, a sinner.” To which the priest replies, “It is God who forgives. Forgive me.” Then, again, the faithful replies, “God forgives.” After this back and forth with the priest, the faithful repeat this exact exchange with every member of the parish, young and old.


The Sea of Lent

This year, I highly recommend that regardless of one’s liturgical Rite, one adopt this analogy of the “Sea of Lent.” The Christian life is a pilgrimage while we are on this earth. We are wayfarers, not of this world; this place is not our home. On the journey we are taking, we cannot take any of our worldly belongings. Instead, we must shed all we have, so as to make the trip safely.

In the Byzantine Orthos at Pentecost, the faithful sing:

Sailing on a sea made turbulent by worldly cares, engulfed in the midst of my sins and thrown to the monster who devours souls, like Jonah, I cry out to you, O Christ: Rescue me from this deadly abyss!

This hymn reflects our state in this life, and Lent is a microcosm of the journey. 

Father Alberto Reyes has emerged as a critical voice against the extreme poverty and repressive actions of Cuba's police state.

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The Office of Religious Affairs of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba “manages the different aspects of religious life” in the country, as noted in the 2023 Religious Freedom Report of Aid to the Church in Need.