Mourning the Bridegroom — How Byzantine Catholics Approach Lent

Lent is a time to make the ordinary extraordinary again.

“Christ the Bridegroom”
“Christ the Bridegroom” (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

“Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.’” (Mark 2:19-20)

All Christians enter into the Lenten season encouraged to intensify the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. A particular emphasis in the Byzantine tradition is fasting from the Eucharist during the weekdays of the Great Fast (as Lent is called in the East). This may seem a very peculiar practice through Western eyes, however, the ancient practice of fasting from the Eucharist provides a focus on the celebratory nature of the Divine Liturgy and allows for a robust and joyful celebration of Pascha (Easter). It can be beneficial for all Catholics to contemplate the various Lenten traditions in the Church, and this expository article on the Byzantine-Eastern Lenten tradition encourages just that.

Each celebration of the Divine Liturgy (Mass) is a celebration of the Resurrection of Christ and an encounter with the Risen Lord Jesus. Worship is the Bridegroom entering the marriage feast. By its very nature, the Divine Liturgy cannot be mournful or penitential. While certainly there are aspects of penance contained within the Church’s various liturgies, these penitential elements give way to the exuberant joy of the Resurrection. Briefly said, “We cannot fast while the Bridegroom is with us.”

It is for this reason that the Apostolic practice of aliturgical days during the weekdays of Lent has been maintained in the East. On aliturgical days, the Divine Liturgy is not offered. In contemporary Latin-Rite Catholic practice, the only aliturgical day is Good Friday. For the East, the whole of Lent is aliturgical, save for Saturdays, Sundays and major feasts (i.e. the Annunciation). This is not to say that the East is devoid of the graces available through Holy Communion during the weekdays of Lent. On Wednesdays and Fridays, the service of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is offered.

The text of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is credited to St. Gregory Dialogos (St. Gregory the Great), who likely learned a version of this Liturgy from his time as papal legate to Constantinople.

The Liturgy begins with Vespers and maintains a solemn penitential character. The lack of a Eucharistic Prayer (Anaphora), as in the usual Divine Liturgy, helps to maintain a somber focus. The Liturgy is also celebrated in complete darkness, save for the flicker of candlelight from around the Church. Holy Communion is distributed to the clergy and faithful from the consecrated gifts from the previous Divine Liturgy. The Presanctified Gifts are processed around the Church and up the center aisle. Congregants make a full prostration as the Holy Gifts pass by.

Those who experience this liturgical service are struck by the solemn, somber, and penitential character of the liturgy. While one cannot remove the Resurrectional tone from any reception of Holy Communion, this theological emphasis gives way to the image of the Manna in the desert. Christ provides himself as sustenance for our spiritual journey through Lent, as a foretaste and promise of the full Paschal joy that is to come.

The prayers prior to Holy Communion during the Presanctified Liturgy have a decidedly penitential tone:

You have beguiled me with yearning, O Christ, and by love divine transformed me. Consume my sins in ethereal flame, and let me be filled with the sheer delight of You, O Gracious Lord, that leaping for joy, I may magnify both Your Advents.
How shall I, so unworthy, come into the splendor of Your Saints? If I make bold to enter the bridal feast, my clothing will reproach me since it is not a wedding garment. Then I shall be bound and cast out by the angels. In Your love, Lord, purge my soul and save me.
Loving Master, Lord Jesus Christ my God, let not these holy gifts become a judgment against me because of my unworthiness, but for the cleansing and sanctification of both soul and body, and as a pledge of the future life and the kingdom. It is good for me to cling to God, to place in Him my hope for salvation.
(From the text of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, Greek-Orthodox recension

Even in our liturgical exercise, there is an important Lenten element of asceticism. The connection between liturgy and asceticism is an important element to stress in our modern age. (Dr. David Fagerberg has a wonderful book called On Liturgical Asceticism but that is for another time.) Often, our celebration of Liturgy has become so casual as to the exclusion of any ascetical emphasis or has become so formal as to the exclusion of joy, that we have become polarized in our liturgical approach. The liturgical cycle, maintained in the Christian East, allows for a consistent movement of ascetical effort punctuated by Paschal foretaste. The weekly Presanctified Liturgies lead to the Sunday celebration of the Divine Liturgy — our fasting from the fullness of liturgical expression leads to the communal celebration of the Eucharist on the Lord’s day. The Byzantine Churches use the Anaphora of St. Basil (as opposed to the Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom used during the rest of the year) on the Sundays of Lent.

The change to the Anaphora of St. Basil also marks a liturgical movement of penitential anticipation, in the sense that we break from the usual during the Lenten season. The Eucharistic Prayer (actually more ancient than the Chrysostom Anaphora) is beautiful and marked with an emphasis on salvation history. St. Basil begins in the Garden with the Fall but transitions through the Old Covenant — “You [God] spoke through the mouths of your servants the prophets, you worked mighty sighs through your saints who were pleasing to you in every age.”

This movement gives way to the Advent of Christ — “And after he had cleansed us with water and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, he gave himself up as a ransom to death by which we had been held for having been sold under sin; and through the cross, he went down into Hades that he might fulfill all things, and loosed the fangs of death.” Shortly following this comes the words of institution and the Epiclesis. The change to the Basilian Anaphora during the Lenten season can be called a kind of fasting, in that we break from the usual and widen our perspective in order to prepare ourselves to enter more deeply into that which may have become familiar.

Overall, the Byzantine approach to the Eucharist during the season of the Great Fast is one of beauty, balance and organic progression. The bodily discipline of fasting extends even to our Eucharistic participation. Bodily fasting is opened and accentuated by spiritual fasting and the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts reveals to us a light from the prism of the Eucharist which we don’t contemplate at other times. We approach the Eucharist with joyful sorrow — sorrow for our sins with a hint of the joyful reconciliation of Pascha. We must restrain our joy until then! This is another kind of fasting. Our Sunday celebration breaks the routine of the year and, while St. Basil’s prayer is filled with Paschal joy, it is buffered by the penitential reality of the need of Christ’s cross. Again, not that these elements are absent from other times of the year, nor from the Church’s other liturgical expressions. All that is being advanced, for the edification of our readers, is the Byzantine-Eastern ancient tradition of Lent as a point of contemplation for all Christians to accentuate your own Lenten journey.

Lent is a time to make the ordinary extraordinary again. To take what may have lapsed into routine and make it a point of encounter again. To exercise the fullness of our fast and bodily restraint to blossom into the fullness of Paschal joy.

Perhaps the balance of the Lenten liturgical cycle in the Byzantine East might have a positive influence on the West? I certainly believe that observation of the East’s “joyful sorrow” in our Lenten Eucharist piety could help revive the Church’s teaching on the Real Presence. In an age when so many professed Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, something needs to be done.

The connection between belief and fasting is an important connection. When we disconnect bodily preparation from our celebration of the Eucharist, there is a danger of losing solemnity. When our reception of the Holy Eucharist becomes too routine, we risk viewing the Eucharist as commonplace. The Byzantine Lenten approach — with its organic progress from penance, punctuated with Paschal signposts — then blossoms into the full joy of the Paschal Divine Liturgy and shouts of “Christ is Risen!” The connection between loss of belief in the bodily Resurrection of Christ and his Real Presence in the Eucharist is a tragic loss due to the demonic attacks of modernism.

The ancient tradition of the Byzantine East regarding Lent is worth taking a look at. It is neither better nor worse than the Western tradition. What does need to be done is for the Church to breathe through our Lenten journey with both lungs. If you’re a Latin-Rite Catholic and have never attended an Eastern Catholic Lenten service, then try it. If you’re Byzantine, go to the Stations of the Cross. I believe that the more we learn from one another and live liturgically with one another, we can recover much of what has been lost among the salvific doctrines of our Faith.

[My thanks to Archimandrite Nicholas of Holy Resurrection Monastery for his assistance in writing this article.]

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