An Eastern Lent: Fasting Prepares the Soul for What Is to Come

A unique look at the living out of these 40 days.

(photo: Pixabay)

Lent is upon us once again — in both Eastern and Western Rites.

How are Lenten practices similar in both rites? How do they differ?

In the Latin or Western Rite, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. But in the Eastern Rite Churches, Lent begins two days earlier, on a Monday — March 4 this year. The difference in dates came about centuries ago. One reason involved the fact that catechumens were baptized before Easter. Both rites baptized catechumens on Holy Saturday; then, slowly, before the seventh century, the Eastern Church moved the baptisms to the Saturday before Palm Sunday. Another difference concerned the number of fast days — both rites fasted 40 days, but the Eastern Catholics considered Holy Week a great fast unto itself. Naturally, Eastern Lent needed to be adjusted to keep the same number of days.

Overall, Eastern Churches offer a uniquely Eastern Lent.

“What we do unique, and particularly the two weeks before Lent begins, is the chief readings are already preparing us for Lent,” said Father Diodoro Mendoza, chancellor of The Holy Protection of Mary Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Phoenix as well as the rector of St. Stephen Byzantine Catholic Cathedral in Phoenix.

First comes the week of Meatfare Sunday, the last week to eat meat, followed by Cheesefare, or Forgiveness, Sunday, to consume the last of the dairy products. The next day begins “Great Lent,” the first day of the “Great Fast.”

Father John Fields, vice chancellor and director of communications for the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, said, “You give up meat and dairy products. Then when you celebrate the Resurrection, these are the foods you bless at the Easter Pascha celebration.”


Unique Liturgy

The liturgy also has unique aspects in the Eastern Churches.

As Father Mendoza said, “We change our colors to a deeper red, or, in some places, to deeper purple. And the hymnology is in minor keys, solemn and haunting … moving you to think and ponder.”

Also distinct is that while the Western Church celebrates Mass daily (except on Good Friday and Holy Saturday morning), the Eastern Tradition does not celebrate the Divine Liturgy weekdays during Great Lent.

“The reason is that you’re fasting,” explained Father Fields. “If you’re fasting, you can’t celebrate the liturgy because that’s the Resurrection. On Wednesday and Friday during the Great Fast you do the Presanctified Liturgy. The bread is consecrated at the Sunday liturgy.”

Father Mendoza also explained how, on the Sunday before Great Lent begins, Eastern churches consecrate three loaves of bread to be prepared for Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.

Father Fields added that the liturgy service includes vespers, readings from the Books of Genesis and Proverbs, and then the Eucharist service commences to distribute to the faithful the Eucharist consecrated on Sunday. After fasting all day, “now you are spiritually nourished with the Eucharist. After the service, you break the fast and go home and eat.” He emphasized that the Presanctified Liturgy attributed to St. Gregory is a beautiful service.

Father Fields pointed out, as part of this beauty, the “parallelism when you begin the Great Fast and the Feast of the Resurrection.” The readings for the Great Fast begin with Genesis and the opening words of the Bible, “In the beginning.” Then, at “the feast of the Resurrection, Pascha, we read John,” he continued, where the opening words are once again, “In the beginning.”

Father Mendoza shared one of the prayers of St. Ephrem the Syrian that is prayed at every celebration of the Presanctified Liturgy. This prayer includes three prostrations: “Lord and Master of my life, spare me from the spirit of indifference, despair, lust for power and idle chatter [first prostration]. Instead, bestow on me, your servant, the spirit of integrity, humility, patience and love [second prostration]. Yes, O Lord and King, let me see my own sins and not judge my brothers and sisters; for you are blessed forever and ever. Amen [third and final prostration].”


Fasting at the Fore

Overall, during the Eastern Lenten season, fasting comes to the fore. Traditionally, all during Lent, Eastern faithful abstain from meat and dairy products, and the first day of Great Lent is also known as “Clean Monday.”

“We do have strict abstinence on Clean Monday and Great and Holy Friday,” explained Father Mendoza. “No one is to eat meat or dairy and its derivatives.” That includes fish with a backbone, which is considered meat.

For Eastern Catholics, however, meat and dairy are allowed for celebration of the Annunciation, when the Divine Liturgy is celebrated.

Abstinence is also key throughout Lent, said Father Mendoza. All Wednesdays, as well as Fridays, are meatless days. “Remember,” he added. “It’s a penitential time for spiritual growth.”

“What you want to do is empty yourself of these things that tie you down,” he added. “You have to fill yourself up with something more life-giving that sustains you — the word of God, the daily readings, the Scriptures, acts of mercy, almsgiving, living out the beatitudes, renouncing the social media. You must choose and invite quiet time, stillness with God. Fill yourself up with him. Go to confession. So you prepare yourself, heart and body and soul, to receive the Lord.”

“You [also] have to leave society to some extent,” he added. “Be present, but not of the society. Instead, you fill yourself with those things that build virtues. Therefore, when confronted with temptations and sin, you can say ‘No’ to them.”

Building virtues requires action, too. Father Mendoza said, “We don’t have the notion Roman Catholic brothers and sisters have [such as] — I gave up watching TV but also have meat for dinner. That’s not something we negotiate. That notion does not exist.” Rather, instead of spending a good amount of money for a steak, the faithful are taught to give that money to the poor in some way, such as for feeding the hungry, whether helping the St. Vincent de Paul Society or buying a homeless person a meal.

“That’s what we encourage,” he said. “That’s where we make the tangible connection.” He also shared that, according to the Byzantine Tradition, St. John Chrysostom taught that the value of fasting lies in the interior. By fasting and penance, “the faithful will withdraw from sin and progress toward greater holiness.” For example, “get off social media and television to go into a moment of preparation for Easter.”

Father Fields also reflects on this proper Lenten attitude and how abstaining should not mean consuming lobster tail in place of meat.

These practices are meant to remind the faithful that they are “composed of body and soul. You give up the one — fasting — so you can concentrate on your spiritual needs and concentrate on the spiritual development. During the Great Fast, you’re really trying to do spiritual exercises for the good of the soul. During this time, you really try to take advantage of all the spiritual services and graces that come so you become spiritually enriched during this time.”

Sundays bring the Divine Liturgy, the sacrifice of the Eucharist. While fasting is not observed on Sundays, for the monthly potluck supper to celebrate anniversaries and birthdays at St. Stephen Byzantine Catholic Cathedral, during Lent, “even Sundays I encourage them to bring meatless dishes,” said Father Mendoza.

The Western Rite also reflects a similar qualification on relaxing Lenten disciplines. The U.S. Catholic bishops note that Sundays of Lent “are certainly part of the ‘Time of Lent,’ but they are not prescribed days of fast and abstinence.” However, “practices for the whole Time of Lent are disciplinary in nature and often more effective if they are continuous, i.e., kept on Sundays as well. That being said, such practices are not regulated by the Church, but by individual conscience.”


Holy Week

The 40-day fasting season ends earlier for the Eastern Church than it does for the Western Church. Father Fields explains that Great Lent ends the Friday evening before “Lazarus Saturday,” which is the day before Palm Sunday. The Great Fast ends there. However, he emphasized, “For us, Holy Week is a week of fast separate from the Great Lent fast, and it’s an intensive fast.”

Overall, Great Lent practices are a boon to parishioners’ faith. Father Mendoza observes how “their demeanor changes, their disposition. Hymns are different. Colors have shifted. The mood has been taken to a deeper, more profound level. We are like Hebrew children navigating through the wilderness and to, ultimately, an encounter with God. That’s what the season does: The whole season is a beautiful way to reflect and to correct ourselves before God and his Church.”

Father Fields encourages everyone to take this time seriously, to “avail themselves of the services of their Church, whatever Tradition, and participate in the season, especially Easter vigil and Pascha, the ultimate feast.”

Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.