I was recently asked by my protestant friend Alicia Chole to write a little bit about Lent in the Orthodox Tradition. I gave it a little thought, and this is what I came up with:
In the Orthodox Tradition Lent, or the Great Fast, is about expectation and preparation.
To fully understand what Lent means for the Orthodox first you have to understand a bit about Orthodox Easter, known as Pascha (Passover), and the liturgical year. While many traditions have developed in such a way that Christmas becomes the main celebration of the year, for the Orthodox Pascha is always the Feast of Feasts. The liturgical year is anchored by Pascha and all other movable feasts are measured by it. Pascha is preceded by a week of preparatory services known as Holy Week, in addition to the forty days of Lent, and three weeks of pre-Lenten services. All together there are about 50 days of fasting, balanced on the other side with 50 days of feasting until the time of Pentecost. Almost one third of the year is bound up in the process of the celebration of Pascha for the Orthodox Christian.
The Lenten period actually encompasses a few different fast periods that developed over time. The most ancient part of the fast began in the 2nd century with a short, total fast in the time period between the Friday crucifixion and the Sunday resurrection. By the fourth century this had expanded into something more like the current form of holy week, with a set schedule of services and observances, and relaxing the fast to include food for the week. Separately in the 4th or 5th century another fast period began to be observed before Holy Week that served as a time period of intensive instruction for those about to be baptized and illumined in Holy Week, the traditional time of baptism. This fast was a forty day period and by the 5th century had been combined with the Paschal fast to make a single Lenten period. By the 7th century a series of a few preparatory weeks were added before the 40 day fast that includes in part some partial fasting.
While baptisms occur outside of Holy Week now, the Lenten period still serves as a yearly recapitulation of an Orthodox Christians own baptism and a chance to be recatechized. Every year we have the opportunity to renew our commitment and re-enter with the catechumens into the mysteries of Christ. Usually during this time there are additional opportunities to explore the faith than what might be available during the rest of the year.
Of course most people are aware of Lent because of the fast. The Orthodox fast during Lent is basically a vegan diet. Almost all animal products are eliminated from the diet, including meat and dairy, as well as olive oil and wine. On the weekends the fast relaxes a little, and oil and wine are allowed again. One notable difference between Orthodox and Roman Catholic observances of Lent is the common Catholic practice of choosing something to give up for Lent, rather than having a communal fast. The Orthodox church maintains the ancient fasting practices, and does not have a place for individualized fasting. Fasting, like almost all sacred and ascetic practices in orthodoxy, is communal in nature. We are saved in community, as the Body of Christ, and so our ascetic endeavors reflect this. We practice unity among the believers by engaging in the struggle of Lent together, fasting in the same way and at the same time.
Nonetheless, the fasting shouldn’t be viewed as an oppressive action of the many against the individual. While the struggle is something for the entire community, fasting in Orthodoxy is never engaged in as a duty. Fasting is an ascetic practice, meaning it is viewed as spiritual training, much in the same way that lifting weights or running would be for the body. Ever chance to fast has a multitude of spiritual benefits, but is not a burden against Christ’s law of grace. You do not incur a sin guilt or debt by not fasting, but you miss out on a sweet gift of the Holy Spirit to the church that is meant for your inner health. A person who skips all the fasts is not judged, but much like a couch potato will find themselves an easy target for spiritual attack and eventually can lose a sensitivity to God. There are consequences to not fasting (or praying or almsgiving which go along with fasting in Lent), but they are natural consequences, not juridical.
When I became Orthodox the general practice of weekly fasting was not something that I was personally familiar with. I had on occasion fasted, but I would never have considered it a normal part of my life in Christ. However in Orthodoxy you fast most every week, on Wednesday and Friday, as did the ancient church (see the Didache). In fact, fasting is so common that almost half the year could be spent in fasting. Keep in mind, again, that fasting is not a duty to be obeyed, but an opportunity for growth that shouldn’t be wasted. When I began to engage with the Orthodox Christian life the fasting spawned many questions for me. My spiritual father (this can be a priest, monastic, or wise lay person) encouraged me to enter in very slowly, and not to take on too heavy of a burden. This proved to be excellent advice, as you can easily become overly legalistic in your fasting.
Another piece of advice he gave was, “never look at another person’s plate.” Your fast is your own (while still being a communal fast), and you carry what you can bear. On Pascha Saturday night there is a beautiful service that begins at midnight, and always includes a spectacular sermon preached in the late fourth century by a champion of faith, saint John Chrysostom. His word of encouragement was so uniquely powerful that it has been maintained through the centuries, and as far as I know it is the only sermon that is actually included in the rubrics that shape our liturgy. The relevant part of that sermon goes like this:
If any have labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived therefor. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.
And he shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts. And he both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering.
St John here mirrors the beautiful parable of Christ in Matthew 20 to console everyone that no matter how much of the Lenten burden they were able to carry, God accepts it all, both the deed and the intention, with honors.
I said at the beginning that Lent is about preparation and expectation. What we prepare for, and what we expect, is the risen Lord “trampling down death, by death.” Lent is a beautiful invitation for us to travel with the Lord into Jerusalem, to once again live out our baptism, where we have been baptized into Christ’s death (Romans 6:3), go with him through that experience and rise with him once again into the new life of the Church. To experience the magnificence of Holy Week and the resurrection we go through the fast, purging our body and spirit of distractions, and preparing our heart to go with Christ. In my experience that preparation makes the celebratory feast so much grander.
I have yet to fulfill an entire Lenten fast. Like a marathon it requires some practice and I don’t yet have the stamina for it. But like St John said, even if I only enter the preparations at the 11th hour I don’t have to be alarmed. God will accept the last even as the first. I look forward to stretching myself spiritually so that every year I can push further into the gift of Lent, and I’m sure Pascha will be a reward that much richer.