Don’t do Lent cold turkey

The parable of the prodigal son. Photo: Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock

Since we are on the subject of “breathing with both lungs lately,” let’s talk about how Eastern rite Catholics practice Lent. Easterners don’t do Lent cold turkey.

Maybe because it’s too hard (read on) or maybe because the Slavs are just that much more devout than us slobs; they start preparing for Lent about a month in advance.

Soon after the Christmas cycle — in which the mystery of the Lord’s incarnation — is celebrated comes to an end, the Easter cycle — in which the mystery of his redemption is celebrated — begins. This is marked on four consecutive Sundays. They are called: the Sunday of the Pharisee and the Publican, the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, the Sunday of Meatfare, and the Sunday of Cheesefare.

The Gospel story of the pharisee and publican (Luke 18:10–14) makes the soon-to-be-penitent aware of the sin of pride, which is an obstacle to all other virtues.

The Gospel of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32) makes the penitent aware that God is a loving, forgiving Father, who, if you can muster even an imperfect sorrow for your sins, will run out, meet you halfway, and throw his arms around you.

The third Sunday in the series is named Meatfare because it is traditionally the last day a Christian would eat meat until Easter (except on Sundays). The Gospel of the day is, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (see Matthew 25:31–46) This brings to mind almsgiving and other works of mercy that every Christian is obliged to practice.

The fourth Sunday is named Cheesefare because it is traditionally the last day a Christian would eat any dairy products until Easter (also, except for Sundays). In other words, everybody was vegan during Lent. The Gospel for that Sunday is about not showing off your fasting and how you have to forgive your brother if you hope to be forgiven yourself (see Matthew 6:14–21) Another name for that Sunday is Forgiveness Sunday.

Forgiveness Sunday is not just a nice sounding name. On the evening of Forgiveness Sunday, the faithful attend forgiveness vespers. After vespers is prayed, each person turns to one another and asks forgiveness for past hurts. Awkward much? But that’s Lent for you. It’s uncomfortable. The whole reason it exists is so that you can change. Quitting sin is uncomfortable. That is why it is not done cold turkey.

During the three weeks prior, you were supposed to be whittling away at your pride, your fear, and your self-indulgence. On the fourth Sunday, just before you go to offer your gift — that is, the gift of your Lenten prayers, sacrifices, and works of mercy — you reconcile with your brother.

Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23–24)

At the beginning of this article,  I used the phrase Eastern rite Catholicism. It needs a little explaining.

Catholicism is Catholicism but there are different ways it is practiced. For much of the Church’s history, East and West practiced Lent quite similarly. You can see it in the Extraordinary Form of the Missale Romanum. There are three weeks of pre-Lent. They are called Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. The funny names are just ordinal numbers in Latin meaning roughly, 70 days before Easter, then 60, then 50. Again, roughly. There are not 10 days in a week. Anyway, the reason for the countdown is to prepare the soon-to-be-penitent for Lent.

Just as Forgiveness Sunday in the East is the last Sunday before Lent begins, Shrove Sunday is the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Perhaps you have heard of Shrove Tuesday, which is another name for Fat Tuesday. In both cases, “Shrove” refers to going to confession. In both East and West, the concept is to ask for and receive forgiveness.

Looking at these traditions helps us to understand the practices in use now in the Ordinary Form of the Missale Romanum. Lent is still about prayer, fasting, works of mercy, and repentence, as much as it ever was, though it may be arranged differently.

For example, rather than Shrove Sunday, Pope Francis has designated March 13–14 as 24 Hours for the Lord. He has asked that churches be open, Perpetual Adoration observed, and confessions be available. You will find the recommendations of the United Conference of Catholic Bishops for all the traditional Lenten practices here.

All are deeply rooted in 2,000 years of lived Catholic liturgical life of both East and West.

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