Eastern rite Lent: Pray early and often

"The Crucifixion" by Theophanes the Cretan (1490–1559). Photo: Holy Monastery of Stavronikita/Public Domain

Today we will not be talking about a who but a what. Let’s get down with Lent!




What Father is chanting in Old Slavonic is:

You suffered greatly for us

Jesus Christ, Son of God

Have mercy on us

Just as in the West, Lent in the Eastern rite is focused on penance for sin and in solidarity with Our Lord in his passion and death. But first, a prerequisite …

Forgiveness. If we want forgiveness for our own sins, we must forgive one another. That’s the gospel truth. Our Lord himself tell us so in Matthew 18 from the parable of the unforgiving servant. The day before Lent begins is called Forgiveness Sunday. In the late afternoon, at vespers, priest and parishioners approach each other and exchange forgiveness. Are you supposed to name names, details, and dates? Not necessarily. You just need to mean it when you say, “Please forgive me,” and “I forgive you.” Awkward? Oh, yes. Lent is not about comfort. Speaking of being uncomfortable …

Fasting. In the East, Lent begins on a Monday, a full (or rather hungry) two days before Ash Wednesday. Stock up on kale and chickpeas because you can’t eat meat or dairy products at all on Great Monday. This is challenging if you’re not used to it but it is nothing to the way the old timers used to practice Lent which was to give up these foods the whole 40 days. This was true in the West, as well which is why another name for Fat Tuesday is carnivale — literally “Goodbye, meat.” It’s easier now. Modern calendars have a large fish swimming across the Friday square and a small one swimming across Wednesday. The big fish means that abstaining from eating meat is required on pain of sin. The small fish means: May we recommend the fish?

Good Friday is again meatless and dairyless, and Holy Saturday is meatless. Since we are discussing the days of the week let’s talk about …

Sunday. East or West, Sunday is not a day of Lent. So forget the notion that it’s a “cop out” to “take Sunday off.” You are supposed to feast. St. John Paul II in his apostolic letter Dies Domini (The Lord’s Day) reminds us that Sunday is a “weekly Easter” and quotes St. Augustine: “Fasting, is set aside” (Dies Domini, 55).

Didn’t somebody once say: “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” (Mark 2:19)

So just as fasting is appropriate on Fridays throughout the year to commemorate Our Lord’s passion and death, feasting is appropriate on Sundays throughout the year. If you still don’t believe me or St. John Paul II or Jesus, go to the nearest calendar and count the 40 days of Lent beginning on Ash Wednesday. If you skip all the Sundays, the last day of Lent is exactly Holy Saturday. Yeah, this means that Lent is 42 days for Eastern rite Christians. Forty is a round number. Besides, everything just takes longer. You think I’m kidding? We haven’t even started talking about …

Special Lenten services. There are so many. The Divine Liturgy on Sunday is the significantly longer Liturgy of St. Basil. Another oft-seen service is the Akathist, which is a long hymn in honor of the Mother of God. But our family’s favorite is The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. On any weekday in the East you will not find a Divine Liturgy in which the priest consecrates the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. In Lent, that is reserved for Sundays (which also proves what I was saying).

On Wednesdays and Fridays, you have instead a Divine Liturgy in which the Holy Eucharist is brought forth from the tabernacle in a solemn procession from a side door in the iconostasis (icon screen to you and me) and then through the Royal Doors in the center to be worshipped on the altar. Then the faithful may receive holy Communion. We feel transported back in time to the Old Testament foundations of our faith, to the time of longing for the Savior. This liturgy is rich with the chanting of psalms and petitions and punctuated by solemn prostrations. Speaking of which …

Prostrations. The above video shows only the first one but prostrations always come in threes in honor of the Blessed Trinity. And because it takes longer —  just kidding. Prostrations involve kneeling and then bowing to the floor — and if you’re in the mood, giving the dirt a brotherly kiss. A related form of reverence is a deep bow from the waist while standing. Kneeling is not traditional, though you do see kneelers in Eastern churches, along with Stations of the Cross, both of which came from the West. After the prostrations which follow Lenten liturgy, it still may be too soon to put your coat on because of …

Sorokousty. This funny name means “40 mouths” after the custom of having 40 monks praying for the departed souls. Rather than dedicating the month of November to all souls, the souls of the faithful departed are remembered in the context of Lent. As with many Eastern rite practices, the theology is the same: “atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin” (2 Maccabees 12:46).

After Divine Liturgy, the priest stands in front of the iconostasis and chants the names of all the deceased family members of the parishioners. Depending on the size of the parish, this could take until the next morning. Every priest I’ve ever seen makes up for that by running all the names together like this:

“Let us pray for the repose of the souls of the servants of God, of the Kolisnychenkonyksky family: Mary,Anna,Bogdan,Maria,Ivan,Mary,Anna,Andriy,Anna,Mary,Maria and …” deep breath … “Olga! Who have fallen asleep and for the forgiveness of their sins and offenses both voluntary and involuntary.”

All of these names, in which Mary and Anna figure prominently, represent people who used to occupy the same pews as their relations who are now praying for their souls. It is a reminder that they are still part of us, as members of the Communion of the Saints. Where would any of us be without the faithful who came before us and showed us the way? Probably still murdering our enemies most creatively and efficiently.

What can we do to be worthy of our rich heritage and pass it down to our own children? Lent provides ample opportunities to ponder those questions.

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