Maybe you remember the question this time of year, “What are you giving up for Lent?” This is not a question you will hear from Orthodox Christians. (Not because it’s a bad question; it’s just not our way.)
The Eastern Orthodox Church takes Lent very seriously and does it a little differently than the Western Church, whether Catholic or Protestant. In the Orthodox Churches Lent begins on a Monday, this year on March 11. The fast from meat has already started, one week earlier on the March 4. The full fast is entered into on March 11, which includes dairy and fish, basically, nothing with a backbone is consumed during the entire Lenten season. The exception is on the Day of the Annunciation, March 25, when fish is permitted. (totally 56 days without meat or meat products, I counted.)
The true focus of the Lenten season is God and our neighbors. The purpose of fasting is to eat less and use the money saved to help the poor. It also helps to eat less and “lighter” foods. The soul itself feels lighter and therefore prayer becomes easier. (Food with any blood in it is considered “hotter” or “heavier”.)
This is not about rules, but about a shift in focus, from ourselves and our appetites, to God and almsgiving. The focus is on overcoming self-centeredness to attempt to become more like our Savior Jesus Christ.
Prayer and worship services change as well. They have a more somber tone. They are longer and more frequent. Again, we are looking with more intensity for a change of heart and life.
The heart of the Lenten Season is the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian:
“O Lord and Master of my life, give me not the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk. (A prostration is made.) But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, love to thy servant. (A prostration is made.) Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages.” (Prosration.)
A prostration is the touching of the forehead to the floor, quickly, and then rising, without moving the feet, after crossing oneself.
This ancient prayer is the true spirit of Lent and what we seek to have happen. The season is a long, slow obedience to the ways of our ancestors (St. Ephraim died in 373) who have practiced physical prayer since the early time of the Church.
Are you longing for a break from the stress, anxiety and anger that you see, hear, and feel all around you? Come visit us as we journey through this time of “bright sadness” on our way to the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. (Called Pascha in the East, a Greek word coming originally from the Hebrew word Passover.)
Easter is the celebration of Christ’s Passover from death to Life, (and ours with Him as by His Resurrection He destroyed the power of death). On the day of Resurrection (April 28) we all sing, Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!
Father Stephen Lourie is pastor at Holy Spirit Orthodox Church.