For many Eastern Christians, Lent is embraced as a time for the renewal of repentance, fervent seeking after God, and increased love and concern for our neighbor. After a few weeks of preparation for Lent (also known as the Great Fast) we begin this period of bright sorrow, a forty day period leading up to Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and finally Pascha, Easter, or the Feast of all Feasts.
I say bright sorrow because joy and sorrow are kept in tension. We experience sorrow because of the suffering endured by our Lord in the Crucifixion. But at the same time we experience joy because we know the end of the story: Christ is risen from the dead and by His death he has trampled upon death, and to those in the tombs, He has given life!
The Church in her wisdom, over centuries, developed this season of fasting in preparation for a season of feasting. It is generally understood that the traditional fast, handed down through generations, is to abstain from meat and dairy for the whole of Lent and limit food and drink to one or two small meals a day (yes, no snacking), and only after a certain hour (the details are a little more complicated and vary from church to church). In order to observe this fast, one needs will power, preparation, and devotion to the precepts of the Church. For the young and healthy, it is recommended that we put forth a valiant effort to observe the Great Fast according to the tradition of the Church, but the degree of observance is a personal matter worked out in the conscience of the believer and in dialogue with his or her parish priest or spiritual guide. On the one hand, the person who fasts can reap rewards from Great Lent. On the other hand, the church does not shame those who don’t fast, but he or she has lost a great opportunity.
There are a few reasons I have heard for why Eastern Christians fast the way we do. Some are related to Genesis. One of God’s first commands concerns fasting: “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (Gen. 2:17). God created the world and everything in it, and he gave trees, their seeds and fruit to man for food (cf. Gen. 1:29). It is not until after the Fall that humanity begins to eat the flesh of animals. Some say that not eating animal products during Lent is symbolic of our return to Paradise, to Eden, to our state before the Fall. Another, more practical, reason for fasting the way we do is to remind ourselves of our dependence on God. Every time I have to plan a meal around fasting or put down a snack I automatically picked up, I am reminded of God and the fact that I belong to Him, and not to my belly. In addition, there is frequent exercise of will power in order to observe the inconvenience of fasting. This is a sort of practice or exercise so that when I am confronted with sin, I am stronger and better able to choose what is good and reject evil.
In order to warn the faithful of the dangers of pride mingled with works of righteousness, the Church has placed before the beginning of the Great Fast the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. The gospel reading is a parable about two men who enter the Temple to pray: one, a Pharisee, having performed righteous deeds, in his arrogance boasts to God of the good things he has done, and thanks God for not making him like sinners; while the other, a Publican, having no righteous deeds to bring before God, begs for mercy. Jesus tells his disciples that it was the Publican who walked away justified in his humility before God. The parable also “shows that when righteousness, which is marvelous in every other respect and sets a man close to God, takes pride as its companion, it casts that man down into the lowest depths” (Blessed Theophylact, The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to St. Luke).
St. Paul, in his first epistle to the Thessalonians called the followers of the Lord to “pray constantly” (1 Thess. 5:17). Eastern Christians, in particular the monastics, have spent centuries struggling to understand and practice the meaning of this teaching. Lent becomes a season for increased efforts in dialoguing with God and in being with God both in silence and in worship. If we can not attain to unceasing prayer because of our current state in life, at least we can spend more time in the awareness that we are in the presence of God, no matter where we are or what we are doing.
The Church provides opportunities for frequent communal prayer during the Great Fast. It is likely that you could find more prayer services at an Eastern Church over the course of Lent and Holy Week than at any other time during the year. There is also a call to more fervent personal prayer: a call to an increased devotion to a rule or to the Jesus Prayer (a short prayer that can be repeated throughout the day, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner.”) Many pastors call their flocks to turn off the television, or the computer, and instead to read the Scriptures and find time for silence.
St. Paul also exhorts married couples concerning the marital act: “do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again” (1 Cor. 7:5). Many faithful husbands and wives over the centuries have observed sexual abstinence for the whole of Lent in order to devote more thought and time to God.
In preparation for the Great Fast, on the last Sunday that meat is permitted (ten days before Ash Wednesday), the gospel reading from Matthew is about the Last Judgment. Here, Jesus gives to the Church the implied command to perform corporal works of mercy: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matt. 25: 35-36). Lent becomes an opportunity to make a greater effort to see Christ in the poor, the suffering, and the stranger, in the least among us.
On the last Sunday that dairy is permitted (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday), the gospel reading, again from Matthew, teaches us how to give alms: “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:3). Blessed Theophylact interprets the left/right hand to mean, “Let not your vainglory be aware of your almsgiving” (The Explanation: The Holy Gospel According to Matthew).
The Pharisees are often portrayed as wicked in the gospels: they are proud and rigid and they are fierce persecutors of Jesus and the disciples. At the same time, the Pharisees also fast, give alms and pray. They are zealous for the traditions of their fathers and the strict observance of the Law; Jesus tells us: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 5:20). But righteous works must be yoked with faith, love and humility; external observance of the commandments is not enough. Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites, or ‘actors’, who are “like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Mat. 23:27).
During this season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, let us imitate the Pharisee in his virtues and the Publican in his humility; and also fasting not only from food and drink, but also from sin, from gossip, jealousy and anger! In the words of St. John Chrysostom: “what good is it if you don’t eat meat or poultry, and yet you bite and devour your brothers and sisters?”