Journey Into Orthodox Christian Lent
The Orthodox Church's 'Rite of Forgiveness' is an exhilarating kick-start for a time that just gets harder.
I had to apologize to someone Sunday night. In fact, I had to apologize to about a hundred people--one at a time, face to face.
It was great.
For Orthodox Christians, Lent begins differently than it does for Protestants and Catholics. The observance of Ash Wednesday is dramatic and beautiful but is not in the Eastern tradition. For us, Lent comes in gradually over a period of weeks, like a cello line subtly weaving itself into our lives.
Ten Sundays before Easter (or, as we call it, Pascha), we heard the Gospel lesson of the Publican and the Pharisee; before we begin the season of self-denial, we recall that it is futile to boast of self-denial. The Publican's model of repentance is our aim.
To reinforce that lesson, during the following week there is no fasting. The Orthodox pattern is to abstain from meat, fish, and dairy products on Wednesdays and Fridays year round, but this is one of the few weeks that is suspended and feasting is the rule.
The next Sunday we heard the story of the Prodigal Son, perhaps the most beloved parable. The icon of this scene shows the son in worn clothing, with his feet in rags; he cradles his sorry head in one hand, while stretching the other tentatively toward Jesus. There is nothing tentative about Jesus' response--he is running toward the son, his arms open to embrace, and a scroll tumbles from his hand: "For this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found."
Orthodox confess their sins in the presence of a priest year round, but everyone must make a confession in Lent before receiving the Eucharist on Pascha. The awkward pain and embarrassment of admitting our wrongs is the necessary condition for release and joy. Being thoroughly known, yet loved anyway, is life's greatest joy. But you must allow yourself to be thoroughly known.
By the third Sunday, we have reached a watershed. The Gospel readings concern the Last Judgment, and pull no punches. Here is the choice: humility, or the cataclysmic rewards of stubborn pride. This Sunday is also called "Meatfare Sunday"--you eat meat this day, because you won't be eating any for a long time.
During all of Lent, Orthodox strive to abstain from eating certain foods. Our refraining from these foods does not somehow benefit God or make him like us more. Fasting is a form of self-discipline, like lifting weights or jogging. It builds the muscle of self-control. If we can master the temptation to reach for a cheeseburger, we can resist other daily temptations as they come along.