Lent as Observed by Eastern Orthodox Christians

In an earlier essay on Confession, I mentioned that Lent begins with Forgiveness Vespers on the evening of Cheesefare Sunday in the Orthodox Church, as Ash Wednesday is not a part of our tradition. In this essay, I’ll present some of the main features of Lent as experienced by the typical Byzantine rite Christian.

How does Orthodox Lenten Liturgy differ from the rest of the liturgical year?

There are a number of practices particular to Lent in the Byzantine tradition. Let’s begin with the celebration of the Divine Liturgy (Eucharist). In the Byzantine Rite, Eucharist is not celebrated on the weekdays of Lent, with the exception of the Annunciation feast on March 25, because of its high rank among the feasts. Essentially, the Church’s fast includes a fast from offering the Eucharist. Byzantine Lent emphasizes participation in the Liturgy of the Hours. Once or twice a week – parish practices vary – Vespers is served with Holy Communion from the gifts sanctified at the previous Liturgy (the Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts). The service is not like a typical daily office of Vespers because it is a combination of old cathedral vespers fused with the monastic structure familiar to most Orthodox Christians. The Presanctified Liturgy is an opportunity to receive Communion during the week. So, even though the Eucharist is offered with less frequency, there are more opportunities for people to receive it. The Presanctified Liturgy features Psalm 141 – the longer, cathedral version centers on the offering of incense, and in many parishes, sophisticated musical settings are sung or chanted. The assembly typically performs more prostrations during these services as well, lending a penitential tone to the environment.

Many parishes also celebrate the Salutations of the Theotokos (Mary) on Friday evenings. Liturgical devotion to the Theotokos is intensified during Lent. The Eucharistic Liturgy is celebrated on Saturdays and Sundays. The second, third, and fourth Saturdays are designated as memorial Saturdays (or ‘soul’ Saturdays), opportunities for the people to commemorate departed loved ones. Each Sunday has a special theme: Sunday 1 is the Triumph of Orthodoxy (honoring the Incarnation through the historical defeat of iconoclasm); Sunday 2 is devoted to the memory of St. Gregory Palamas; Sunday 3 is devoted to the cross; Sunday 4 to St. John Climacus (of the ladder); and Sunday 5 to St. Mary of Egypt. The commemorations of the Sundays of Lent evince the monastic influence on Byzantine Liturgy, as Lent honors champions of Orthodox theology and beloved ascetics. Note that Sundays are primarily resurrectional, and the lectionary for Sundays is simple, following the Gospel of Mark (with the exception of Sunday 1). The fasting rules of abstaining from meat and cheese are not loosened on Sundays, even though the Church offers the Liturgy and retains resurrection as the primary theme of Sunday.

Finally, it has become customary for parishes to assemble on Sunday evenings for special Lenten Vespers services – in some cases, these offices center on a Gospel lesson on the theme of the cross. According to liturgical scholar Petro Sabat, This service is called a “Passia” office, and it immensely popular in Eastern European Byzantine communities: it originated as a dramatic passion office practiced by Dominican fathers in Poland, and was adapted by the Orthodox Church in the seventeenth century, as Orthodox faithful were drawn to these services in Catholic parishes. Originally affixed to the office of compline, Passia became a part of the Sunday Lenten Vespers tradition among Byzantine rite Christians of Eastern Europe, and it remains popular in the North American context.

Does the Orthodox Church bury ‘Alleluia’ and change colors of vestments during Lent?

No and yes. We actually sing Alleluia more often during Lent, as the Lenten version of daily Matins begins with Alleluias as the psalm refrain. Incidentally, the only time “Alleluia” is replaced is at the Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday, or Paschal Vigil. The Gospel Psalm refrain is Psalm 81 (”Arise o God and judge the earth”) at that Liturgy, a tradition that probably comes from the entrance of neophytes into the Church from the baptistery, who were joining the Eucharistic assembly for the first time to hear the Gospel of resurrection.

At Forgiveness Vespers beginning Lent, the Church is vested in purple, and the clergy wear purple or black vestments. At the weekday offices of lent, clergy wear purple or black; they wear gold for the Saturday and Sunday Lenten liturgies.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann popularized the notion that Byzantine Lent is “bright sadness.” What did he mean? The hymns of Cheesefare Sunday that begin Lent depict Adam sitting outside of paradise, weeping. Throughout Lent, the hymns from the Triodion (the Byzantine Rite’s Lenten hymnal) invite faithful to lament over their sins and receive the mercy of God. It is an opportunity to pass from the old Adam to the new, made possible by the grace of Christ. Perhaps the sadness comes from a process of self-honesty in confessing one’s sins and sinfulness, and the brightness is the possibility of leaving those sins behind, once and for all.

Aesthetics also contribute to the notion of a bright sadness. Many churches use special music for Lenten services, utilizing traditional modes reserved for the fast. Some people believe that the Sunday celebration of the Liturgy of St. Basil is because of the penitential nature of this Liturgy, but it is actually an instance of a “liturgical law” of Anton Baumstark, when older liturgical traditions tent to be preserved in solemn seasons. The Byzantine Church regularly used the anaphora of Basil up until approximately the eleventh century, when the anaphora of St. John Chrysostom became normative.

Bright sadness is evident among the faithful who participate in Lenten worship. On the one hand, it’s impossible to miss the dark churches in the evening, and the picture of an assembly lying prostrate together at the Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts. On the other hand, Lenten worship creates occasions for parish people to come together more often. Lent includes more potlucks, lectures, and retreats among the people. Meals often take place after a local Passia service: one of my favorite memories is the anticipation of tasty ‘kanapky’ (mini-sandwiches with salmon or tuna) following the Passia in the local Ukrainian parish. The coincidence of Lent with spring (in the northern hemisphere) can be a cause for joy. It’s not only a season for sad countenances – a friend who lived in Greece told me that the first week of Lent is a scene of people eating heartily (seafood, of course), flying kites, and playing. One cannot ignore the social dimension of Lent – the season promotes community.

What are the Byzantine scrutinies and other baptismal dimensions of Lenten liturgy?

Unlike the Churches in the West, the Byzantine Churches have not had a renaissance of the restoration of the catechumenate and a variant of the RCIA. Thematically, Lent is a season of ascetical struggle. You might hear about catechumens during Lent, but most “catechumens” are baptized Christians from other Churches seeking reception by the Orthodox Church via Chrismation. In other words, the meaning of “catechumenate” has changed, especially in Orthodox Churches. Today, the “catechumenate” includes people who are already baptized Christians seeking to become Orthodox.

In some places, there has been a rehabilitation of the old Paschal Vigil, known better as the Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday. Some parishes have embraced the old Paschal Vigil as an appropriate time for baptism and Chrismation – the best reason to take all 15 appointed Old Testament lessons, which are clearly baptismal in theme, even if the rubrics of the Great Church in Constantinople advised that the first seven be taken, with the reader jumping to the fifteenth and last reading from Daniel (3:1-57) if the patriarch had finished the baptisms in the baptistery.

But restoring actual baptisms to the Paschal Vigil is the exception, not the norm, despite the noble efforts of liturgical scholars like Peter Galadza, who encouraged this restoration in his critical review essay of Schmemann. Byzantine Lent emphasizes the ascetical struggle – there are no scrutinies, and I have yet to see catechumens actually leave the Church when the deacon commands them to “depart!” The strongest reminder of Baptism is the litany of petitions for those preparing for Baptism (photizomenoi) added to the Presanctified Liturgy on Wednesday of the fourth week in Lent. At the conclusion of this litany, the deacon commands both catechumens and photizomenoi to depart: again, I have yet to see anyone in those orders leave the Church.

The Byzantine Rite does have a particularly intense week of Lent, besides the first one. During the fifth week of Lent, the penitential canon of St. Andrew is sung during Compline. On this week, it is customary to read the vita of St. Mary of Egypt, who is also commemorated on the fifth Sunday of Lent. The commemoration of St. Mary is designed to provide hope for those struggling to fast from the return of sin. Furthermore, the famous Akathistos hymn to the Theotokos is appointed to the fifth Friday of Lent, and Mary is honored on the fifth Saturday, too. The Church’s honor of St. Mary of Egypt and the Theotokos have inspired some to mark the fifth week as the one of the “two Marys” – models of the patient and humble humans all faithful strive to become.

OK, so there is a lot of emphasis on fasting and asceticism. How do people actually observe it?

I’d summarize Lent as experienced by the core groups of people in parishes. Each parish has a core group of people who engage Lent consistently. The dietary regulations of Lent sound hard: going meatless and dairy-less for the whole season, and fasting from olive oil and wine for most of it. Pastors push the fast from the pulpit, and there is a lot of chatter among the people on observing it. In my estimation, among those who observe Lent, the primary theme is the change in diet. People fast in accordance with their ability. Some folks add a day of fasting to the week; others follow the rule with rigor; others ignore it until Good Friday; everyone talks about it.

Some pastors emphasize other forms of fasting over the model of becoming a temporary vegan. One can fast from technology, alcohol, and especially gossip. I have several Ukrainian friends who post photos of their bishop of blessed memory, Metropolitan Volodymyr (Sabodan) of Kyiv, who said simply: “the most important part of Lent is to not eat one another.” I would add to his wise words a lesson about the “other” we can take in a positive way: to actively engage the other, to make amends, to seek peace, to visit the lonely. Making that long-postponed call, sending an e-mail, and putting down the device to play with your kids is no less Lenten than eating mushrooms instead of beef. Yes, some pastors have proclaimed this message; but the obsession with food and dietary regulations result in the temptation to make Lent into an idol.

All of this applies to the core group; many people do not engage the weekday activities of Lent, but continue to attend Church on Sundays. The truth is that there just isn’t much that’s particularly Lenten about Sunday worship, unless those elements are imposed upon the Sunday Liturgy. Many parishes sing the Lenten hymn “Open to me the doors of repentance, o Lifegiver” before Communion, instead of the koinonikon. This hymn is incompatible with the Sunday message of resurrection culminating in partaking of the risen Christ. I know several clergy who view Sunday as non-Lenten day, as it is still the Lord’s Day – they ask, how can the disciples fast when they are with the Bridegroom? We have yet to address this issue as a Church.

If you want to experience Lent in the Byzantine tradition, I recommend attending a Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts or a Sunday vespers (Passia) service in a local parish. As for summarizing its meaning for the people, St. Ephraim the Syrian says it with this eloquent prayer:

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk. (full prostration).

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant. (full prostration)

Yes, o Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother. For Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. (full prostration).


One comment

  1. LOVE “bright sadness”, and encouraging community and learning. The Roman Church could stand some renewal of its Eastern roots…

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