St. Irene
Virgin and Great Martyr
Byzantine Catholic Church

 

LENT

Frequently Asked Questions about Lent and Fastg
by Fr. Kurt Burnette

This is a new FAQ, and is not quite finished.

What is Lent?

Lent is a period of extra prayer, fasting, and penance once a year in preparation for Easter, the feast of the Holy Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Lent is a little over 40 days long. Lent is one of the four periods of fasting in the Byzantine year, and therefore, it is sometimes called Great Lent in our Church. Lent comes from an ancient English word which means Spring. The other three traditional fast periods are two weeks before the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul on June 29, two weeks before the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God on August 15, and 40 days before Christmas. The fast before Christmas is also called the Philipovka, which means little Philip, because it begins on November 15 which is the day after the Feast of St. Philip.

What is Fasting?

Fasting is a voluntary renunciation of food or other pleasures. Fasting from food is a traditional means of attaining spititual growth and closeness to God. Fasting creates a sense of dependence on God, and thankfulness for life's necessities. Fasting is recommended many places in the Bible. Jesus said that His followers would fast. (Matt 9:15, Mark 2:20, Luke 5:35) It was also recommended by Jesus by his own example. (Matt 4:2, Mark 1:13, Luke 4:2) Fasting was also associated with ordinations in the early Church. (Acts 3:1-3) The Apostle Paul fasted. (2 Cor 6:5 & 11:27) Many early Christians also fasted from water, but this is not recommended nowadays. Experience has shown that fasting from water can be very dangerous. Fasting is not intended to damage the health, and in fact, endangering one's health is forbidden by the Ten Commandments. Fasting is especially recommended and valuable to Americans who are the wealthiest and most pampered people in the history of man.

Why Forty Days?

The main reason that the principal fasts are forty days is in imitation of Our Lord who fasted and prayed for forty days in the desert. (Matt 4:2, Mark 1:13, Luke 4:2) In addition, the number forty is associated with cleansing from sin and defilement in many Old Testament passages. When God cleansed the earth in the time of Noah, He caused it to rain for forty days and forty nights. When the Hebrews insulted God by building a golden calf after God delivered them out of Egypt, they were required to spend forty years in the desert before they could enter the promised land.

What is the history of Lent?

In the early Church, it became customary to receive new members on the eve of Easter. Sinful relapses were frowned upon at that time, and so a rigorous period of preparation was required to insure that anyone who was baptised could live up to the rigorous moral code of the followers of Christ. Finally, a fast was required just before the baptism itself. At first the fast was just the three days before Easter, and then was lengthened to a week. Later a forty day fast was added before that week long fast. As a result, the present fast period in the Byzantine churches consists of a forty day fast which ends on the Friday nine days before Easter. When combined with the following week, Great Lent is actually 49 days of preparation for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

What kind of penance is traditional for Lent?

The traditional penance for Lent is fasting from food. It is an ancient tradition to fast from red meat as out of respect for the shedding of blood at the Crucifixion. In the Slavic world, it was traditional to avoid both meat and dairy products to prepare for Easter. The last day to eat meat was the Sunday eight days before the first day of Lent, and so this day is called "Meatfare Sunday". Then the following Sunday was the last day to eat dairy products, and so this day is called "Cheesefare Sunday". This tradition allows the body to adjust more gradually to the withdrawal of the high-protein and high-fat foods. The Gospel reading for Meatfare Sunday is Matt 26:31-46 in which Jesus describes the Last Judgment. This Gospel reminds us that penance is useless unless it is directed to our goal, Jesus Christ, and that it must be coupled with good works. (Isaiah 58:6-7) The Gospel for Cheesefare Sunday is Matt 6:14-21, in which Jesus says, "And when you fast do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, who disfigure their faces in order to appear to men as fasting. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not be seen fasting by men, but by your Father, who is in secret; and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you."

Isn't it better to avoid sin and do good works instead of penance?

Yes. There is no question that avoiding sin and doing good works are better than penance. However, penance is also good, and is recommended by Christ. There is no reason to avoid a good thing just because other things are better. Instead, it is best to fast and avoid sin and do good works.
The prophet Isaiah says,
"'Why do we fast, and you do not see it? afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?' Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits, and drive all your laboreres. Yes, your fast ends in quarreling and fighting, striking with wicked fist. Would that today you might fast so as to make your voice heard on high! Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: that a man bow his head like a reed, and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed; your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!
If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday; then the Lord will guide you always and give you plenty even on the parched land. He will renew your strength, and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose water never fails. The ancient ruins shall be rebuilt for your sake, and the foundations from ages past you shall raise up." (Isaiah 58:3-12)

Why should I do penance with the Church instead of on my own?
Didn't Jesus say to keep your prayers and penance private?

As Christians we come to God individually and also as a community. St. Paul tells us that the Church is the Body of Christ. Therefore the things that we do as part of the Church bring us close to Christ. Jesus himself recommends that we pray in private (Matt 6:6) in order to avoid showing off, but then He also says, "Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am there also."

Should you abstain from meat and dairy products during Lent?
Isn't that a little dangerous?

Perhaps it is dangerous for some people to eat no meat or dairy products for fifty days. Children and teenagers need more high quality protein than adults, and they should be especially careful on a total vegetarian diet. Pregnant women should never fast without consulting their physician. Some people become anemic if they don't eat meat, and they should take an iron supplement if they abstain from meat for very long. Anyone who tries to abstain from both meat and dairy products should probably take a vitamin supplement including iron. During the 1970's when vegetarianism first became popular in the United States, some people suffered problems from vitamin deficiencies, most notably a B12 deficiency. Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products, and some women who tried to be total vegetarians not only made themselves sick, but also produced deformities in the children they were carrying. If you plan to become a vegetarian for a long period of time, be sure to consult a physician and to study vegetarian diet to avoid the dangers.
Nevertheless, the medical experts nowadays are constantly trying to get us to eat less saturated fat and cholestorol. It seems that for most adults, a period of abstention from meat and dairy products would be healthy. As long as the abstention isn't for too long, and as long as you eat a variety of vegetables, there should be nutritional deficiency. Perhaps our ancestors had a good idea in avoiding these foods for a limited time each year.
If you have medical problems, be sure to consult your physician before attempting a rigorous fast. There are also a number of cookbooks available at Eastern Catholic churches and Orthodox churches with a variety of vegetable recipes to provide a well balanced diet.

What does the Bible say about fasting?

This answer will be expanded, but here are some of many references:

Great is the day of the Lord and exceedingly terrible; who can bear it? Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; rend you hears, not your graments, and return to the Lord, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich iin kindness, and relenting in punishment.
Joel 2:11-13

And I proclaimed a fast by the river Ahava, that we might afflict ourselves before the Lord our God, and might ask of him a right way for us and for our children, and for all our substance. For I was ashamed to ask the king for aid and for horsemen, to defend us from the enemy in the way, because we had said to the king: The hand of our God is upon all them that seek him in goodness; and his power and strength and wrath upon all them that forsake him. And we fasted, and besought our God for this: and it fell out prosperously unto us.
1 Esdras 8:21-23

And they said to me: They that have remained, and are left of the captivity there in the province, are in great affliction and reproach; and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and the gates thereof are burnt with fire. And when I had heard these words, I sat down, and wept, and mourned for many days; and I fasted, and prayed before the face of the God heaven.
2 Esdras 1:3-4

In those days, I, Daniel, mourned three full weeks. I ate no savory food, I took no meat or wine, and I did not anoint myself at all until the end of the three weeks.
Daniel 10:2-3

When the people of Ninive believed God; they procalimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Ninive, he rose form his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashed. Then he had this proclaimed throughout Ninive, by decree of the king and his nobles: "Neither man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep, shall taste anything; they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water. Man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God; every man shall turn from his evil way and from the violence he has in hand. Who knows, God may relent and forgive, and withhold his blazing wrath, so that we shall not perish." When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.
Jonah 3:5-10

"Why do the disciples of John and the Pharisees fast, whereas thy disciples do not fast?" And Jesus said to them, "Can the wedding guests fast as long as the bridegroom is with them: As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day."
Mark 2:18-20

Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers, among whom were Barnabas and Simon, called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manahen the foster-brother of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. And as they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Saul and Barnabas unto the work to which I have called them." Then having fasted and prayed and laid their hands upon them, they let them go.
Acts of the Apostles 13:1-3

And when they had appointed presbyters for them in each church, with prayer and fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
Acts of the Apostles 14:22

On the contrary, let us conduct ourselves in all circumstances as God's ministers, in much patience; in tribulations, in hardships, in distresses; in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults; in labors, in sleepless nights, in fastings; in innoncence, in knowledge, in long-sufferings; in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in unaffected love; in the word of truth, in the power of God; with the armor of justice on the right hand and on the left; in honor and dishonor, in evil report and good report; as deceivers and yet truthful, as unknown and yet well known, as dying and behold, we live, as chastised but not killed, as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet enriching many, as having nothing yet possessing all things.
2 Corinthians 6:4-10

Are they ministers of Christ? I--to speak as a fool--am more: in many labors, in prisons more frequently, in lashes above measure, often exposed to death . . . in labor and hardships, in many sleepness nights, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Besides these outer things, there is my daily pressing anxiety, the care of all the churches!
2 Corinthians 11:23-28

Prayer is good with fasting and alms more than to lay up treasures of gold.
Tobias 12:8

And all the people cried to the Lord with great earnestness, and they humbled their souls in fastings and prayers, both they and their wives.
Judith 4:7

And Judith his relict was a widow now three years and six months. And she made herself a private chamber in the upper part of her house, in which she abode shut up with her maids. And she wore haircloth upon her loins, and fasted all the days of her life, except the sabbaths, and new moons, and the feasts of the house of Israel.
Judith 8:4-6

Now when the inhabitants of Jabes Galaad had heard all that the Philistines had done to Saul, all the most valiant men arose, and walked all the night, and took the body of Saul, and the bodies of his sons, from the wall of Bethsan. And they came to Jabes Galaad, and burnt them there: and they took their bones and buried them in the wood of Jabes: and fasted seven days.
1 Kings 31:11-13

Then David took hold of his garments and rent them, and likewise all the men that were with him. And they mourned, and wept, and fasted until evening for Saul, and for Jonathan his son, and for the people of the Lord, and for the house of Israel, because they were fallen by the sword.
2 Kings 1:11-12

"'Why do we fast, and you do not see it? afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?' Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits, and drive all your laboreres. Yes, your fast ends in quarreling and fighting, striking with wicked fist. Would that today you might fast so as to make your voice heard on high! Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: that a man bow his head like a reed, and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed; your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!
If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday; then the Lord will guide you always and give you plenty even on the parched land. He will renew your strength, and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose water never fails. The ancient ruins shall be rebuilt for your sake, and the foundations from ages past you shall raise up."
Isaiah 58:3-12

Is the eastern tradition different from the western tradition?

One of the most notable differences between eastern practises and western practises is that the east emphasizes tradition and the west emphasizes law. Because our eastern practises are traditional, they did not disappear when the west changed its laws in modern times. Westerners often look to the law for guidance, and then do the minimum required by law. Easterners look to their grandparents for guidance, and try to imitate them. Traditions are both more challenging and more flexible than laws. Laws must be written so that everyone can follow them, but traditions allow for higher standards for the more dedicated, and yet more flexibility for individual needs. Abstaining from food may be spiritually counterproductive for some people, and for them, another spiritual practise can be substituted. The East has a great emphasis on advise from a spiritual leader (called a "starets" which means "old one"). The spiritual leader can tailor a spiritual program for the individual needs of a soul.

Why does the Byzantine Lent start on Monday and the Roman Lent start on Wednesday?

The Romans count their forty days backwards starting on the day before Easter, and excluding Sundays. This method ends up on a Wednesday which they call Ash Wednesday. The Byzantines count their forty days backwards starting on the Friday nine days before Easter, and including Sundays. This method ends up on the Monday two days before the Roman Ash Wednesday. The Byzantines then have a separate fast period between the forty day fast and Easter.

What is Forgiveness Vespers?

Forgiveness Vespers is a beautiful service held in all Byzantine churches on the evening before Lent starts. The service emphasizes that God forgives our sins, but then also that we must forgive each other. At the service, the priest humbly asks the people in the church to forgive him if he has wronged them during the preceding year. The people reply by asking God to forgive the priest. Then the people ask the priest to forgive them if they have injured him, and the priest replies by asking that God forgive them. After these words, the people come forward, and the priest asks each individual member of the assembly for forgiveness. He gives each member a hug or a kiss. The people are admonished to ask each other individually for forgiveness for wrongs committed that year, and also to ask family members for forgiveness.

Are Byzantine liturgies different during Lent?

Yes. Many liturgies are different. On weekdays during Lent, the eucharistic liturgy is called the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. It was recorded by Pope Gregory the Great before he was Pope while he was ambassador to Constantinople. It is a very beautiful though sombre liturgy. On Saturday and Sunday, the Divine Liturgy is celebrated. On Saturdays it is the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom and on Sundays it is the Liturgy of Saint Basil. The people's part of the Liturgy of Saint Basil is almost the same as Saint John Chrysostom, but many of the priests' prayers are different, most notably the eucharistic prayer or anaphora which is much lengthier. The Liturgy of Saint Basil is only celebrated on a few other days of the year, Christmas, Theophany, Holy Thursday, Holy Saturday, and the Feast of St. Basil on January 1.

What is a prostration?

A prostration is a bodily manifestation of humility before God. It allows us to express humility, to worship, and to ask for forgiveness, not only with words, but also with our actions and gestures. In the Slavic tradition, a prostration is performed as follows: starting from the standing position, the person kneels down on both knees, then touches his forehead to the ground, then pauses, and then returns to the standing posture. In the Greek tradition, the basic action is the same, except that the person lies down completely flat on the ground.

What is the prayer of Saint Ephraim?

The prayer of Saint Ephraim is a short prayer which is very popular in our tradition for Lent. It should be recited several times during the day. Of course it can be recited anywhere, and anytime, even if prostrations are not appropriate.

PRAYER OF SAINT EPHRAIM
O Lord and Master of my life,
Keep from me the spirit of indifference
and discouragement,
Lust of power, and idle chatter.
prostration
Instead, grant to me your servant,
the spirit of wholeness of being,
humblemindedness, patience, and love.
prostration
O Lord and King,
grant me the grace to be aware of my sins,
and not to judge my brother.
For You are holy, now and ever and forever.
Amen.
prostration

What is the Matins of Saint Andrew of Crete?

The Matins of Saint Andrew is an especially penitential service celebrated once during Lent. The text emphasizes the fallen nature of man, and the worshipers accuse themselves before God, and beg God for mercy. The service is punctuated by many prostrations. In some versions it contains 120 prostations, and in other versions, over 200 prostrations. It is normally celebrated on Thursday evening during the fifth week of Lent. This year, the Matins will be celebrated on the evening of Thursday, March 18, 1999.

Why is the Feast of the Annunciation so important, and why does it take precedence over Lent?

There is some evidence that the Feast of the Annunciation is the oldest of all Christian feasts, in fact the very calendar day on which Christ died. It is certainly one of the oldest feasts. There can be no question that the earliest Christians would have noted the anniversary of the crucifixion and remembered it. According to early beliefs, because Jesus was perfect, He would have been conceived on exactly the same calendar day that He died. So liturgists speculate that the early Christians would have commemorated his death and conception on the same day. As the liturgical calendar expanded, and the crucifixion was commemorated three days before Easter, March 25 came to be the commemoration of only the conception. If this is true, then Christmas would have been calculated as nine months from March 25, and therefore the date of Christmas was set by Christians, and not as a response to a pagan feast as is popularly believed nowadays. Because of the importance of the event celebrated and because of the ancient nature of the feast, the Annunciation takes precedence over almost any other feast.

Although this is a list of frequently asked questions, you might be surprised to learn that not many people ask these last three questions.


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