At Evangel, the Rev Paul T. McCain noted that he was somewhat unfamiliar with the details and differences of and between the Eastern Orthodox and the Western (liturgical) calendars. So, with that in mind, I thought I’d attempt to fill in what’s happening and up and coming for the liturgical year at this point. There is a personal reason for writing this, and likely I’ll bring it up again in the next few weeks, which I will get to in a bit. But first, where are we in our respective liturgical calendars?
In the West, liturgically these are the numbered weeks of Epiphany waiting for Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. Lent in East and West is a time when the services become more somber and reflective. It is a time set aside, preparing for the great feast of Pascha/Easter. In this time fasting, prayer, more frequent liturgical services, charity, and introspection are emphasized. It is a time to sharpen and hone our attention to our spiritual state and life. We are asked to abstain from meat products (anything invertebrate products), dairy, wine, and oil (although wine and oil are permitted on weekends). At the same time, we should eat less often (no snacking) and push away from the table just a little hungry. That is to say this is fasting both by restricting variety and quantity. For the monastic (or the very devout) practice a complete fast for the first three days of Lent is observed … and during the rest of Lent then only eat in the evening.
There is a small matter of dates. For the West, Lent begins on the morning of Ash Wednesday (after the Shrove/Fat Tuesday emptying of the larder). Lent is 40 days (not counting Sundays) and ends on Easter. For the East, Lent begins on Monday, counts the Sundays but Holy week (Palm Sunday) ends Lent. Even though Lent is finished, the fast is not ended until Pascha.
What follows is a brief description highlighting some of the features of the Sundays approaching Lent for the Eastern tradition.
The three weeks leading up to Lent and the four Sundays associated with those dates are special liturgical events. Each Sunday has special significance with a knickname, and a particular gospel lesson which assist the countdown to Lent. Last Sunday was the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee and thus this is now the “week” of the Publican and the Pharisee. The gospel reading on Sunday, obviously, was Luke 18:10-14, being the story of the Publican and the Pharisee. Next Sunday will be the Sunday of the Prodigal Son (the gospel reading being Luke 15:11-32). Following that will be the Sunday of the Last Judgement (gospel Matthew 25:31-46). Finally the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent, is the Sunday of Forgiveness (the gospel read is Matthew 6:14-21). This pattern is followed every year and these Sundays start beating the drum heralding the approaching Great Lent.
The Lenten fasting is stringent and accordingly the fasting which is proscribed in the three weeks are designed to prepare one for the fast. Normally in “ordinary” weeks one is instructed to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays in the same manner as one fasts during Lent. The Week of the Publican and Pharisee (this week) is fast free (cheers). Next week is an ordinary week regarding fasting, i.e., fast only on Wednesday and Friday. The Sunday of the Last Judgement is also known as Meatfare because the following week is meat free, but dairy, oil, and wine are still permitted thus that will be the last meat eaten until Pascha. Then after Forgiveness Sunday is over, which is also known as Cheesefare, and dairy is removed as well from the diet. Thus in this way one is introduced over a three week period to adjust to the fast as it approaches.
On the evening of Forgiveness Sunday there is a Vespers service (Forgiveness Vespers) which some jokingly describe as “Orthodox callisthenics.” At the conclusion of this service each person in attendance, in turn, prostrates himself before the each other kisses him (or her) three times and humbly begs their forgiveness for all the many sins we have committed against the other. This entails quite a bit of dropping to ones knees, pressing ones face to the floor, and then standing up to kiss, hence the “callisthenics” remarks.
Here is where the personal request comes in. On the first four days of Lent, starting with Monday in the evening many Orthodox churches hold a service in which the four parts of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete is performed. I find this service almost overwhelming. In impact, from my point of view, it compares with even with the Pascha celebration. I have, for myself, not seen any liturgical reflection on or of repentance that comes near to matching this in its impact, its cathartic content, or its depth. From a personal perspective I am really interested in a non-Orthodox impression or remarks on this service. I wonder how much of the impact this service has on me is because I’m an Orthodox convert and how much is due to the impact of service itself. Frank Turk in a post earlier this year dropped his (in)famous remark that some Catholics and fewer Orthodox are saved and based this in part because he felt that non-protestants fail to “a sense of repentance.” Well, Mr Turk, attend one or more of the Canon services and see if you can still say that the Orthodox aren’t repentant enough, that they don’t “know” what it means. This service in many ways defines repentance. More seriously, this year Western Easter and Eastern Pascha are on the same date. Which means … on Monday prior to Ash Wednesday a Protestant might be able to attend a service in which this Canon is performed, there should be no liturgical conflict at any rate. So, if anyone non-Orthodox who might read this and takes up this request to witnesses the canon and is willing to report, please contact me by email (or drop a comment on the blog) and let me know what you thought. I’d be grateful.
My soul, my soul, arise!
Why are you sleeping?
The end is drawing near,
and you will be confounded.
Awake, then, and be watchful,
that Christ our God may spare you,
Who is everywhere present and fills all things.
The above is a short hymn sung three times slowly in the middle of the service.