This week we begin that very important liturgical journey from Ash Wednesday, through Palm Sunday and Good Friday, to Easter Sunday. There is no greater feast in the Church calendar than what is officially known as The Resurrection of the Lord, and so for millennia the Church has set aside a period of time – known as Lent – dedicated to the spiritual preparation of the faithful for the coming of the Risen Christ.
For most Catholics, this is a time of giving something up – like candy – and of not eating meat on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent. For Catholics who have grown up since the Second Vatican Council, there is no personal memory of meatless Fridays every week, and so these eight days are the extent of their abstinence and fasting throughout the year.
Yet, there is a group of Catholics, and others, for whom Lent is a much more demanding season. In the Catholic and Orthodox East, Lent is known as the Great Fast. It begins each year on the Monday prior to the Western celebration of Ash Wednesday, and the dietary restrictions placed on the faithful are quite demanding, especially in comparison with those of us in the West.
The first week of the Great Fast is known as Clean Week, and there is a call to abstain from all foods from Monday through Wednesday evening and then again until Friday evening. Because this week is so difficult, most laypeople do not keep the full fast, but they are still expected to refrain from the consumption of meat, fish, eggs, dairy, wine and oil (so foods are cooked “dry” throughout Lent).
In Greece and Cyprus, Clean Monday is a national holiday, and it is common for people to participate in family gatherings that include the seemingly very un-Lenten practice of flying kites. This tradition actually harkens back to the Gospel admonition by Jesus to “not appear to others to be fasting, except to your Father Who is hidden. And your Father Who sees what is hidden will repay you.”
As the Great Lent (the other name for the Great Fast) continues past the first week both wine and oil can be added to the diet on both Saturday and Sunday, but the prohibition against eating meat, fish, eggs, and dairy remains. On Holy Thursday, wine and oil are allowed at the evening meal, but that is the last food to be taken – even by the less observant – until at least Holy Saturday. No one is to eat on Holy Friday (as Good Friday is known in the East), and some fruit and wine may be consumed on Holy Saturday if one cannot last until the breaking of the fast after the Divine Liturgy on Pascha (Easter).
There are a number of reasons why people will fast or abstain from eating certain foods. We usually call this “dieting” or “lactose intolerance” or “vegetarianism,” but in doing so during Lent or the Great Fast people have a different reason in mind, and it is a focus on the spiritual rather than the physical. To come back to the West, St. Thomas Aquinas gives his reasons for fasting: to help us to keep from becoming slaves to our bodily desires, to make us more open to the call of God, and to make up for our sins.
To be honest, those three spiritual outcomes won’t get much traction in our lives unless we do more than the minimum requirements of abstaining from meat on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent. We don’t necessarily need to take on all of the demands of the Great Fast, but we in the Latin West can learn much this Lent by finding ways to go beyond our normal practices and there are worse ways of accomplishing that task than by looking to the wise women and men from the East.