Keeping Lent: Not once a year but four times

TERRY (YES, that TERRY) ASKS:

Whatever happened to the Lenten disciplines that used to be part of Advent, in the weeks before Nativity? How do they differ from the season of Lent?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

As Christendom nears the annual season of Lent, this refers to the Orthodox Church’s little-known practice of not just one but four seasons each year of Lenten-type fasting. “Great Lent” leading up to Easter is familiar. But traditionally, Orthodoxy also observes a Nativity Fast from mid-November (or later) through Christmas Eve, and two other seasons of abstinence from specified food and drink.

As the question indicates, average Eastern Orthodox members in western nations often ignore the traditional disciplines except for Great Lent. And Bishop Timothy Ware of Oxford, England, a British convert to Orthodoxy who became a bishop, remarks that the customary regimen “will astonish and even appall many western Christians.” In other words, these ancient traditions tend to be practiced even less in Western churches, including among Roman Catholics.

Father Thomas Hopko, retired dean of St. Vladimir’s seminary (and a high school friend of The Guy) explains the Orthodox concept.

First, why fast at all? Simply because Jesus taught this Jewish practice to his followers. In the Sermon on the Mount he said “when you fast,” not “if you fast,” indicating it’s a regular aspect of the life of faith. Jesus also said fasting should be a private matter without showing off one’s piety (Matthew 6:16-18).

The purpose is not to afflict oneself, Hopko insists. “God has no pleasure in the discomfort of his people.” Nor does it somehow pay for one’s sins, which can only occur through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. “Salvation is a ‘free gift of God’ which no works of man can accomplish of merit” (citing the biblical Romans 5:15-17 and Ephesians 2:8-9).

Rather, fasting is meant “to liberate oneself from dependence on the things of this world in order to concentrate on the things of the Kingdom of God,” to facilitate prayer, and to empower the soul to avoid sin.

These disciplines originated with monks early in Orthodox history but came to be recommended for all parishioners. Fasting is entirely a voluntary choice. The ill, the aged, the very young and nursing mothers are not asked to abstain. Newcomers to fasting may be advised to ease into the practices rather than following the full regimen. Rules are quite complex and vary by season and jurisdiction, but here’s a customary routine for Great Lent:

“Meatfare Sunday” (February 23 this year) is the last day till Easter when those keeping the fast eat meat, poultry or fish (with backbones; other seafood is often permitted). “Cheesefare Sunday” (March 2) is the last day when dairy products and eggs are consumed. Great Lent begins the following day with a total fast from food and drink except for a little water.

The strictly observant continue this total fast for two more days, during which others may eat only uncooked food or limit themselves to a small meal after sunset. Lent excludes wine (or else all alcoholic beverages), many or all oils on most days, and often smoking. Many practitioners eat only one meal on weekdays and two meals on weekends throughout Lent. During Holy Week leading up to Pascha (Easter) the strict fast of the first week resumes, though wine is allowed on Thursday in remembrance of Jesus’ Last Supper. On Pascha, the fast is broken with lavish feasting to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection.

In addition to the periods preparing for Easter and Christmas, the Orthodox calendar sets two other unique fasting periods. The Fast of the Holy Apostles concludes on the feast day of Peter and Paul, June 29. The Dormition Fast ends with the August 15 commemoration of the “falling asleep” and assumption into heaven of Mary the Mother of God. Most Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year are regarded as fast days and the calendar designates other days.

The Orthodox Lent always begins on a Monday (March 3 this year) while Catholics and those Protestants who observe Lent begin it on Ash Wednesday (March 5). Unlike many years, in 2014 the Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants will all mark Easter and Pascha on the same Sunday, April 20. (The Guy will skip a technical explanation of why the dates for Easter usually differ.)

FOR MORE INFORMATION: A guide to the fasting details from the Orthodox Church in America.

QUESTION FOR THE GUY? Leave it in our comments pages or at his site.

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

  • helen

    “Other seafood is permitted” … no sardines, but shrimp and lobster are OK?
    Sounds like ‘fasting because you can’t afford to eat too often’.


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