It’s been more than a month since Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent at many local churches. Easter will be celebrated March 27, yet Orthodox churches won’t start observing Great Lent until March 14. Orthodox Easter, Pascha (Pah-ska), is celebrated May 1, more than a month later than other Christian faiths. Why so late?
Blame it on Julius Caesar and the astronomically based Julian calendar. Some Orthodox follow the Gregorian calendar for certain portions of the church year such as Christmas. Others follow the Julian calendar for the entire year. A detailed discussion of the calendar and connected issues would consume this and subsequent columns. The three strains of Orthodox in Alaska: Antiochian, Greek and OCA (formerly Russian Orthodox), all use the Julian calendar for Lent and Pascha (Easter).
Part of Orthodox tradition is the use of fasts and feasts to mark their passage through the church year and their lives. This is not something most other Christian groups normally do.
In many other faith traditions, Lent starts Ash Wednesday; but not Orthodox. Preceding Lent, all three Orthodox groups practice a beautiful tradition you’ll rarely see elsewhere: Forgiveness Sunday. All Orthodox churches in Alaska precede Great Lent tomorrow with Forgiveness Sunday services. These services are usually conducted at the close of vespers recalling humankind’s original sin.
Describing this concluding portion of the service, Orthodox writer Wesley J. Smith, writing in “First Things,” says, “At the service’s end, our first Lenten act is to ask from and offer forgiveness to everyone present — not collectively, but individually from person, to person, to person. This is one of the most powerful moments of the Church year. One by one, each parishioner bows or prostrates, first before the priest, and then each other, asking, ‘Forgive me, a sinner.’ Each responds with a bow or prostration, asking also for forgiveness and assuring, ‘God forgives.’ Each then exchanges the kiss of peace. The service is a healing balm. It is hard to bear grudges when all have shared such an intimate mutual humbling. Indeed, Forgiveness Vespers is emotionally intense, tears often flow and hugs of true reconciliation are common.”
The Rev. Vasili Hillhouse, pastor of Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox, shared that members approach each other on Forgiveness Sunday with formal greetings like “please forgive me.” A typical response is “God forgive us both” with prostration or bowing.
The week before Forgiveness Sunday is known as Cheesefare Week. Fasting, a Great Lent tradition, is already under way. Dairy and eggs are permitted, but not meat. This modified diet helps believers transition into Lenten fasting. Until the Easter resurrection celebration, Pascha, they fast. Fasting is a means to facilitate focus on spiritual things, and not celebrating one’s body. For most, no meat is allowed during Lent. Monday, Lent starts with no animal products. For Greek Orthodox, it’s vegan with just a couple of days declared as fish days. No wine or oil is allowed on weekdays, just weekends.
“When a Roman Catholic fasts (as well as many Protestants), he is making a ‘sacrifice’ for the cause of Lent,” says OCA Bishop David Mahaffey, explaining how Orthodox conceptions of fasting differ from those in other Christian churches “So you find people who stop eating chocolate, or stop drinking pop or wine; they are ‘giving it up for Lent’ in honor of our Lord’s sacrifice for us. In Orthodoxy, we understand that the human will and its related passions are a hard thing to control. Therefore, for us, it is not ‘giving up’ anything, it is redirecting our will to respond to our guided control and a ‘resisting’ of pleasures our passions want to enjoy. So the real prohibition is not only foods, it is entertainment, movies, dances, television, and other forms of enjoyment that typically allow our passions to rise and seek pleasure.”
Most Orthodox Christians are used to fasts, and regularly practice what are known as Eucharistic fasts.
“The Eucharistic fast refers to the brief time (usually Sunday mornings) that an Orthodox Christian observes a total fast from all food and drink in preparation to receive Holy Communion,” says the Rev. Marc Dunaway, pastor of St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River. “The idea behind this is that on the day that I will receive Holy Communion, the Bread of Eternal Life, or the ‘medicine of immortality,’ as St. Ignatius called it — on this day I will not eat anything simply for the sustenance of this earthly body until I have first received the Body and Blood of Christ. We fast in reverence and preparation for this Communion.” Both the Eucharist fast and the Lent fast can be modified, if necessary, as needed for children, the elderly, and those suffering illness, Dunaway says.
Great Lent is observed with various services throughout the 40-plus days until Pascha. Local Orthodox churches holding Forgiveness Sunday services include: St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral (after Divine Liturgy at about noon); St. Tikhon Orthodox Church (Lenten vespers, 6 p.m.); Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church (after 10 a.m. Divine Liturgy) and St. John Orthodox Cathedral (after 6:15 p.m. vespers)
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