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The Great Fast Approaches

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Written by Basil on 03/1/2006 7:59 AM. Filed under:


GetReligion has an interesting article on media treatments of Ash Wednesday and lenten practices in general. “[One article] explains that not all Christians observe Lent and why. She also gives a mention to Orthodox Christians …for whom Lent began earlier and is a much more austere season.”

Technically, Christians east of the Bosphorus are still in the season of Pre-lent. Though we had a farewell to flesh last Sunday (known as Meatfare), the Great Fast does not fully begin until this Monday. This Sunday — Cheesefare or Forgiveness Sunday — marks the climax of our preparations for Lent. Clean Monday marks the beginning of the lenten period. In theory, one uses Meatfare to clean the home of meats and Cheesefare to clean the home of dairy.

In Russian tradition, Forgiveness Sunday (the same as Cheesefare, this Sunday) is so called because there is a rite of forgiveness which follows the Sunday vespers service. In parish use, vespers is often served immediately after the divine liturgy. During this rite, the members of the community each come before one another, one at a time, and ask forgiveness for any wrong they may have committed against their brothers and sisters.

So, having cleaned our homes of non-fasting food and cleaned our consciences, we come to Clean Monday. Clean Week is the beginning of the Great Fast. Services are ramped up to a pace nearly rivalling that of the Holy and Great Week of the Passion, and we shift into overdrive spiritually. We take a radical look at our faults and begin to concentrate on our conversion — repentance or metanoia — the focus of the season.

A note on English usage for Orthodox Christians: Lent is a word that means “spring” in Middle English. Thus, it is not synonymous with “fast.” It is the name of a particular fast, what we call the Great Fast: the spring fast of forty days that precedes the Pasch of Our Lord. “Great Lent,” though very common, is not really proper English usage, since there is no other Lent to which to compare the Great Fast.


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8 Responses to “The Great Fast Approaches”

  1. Mimi Says:

    I don’t think I realized that Forgiveness Vespers was only a Russian tradition – Antiochian Orthodox in the US do it, don’t they (I’m purely going off of Kh. Frederica’s book)

  2. Basil Says:

    The Antiochian Archdiocese in the US, while following the Greek/Antiochene typicon primarily, has adopted usages of other traditions in several cases. I see this especially in parishes which have high percentages of adult converts. I think this may be because Antiochian bishops — and specifically Met. Phillip — have allowed a lot of room in this regard, seeing an opportunity for fostering inter-Orthodox unity through use of a patchwork typicon. This is exactly what one might expect of an emerging American typicon: It would have elements from a variety of traditions.

    Some parishes in the Orthodox Church in America have often been given a similar leniency, for example reading the Paschal matins gospel before the doors and beating them down while reciting Psalm 23[24].7-10 before reentering the nave, as in the Jerusalem/Antiochene typicon. This depends entirely upon the bishop exercising jurisdiction. Some bishops are very focused on preserving the typicon as it has been received, while others allow for dynamism, especially in a pluralist, pan-Orthodox context as we have here.

  3. Mimi Says:

    That makes sense, and I totally understand what you are saying. Our parish, while having Carpatho-Rusyn roots, and being in the OCA, definitely does some things in a more “pan-Orthodox” way (or “patchwork typicon” ) than a parish that would be preserving the Carpatho-Rusyn typicon. And, we are largely convert.

    I thank you again for the comment about Forgiveness Vespers being a Russian Tradition – I obviously didn’t realize.

  4. Tim Says:

    Although lent originally meant spring, its connection with the period of preparation and fasting before Easter makes it sensible to adopt the word to refer to other periods of similar fasting and preparation, as in Christmas Lent, the time of preparation before the celebration of the birth of Christ. Words acquire new meanings all the time. The first example I thought of off the top of my head is SPAM, originally a supposedly undesirable canned meat product, that was applied to an even more undesirable type of email. I suspect spam, as a product brand name had no real meaning to start with, or a made up meaning, but that doesn’t change the point that words are used in various contexts and acquire new meanings that may differ from their origins.

    It appears that Fr. Alexander Schmemann used both Great Lent and Christmas Lent, and coined the term “Winter Pascha” that was later used as the title of Thomas Hopko’s book. I appreciate the insights into the origins of the word “Lent”, but given the fairly wide usage in the Christmas context, it appears it has acquired the meaning “A period of prayer and fasting prior to an event in the life of Christ.” Somewhat surprisingly, it appears that Wesley almost singlehandedly popularized the term winter lent, at least online, by adding it to the Wikipedia article about lent. Christmas Lent seems more common online — winter lent references seem to be mainly inspired by wikipedia.

    I guess this is much more noise about a note on language usage than is warranted. Forgive me.

    To go back to the article about various lenten practices, I just ran across the term Shrove Tuesday, or as it is apparently fairly widely known, Pancake Day. I hadn’t heard of Pancake Day, but it makes sense: according to the BBC article linked above, for western christians, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday “was the last opportunity to use eggs and fats before embarking on the Lenten fast and pancakes are the perfect way of using up these ingredients.” Being a big fan of Pancakes, flapjacks, hotcakes, or whatever you want to call them, I’ll have to make sure this is part of our menu for cheesefare week. They go nicely with eggs, too. Perhaps I’ll make pancakes for common meal on Forgiveness Sunday.

  5. Basil Says:

    Yes, that can be argued, of course. This is exactly the reason that Merriam Webster lists “can” and “may” as exactly synonymous and other egregious sins upon English.

    Call me a traditionalist.

  6. JohnH Says:

    I didn’t realize Forgiveness Sunday was from Russian tradition. I go to a Greek Orthodox parish in Colorado, and we have forgiveness vespers…

  7. Basil Says:

    I can’t remember where I read that it is a Russian tradition, because I see it spoken of by Greeks, too. I’ll see if I can dig up at least one reference for this.

  8. Mimi Says:

    I am curious, Basil. Let us know what you discover.