In the Orthodox Church, Lent began today. We call it Clean Monday, and this is Clean Week. In Western Christianity, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. The focus is on guilt and repentance, and believers wear a cross of ashes across their forehead.
Eastern Christians approach the beginning of Lent a bit differently. Technically, Lent began last night at Forgiveness Vespers. This special Vespers service includes a ceremony of forgiveness in which each parishioner asks every other parishioner for forgiveness. It is a moving service that reminds us of God’s grace.
On Clean Monday, many Orthodox Christians will fast for the entire day. At any rate, on this day begins our 40-day long fast of dairy and meat. We do not begin this fast (or Lent) with sorrow or heavy-heartedness. Clean Week helps us clear our minds, hearts, and bodies as we prepare for Pascha (what we call Easter.) Many people clean their home thoroughly during this week; some eat only fresh, uncooked foods; often believers go to confession during the week. Every action aims to purify us and simplify us so that we might be ready to receive Christ.
Though I grew up in church, I don’t remember hearing much about Lent until I was in college. Evangelical denominations often skip over Lent. My first encounter with Lent was with the idea of giving up something. I even gave up things myself – chocolate, sweets, coffee. But I’m not sure that giving those things up really affected me spiritually at all.
Once I became Orthodox, I learned that the spiritual world and the physical world are deeply intertwined. Our physical fast reminds us of the suffering of Christ. We learn to be thankful for what we have, even if it is not what we like. (Rice and beans get old after a while!) Lent is also a time of intense mediation. There are more services to attend, and for the past couple of years my husband and I have tried to read books of Lenten meditations to focus our minds on Christ.
Sounds great, right? Don’t get me wrong: It’s a very hard time. We are human, after all. I will admit we don’t stick to the fast 100%. And attending services on a weeknight when we live an hour from church can be so tiring. We don’t make every service. But in small ways, as a family we try to be more attentive to spiritual matters during Lent.
This year the Lenten books on my nightstand are First Fruits of Prayer by Frederica Mathewes-Green, the writer who brought me to Orthodoxy, and A Journey Through Great Lent by Fr. Stephen Belonick. Both of these were give to me by my husband, for which I am thankful.
How do you celebrate Lent?