Ash Wednesday has come and gone, but Eastern Orthodox Lent doesn’t begin until March 18 this year (with Pascha occurring 40 days later – on May 5). Orthodox Christians don’t begin the Lenten season in a penitent, ashes-on-your-forehead manner. The first day of Lent is called Clean Monday, and in fact that first week is called Clean Week. We open ourselves to the brightness of a blank slate, the opportunity to make things new, the chance to cleanse ourselves of impurities.
Orthodoxy is a faith of preparation. Before every liturgy we fast in order to prepare both our bodies and spirits for the elements of the Eucharist – not just the elements, but the mystical spiritual change that occurs in us as we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ.
While the lay people are fasting, the priest is preparing the Eucharist in a detailed service of preparation. As he makes each cut in the seal on the bread, he recites a line from Isaiah.
He was led as a sheep to the slaughter.
And as a spotless lamb is dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth.
In his humiliation his judgment was taken away.
And for his generation, who shall declare it?
He cuts out nine tiny triangles, each time praying for a different category of people – Mary, angels, the Apostles, saints, the living, the dead, and so on.
Lent, of course, is the most intense period of preparation of the church year. We take a forty-day journey re-experiencing the life of Jesus. This pilgrimage is as physical as it is spiritual; we fast meat and dairy, we stand through countless extra services and liturgies, we attend confession. For Orthodox Christians, the mystical often reveals itself in the midst of physical acts.
Lent is here, but we’ve already been preparing for preparation, so to speak. In the five Sundays before Lent, we recall key beliefs, characters, and stories that turn our hearts inwards in self-reflection.
First, we talk about Zacchaeus. Remember, the short tax collector who climbed a tree to see Jesus? The children’s song “Zacchaeus was a wee little man . . .” comes to mind. When Orthodox Christians talk about Zacchaeus, they talk about desire. Not the lusty, sexual, overpowering desire that our culture connects with that word, but a yearning deep in the soul for something more. A desire to see Christ that is strong enough to make a man do something crazy. I think I lack this kind of desire for Jesus. I don’t desire Him enough to climb a tree or spend an hour on my knees in prayer or give money to the homeless guy on the corner. This is why I need Lent.
The next Sunday we hear the story of the Publican and the Pharisee. (That was today.) A reminder to pray. Not just to pray, but to pray humbly, quietly, and privately. In my selfishness I tend to want recognition for everything I do. I don’t want to do anything quietly! Again, this is why I need Lent.
After that we remember the Prodigal Son. Every year, I need to hear it again. Every year, I need to know that no matter how much I’ve failed, my Father welcomes me home with open arms.
Two Sundays before Lent is Meat-Fare Sunday, or the last day we can eat meat before Lent. It is also when we contemplate Judgment Day. This is the most confrontational pre-Lent Sunday for me. I have to say goodbye to meat and think about the possibility of not going to heaven all in the same day. Suddenly God is in my face making sure I get serious. As much as I hate it, I need Him to do it.
The day before Clean Monday, when Lent officially begins, is Forgiveness Sunday. It is also Cheese-Fare Sunday – the last day we can eat dairy products. Giving up cheese falls by the wayside in the glow of Forgiveness Vespers. All the parishioners form a wide circle spreading its way around the edges of the church. Each person faces every other person in the room and asks for forgiveness. The words “I forgive” are whispered hundreds of times. By the time everyone’s gone around, the room is shrouded in a hushed mystery, a warm blessing uniting all of us.
We have confessed, we have repented, we have forgiven. We are spiritually and physically clean. Finally, we are ready for Lent.