Preparation for Lent
An exclusive feature of the Orthodox Church is the period set aside to prepare us for the rigors of the Great Fast. Our spiritual forebears recognized that the Great Fast was a physical as well as a spiritual experience. Just as we cannot successfully plunge into an athletic ordeal without training and preparation, so, too, our Church understands the need to be prepared for the most challenging fasting period of the liturgical year.
The first Sunday we ascribe to this period of preparation is the Sunday of Zacchaeus the tax-collector. Strictly speaking, this is not a part of the pre-fast season. This only unique thing about this Sunday is the Gospel reading from Luke which recounts the story of Zacchaeus’ conversion. This is always the Gospel reading prescribed prior to the season of the fast known as the Triodion in order to lead us into the preparation period. It is more of a signal that the period is upon us rather than being an actual part of it.
The actual Pre-Fast period actually begins on the next Sunday dedicated to the Publican and the Pharisee. This Sunday presents a theme which is repeated throughout the Great Fast: The lesson that true fasting and prayer must come from an attitude of humility. A unique feature of the week which follows is that it is free from all fasting, even on Wednesday and Friday. In our Orthodox tradition, the weeks following the great feasts of Pascha, Pentecost and Christmas are exempt from all fasting. However, the week following the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee is free from fasting not because we are celebrating a great feast, but rather as a sign that a radical change in our lifestyles is in the offing.
The next Sunday brings us the story of the Prodigal Son. The theme of this parable from the Gospel according to Luke is two-fold: The need for the sinners to return to their spiritual homes, and the charity expected from those who have remained faithful. The Church returns to the customary abstinence from meat on Wednesday and Friday of this week.
The week following Prodigal Son Sunday is traditionally known as Meatfare Week. It is the final week in which Orthodox Christians can eat meat prior to Pascha. On Meatfare Saturday, we celebrate the first of the All-Souls Saturdays. We commemorate all those who have passed before us by submitting our lists of names to the priest for the special memorial service celebrated in conjunction with the Divine Liturgy on this Saturday. This leads naturally into the following day, the Sunday of the Final Judgment. It serves as the most radical call to repentance by reminding us of the final judgment at which we will all have to give an accounting of our life’s choices before the dreaded tribunal of Christ the King of All Creation. This Sunday is also known as Meatfare or Meat-Fast Sunday because it is the day on which we bid farewell to eating meat until the celebration of Pascha.
The final week of preparation is called Cheese-Fare Week. This is the last week that Orthodox Christians can eat dairy products. The services on Wednesday and Friday of this week take on a Lenten character. Prokeimena and readings from the prophets Joel and Zechariah are taken at the Sixth Hour and Vespers on these days just as during weekdays during the Great Fast. We are given a foretaste of the Lenten services soon to come.
Cheese-Fare Saturday is a commemoration of all the departed monks and nuns, our spiritual fathers and mothers, who have preceded us and who serve as models for our fasting efforts. This all culminates on Cheese-Fare Sunday. Also called Forgiveness Sunday, the Gospel instruction is that if you forgive trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you, but if you do not forgive trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Mt. 6:14-15). Another theme of this Sunday is the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Paradise. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, chose to sin against God and were driven out of Paradise. We, likewise, joined God’s Kingdom at our Christenings. But, instead of living in harmony with God, we chose the path of sin. We prostrate in our Lenten prayers as a symbol of how we have fallen from our original dignity through sinfulness.
Thus, through a cycle of four weeks, the Church prepares us in a gradual manner for both the spiritual and physical challenge of Great Lent. We are like athletes preparing for a contest. The services begin to resemble the longer Lenten services. Our food intake also changes incrementally beginning with no fasting, progressing to normal fasting, then the abstention from meat, and finally from all animal products, the strict fast.
The Church puts great emphasis on the need for fasting because we are made of a physical body and spiritual soul. Faith is much more than a mere intellectual assent. Our souls, minds and bodies work in a symbiotic union. Our entire being participates in the work of salvation, made of a physical body and spiritual soul. Our prayer involves our entire body, soul and intellect, not only the intellect. We strive to salvation in a physical, very real and oftentimes hostile world.
The Church stresses the importance of fasting and prayer because, like the Holy Mother She is, the Church understands our human nature, weakness and inclinations. She has gained this knowledge through generations of experience and wisdom. But, it is not an easy task which is why this elaborate pre-fasting period has evolved through the course of history. The brilliant structure that our Church has built over 2,000 years is a truly a work of genius and understanding of our human psychological and spiritual needs.