The Orthodox do just about everything by the calendar. We in this country have gotten totally away from the natural rhythms of the earth. Most of us do not live and/or work in the country anymore. We have become a nation of urban dwellers who live and work indoors. The most nature that the majority of us are exposed to is getting into and out of the car at home and at work. And a significant percentage of us have garages in the house now. We are usually somewhat aware of the climate, but don’t feel the rhythms of the earth. Our jobs usually don’t change, no matter what it is doing outside.It usually seems a bit strange to people until they have been in the Church for a few years, and then the gentle cycle of the calendar brings them a bit closer to the natural rhythms of God’s creation. An excellent example is the Orthodox entry into Lent. Now Lent is a time of intense prayer and fasting for the majority of Christians in the world. The Orthodox, the Romans, the Coptics all celebrate Lent as preparation for Pascha (Easter). Only some of the Western Protestants do not.
As an aside I will point out that fasting is regarded as a supercharger for prayer. If you are not going to intensively pray then fasting doesn’t really do you a whole lot of good (well, maybe a bit less calories).
The west is used to Lent starting the Roman way – big blowout on Fat Tuesday (Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras), then getting contrite and smearing ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday. This works for them, I guess, but I really prefer the Orthodox way.
First, there is the week of Meatfare two weeks before the beginning of Lent. This is the last normal week where anything and everything may be consumed except on Wednesday and Friday, the normal fasting days. The week after Meatfare is Cheesefare, where anything except meat can be consumed the whole week.
I suppose I had better review the Orthodox fasting guidelines, which are really more abstaining than fasting as we understand it in the West. It is more than a little rough to think about not eating for 56 days, and the Orthodox Church is very gentle. A strict fast of the Lenten variety is no meat, no fish, no dairy, no wine, no olive oil. What is allowed is shellfish, veggies, beer, and any oil that is not olive oil. It is also considered good fasting practice not to eat before evening, if possible. The fast is usually tailored to the capabilities and needs of the individual so that not all will be strict fasting. Those forbidden to fast would be growing children, the sick, pregnant or nursing women and people who are doing demanding and/or dangerous work. For the record, Our Lord did not say “if you fast”, He said “when you fast”. He also recommended a low profile. It is considered good Orthodox manners to eat that which is set in front of you and not make a big deal about fasting when visiting a non-Orthodox friend. It is also considered good form not to deliberately put yourself in a position of breaking the fast if it can be done gracefully.
The actual entry into Lent is called Forgiveness Sunday, as Lent proper begins following Forgiveness Vespers. In the service the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian is recited and the first prostrations of Lent take place.
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despondency, lust of power and idle talk.
But grant unto me, Thy servant, a spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own faults and not to judge my brothers and sisters. For blessed art Thou unto ages of ages. Amen.
O God, cleanse Thou me a sinner (12 times, with as many bows, and then again the whole prayer from the beginning throughout, and after that one great prostration)
The culmination of Forgiveness Vespers is when a full prostration is done before each member of the congregation. This is one of the very few times that prostration is done on Sunday. Sunday is the day of Resurrection and, although we are not worthy, Our Lord raised us to the status of sons and daughters and we normally stand as befits heirs of the Kingdom.
I suppose I had better describe prostrations. A full prostration is when you put knees, hands and forehead to the floor. It is good to give a bit of room between the people or they can bang heads – very uncomfortable. It is always awkward when someone tries it Western style, which is to go to one knee, struggle to get the opposing knee down, bow, up to the knees, one foot down, and then try to rise from the opposing knee on the one foot. The correct way is not difficult – if the joints and muscles are fit. Rock slightly forward to the balls of the feet while sinking to both knees, bend forward at the waist while keeping the toes curled up and in contact with the floor while placing the hands on the floor and then the forehead. As you rise from the floor with the forehead, give a light spring of the hands while bringing the body upright, rock back to the balls of the feet while rising from the knees to the standing position. With very little practice it becomes quite natural and easily done. The practical way of handling the line is everyone lines up on the right side of the church and as they get to the clergy, they do the prostration and then form a line on the left of the church so that each person may prostrate before all the other members. Of course, those who are not physically fit do not do the prostrations, they just bow to the other person. And those who need it can put a chair down and bow from the sitting position.
As each person makes the prostration they ask the other person’s forgiveness, usually with the phase “Forgive me, my brother (or sister)”. The normal response is “May God forgive us all”. If there is some reason for a more personal plea or response that is frequently done. The standard Eastern kiss is given after the declaration of forgiveness, an embrace with the kiss alternating cheeks three times.
Now this may seem a bit odd to those who have never seen it, but – let me tell you, it makes a great deal of difference in your life when you ask forgiveness – and mean it. This also means that you are asking the forgiveness of your spouse and children. I cannot speak for women, but I can tell you that as a man, a husband, and a father it makes you examine your relationships within your family very closely.
It is a wonderful and gentle way of entering into the preparation for the Celebration of the Resurrection.
Forgive me, my brothers and sisters, if I have offended you.
May God forgive us all our sins.