with downcast faces, present ourselves before the only God eternal.
Where then is comeliness? Where then is wealth?
Where then is the glory of this world?
There shall none of these things aid us, but only to say oft the psalm:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
—"Funeral Ikos," John Tavener*
As of Wednesday, it is Lent for the Western churches. This year, I am joining a group of friends in adopting the Eastern Orthodox Church’s Lenten fast.
Let’s back up slightly. What is Lent? I’m from a church background that does not observe the Christian calendar very thoroughly; we pay attention to special days like Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, but there tends to be little emphasis on the seasons of the year that lead up to those things, the times of preparation for those special days. That is to say: I am probably not the best person to ask about what Lent is. Because Lent is one of those times of preparation.
Lent, to my understanding, is the season when Christians are called to consider and prepare for the death and the Resurrection of Christ, a pair of events commemorated on Good Friday and Easter, respectively. In order to prepare ourselves, we are called to reflect on the meaning of those events in our daily lives, and we do so for the 40 days before Easter. In order to remind ourselves to reflect, we practice self-denial, usually of food like meat (traditional) or chocolate (one popular choice among many). The idea, I think, is that if you are regularly forced to avoid doing something that you normally do all the time, the sudden jolt of unfamiliarity (Whoa, I can’t eat meat today! etc.) will stop your routine mental process and allow you to consider Christ and His sacrifice for the world, and for you.
But Lent, for many people, is something besides that. For me, it has often, I dare say usually, been a simple test of the will. Can I beat a 40-day challenge? Can I really give up something I like a lot (usually soda or meat) and still be happy? I think a lot of folks treat Lent in primarily this way: a contest with themselves. There’s also a certain showmanship or attention-seeking that goes on: people share what they’re giving up with each other and are often proud of it, and this social element becomes a reason to “do Lent” in itself. I also have treated Lent in this way.
So Lent is many things to many people. In fact, in its function as a test of will with external boundaries, it’s at least moderately popular among non-Christians—I know several who are giving up something this year. It’s sometimes tempting to cast disparagement on those who use it for purposes other than its original Christian liturgical purpose of self-preparation and reflection, but I won’t, because I’m not blogging to disparage people. Plus, Jesus said this:
Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.
And far be it from me to ignore His advice on this or any matter.
To my understanding, the traditional fast in the Eastern Orthodox church is a fast from meat, animal products, and olive oil. I haven’t figured out why just olive oil, but there you go. There are also portions of Lent at which one, if one is able, fasts from food entirely for as much as several days at a time. The idea behind the fast, in addition to creating an avenue to reflection, is to literally clean out one’s body, to eat the simplest, healthiest fare and become purer physically thereby, in readiness to meet with Christ after the Resurrection. Again, though, I am no expert in these matters.
So, then, why are my friends doing this, and why am I?
A number of my friends have been exposed to Eastern Orthodox practice over the last few years in a couple ways. First, a large number of us have actually been to Eastern Europe on missions trips to places like Russia, Moldova, and Georgia. Those of us who have gone have gotten to see in person a different way of practicing our own faith, to experience the beauty and strangeness of it. One friend actually converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity on this side of the water, so we’ve had cause to consider its practices and rituals through our contact with him.
In being exposed in these ways to the practices of another part of the Church, we see what is missing in our own part. We grew up without things like mandatory fasts, or even things like communion or baptism. Ours is a church without many rituals or sacramental practices. We make a few key outward signs of our faith, but we do not commemorate the most important time of the Christian year with anything particularly special. The specialness, the set-apartness of this time, Lent, for other churches is moving and attractive to us. So we seek to make it our own.
I wonder if the adoption of another church’s practice is a mark of insecurity about our own church, or of dissatisfaction with the way in which our church functions. Perhaps growing up without much in the way of ritual in our faith has made us long for the comforts and beauty and access to meaning that ritual provides. I know that it has made me long for them, sometimes.
*Note: this music is one of the only pieces of music from the Orthodox tradition that I know of. It is also very, very beautiful. The rest of the lyrics are here.