According to the Orthodox Church, Lent, or Σαρακοστή, the period in which we currently find ourselves in, is a time when people are called upon to be more conscious of their spiritual state. This is augmented by the choice of passages and readings from the Gospels and the Epistles, the hymnology and prayers of the Church, which all endeavor to help Christians cleanse themselves spiritually through repentance. This is because the word “Repent” (μετανοείτε) was the first word Jesus Christ spoke when he began His preaching and this is central to the Christian doctrine of Salvation. During the period of Lent the Christian is called to self-examination and self-control by the radiance of the Event of the Resurrection of Christ.
Fasting, abstinence from food, per se has no meaning in the Orthodox Church. Nonetheless, it is not to be accepted as a mere custom or tradition. Instead, fasting is understood as a means of temperance and sobriety, especially in relation to prayer, devotion and purity - all conditions precedent to true repetentance. The roots of fasting in Orthodoxy are to be found in the Old Testament, both for certain days and certain foods. As a general rule, fasting precedes a religious feast. Many verses in the Old Testament refer to this:
"Thus says the Lord of Hosts: the fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth, shall be to the house of Judah seasons of joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts; therefore, love, truth and peace", Zechariah 8:18-19.
The prophet Jonah also is said to have fasted for three days in the belly of the fish - which is taken to be a powerful precursor/symbol of the Resurrection three days after Christ’s crucifixion. In the New Testament, we have a continuation of this practice Jesus’ forty day fast in the desert of Judea, prior to His being tempted by the devil. Jesus also spoke of fasting as a means of cleansing: “But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” (Matthew 17:21) and also, in Matthew 6:16, warned against fasting in order to show off.
Sobriety aside, Lent is a period in which Greek cooks traditionally exercised great ingenuity in creating culinary masterpieces without the use of animal products. Nistisima koulourakia, yiaprakia, and in my house, halva, faki and fasolada, are the order of the day. Early on, I discovered that Vegemite is nistisimo and thus consume with relish this iconic Australian condiment, only during Lent. Also traditional but fast falling out of use, is the construction of the Kyra Sarakosti Doll, a doll with no mouth (symbolizing the fast) and seven legs, as many as there are weeks in Lent. Each week, you chop of one leg and that is how you know how long to go until Easter - an Eastern version of the advent calendar.
Following the services of Lent is an instructive experience. The First Sunday of Lent, is the Sunday of Orthodoxy, commemorating the restoration of the Icons into the churches, according to the decision of the Seventh Ecumenical Synod in 787. On this Sunday every year a procession with the Icon of Christ takes place around the inside of the church with pomp and reverence. With the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the Orthodox Church calls upon its members to rededicate themselves to the deep meaning of their faith and to declare in unison, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.”
The second Sunday of Lent commemorates the remarkable life of St. Gregory Palamas. The Church celebrates his faith, theological knowledge, virtuous life, miracles and his efforts to clarify the orthodox teaching on the subject of Hesychasm, a system of mysticism propagated on Mt. Athos by 14th century monks who believed that man was able, through an elaborate system of ascetic practices based upon perfect quiet of body and mind, to arrive at the vision of the divine light, with the real distinction between the essence and the operations of God. Gregory became noted for his efforts to elucidate this theory. He was also dedicated to an ascetic life of prayer and fasting, which are practices of Lent and it is from him that the faithful are exhorted to take example from him.
The third Sunday of Lent commemorates the venerable Cross and the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The Cross as such takes on meaning and adoration because of the Crucifixion of Christ upon it. Therefore, whether it be in hymns or prayers, it is understood that the Cross without Christ has no meaning or place in Christianity. The adoration of the Cross in the middle of Great Lent is to remind the faithful in advance of the Crucifixion of Christ. Therefore, the passages from the Bible and the hymnology of the service refer to the sufferings of Christ. They repeat the calling of the Christian by Christ to emulate Him, for “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” On this Sunday the Adoration of the Cross is commemorated with a special service following the Divine Liturgy in which the significance of the Cross is that it leads to the Resurrection of Christ.
The fourth Sunday of Lent commemorates St. John Climacus, the 6th century author of “The Ladder.” (climax). This book contains 30 chapters, with each chapter as a step leading up to a faithful and pious life as the climax of a Christian life. The spirit of repentance and devotion to Christ are the essence of this book. The steps of the ladder as set forth by St. John are to be especially practiced by Christians during Lent as steps of a ladder at whose climax is the Resurrection Feast.
The fifth Sunday of Lent commemorates the life of St. Mary of Egypt, a stark example of repentance from sin through prayer and fasting. Tradition holds that upon repenting her leading of a dissolute life, she went into the wilderness to live an ascetic life and remained here, praying and fasting until her death. St. Mary’s life exemplifies her conviction about Christ, as the prime motivation for her repentance. Her life is thus utilized by the Church as an example of how one can free oneself from the slavery and burden of wrongdoings. This is held to be imperative during Lent for the faithful as a means of self-examination and preparation for a more virtuous life in anticipation of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Christ.
The sixth Sunday commemorates the triumphant entrance of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem. The people of Jerusalem received Christ as a king, and, therefore, took branches of palms and went out to meet Him, laying down the palms in His path. The people cried out the Old Testament prophecy of Zechariah: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel” The celebration of the Jewish Passover brought crowds of Jews and converted Jews to Jerusalem, who had heard of the works and words of Christ, especially about the resurrection of Lazarus. The tradition of the Church of distributing palms on this Sunday comes from the act of the people in placing the branches of palms in front of Christ, and henceforth symbolizes for the Christian the victory of Christ over evil forces and death. The seventh week of Lent is of course Holy Week.
The traditional fasting requirements for Lent are actually quite complex and bewildering. In the first week of Lent, only two full meals are eaten during the first five days, on Wednesday and Friday after the Presanctified Liturgy. Nothing is supposed to be eaten from Monday morning until Wednesday evening, the longest time without food in the Church year. For the Wednesday and Friday meals, as for all weekdays in Lent, meat and animal products, fish, dairy products, wine and oil are avoided. During weekdays in the second through to the sixth weeks of Lent, the strict fasting rule is kept every day: avoidance of meat, meat products, fish, eggs, dairy, wine and oil. During Saturdays and Sundays in the second through to the sixth weeks, wine and oil are permitted.
Finally, during Holy Week, the Thursday evening meal is held ideally to be the last meal taken until Pascha. At this meal, wine and oil are permitted. The Fast of Great and Holy Friday is the strictest fast day of the year in which the faithful are encouraged not to eat at all. After St. Basil's Liturgy on Holy Saturday, a little wine and fruit may be taken for sustenance. The fast is sometimes broken on Saturday night after Resurrection Matins, or, at the latest, after the Divine Liturgy at Easter.
To add insult to irony, temptation is compounded by the prevalence of Easter Eggs and Bunnies in stores during Lent. While chocolate animals generally do not appear in the writings of the Holy Fathers, abstinence from them is generally for the best, given the poor quality of the chocolate employed. My late grandmother had taught me a quote that, as she held, could excuse one’s wavering to the culinary demons during this time: «Ασθενής και οδοιπόρος κρίμα ουκ έχει.» “The ill and the travelers commit no sin [when they don’t fast.] It is particularly useful as it provides a multitude of interpretations that as teenagers, we attempted to employ in order to circumvent the fast. Do I qualify as ill if my stomach hurts from hunger? Am I a traveler while I am being driven to school? And come to think of it, what were Kit Kats doing in my grandmother’s fridge during Sarakosti anyway?
While the golgotha of the hungry Christian cannot be compared to that of the Golgotha of Christ, it cannot be doubted that the Lenten period does compel one to re-asses themselves and focus upon that which is important in their lives. The heightened sense of drama and mystery that it lends to Holy Week is unparalleled in its intensity and one cannot comprehend many of the cultural references of Modern Hellenism without it. To all and sundry, satiated and hungry then, Καλή Σαρακοστή.