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Lent Is Time of ‘Joy’ for Eastern Catholics

06 Mar 2015 – By Laura Ieraci

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — “Joy” is not a word people usually associate with strict fasting and penance — unless they are Eastern-rite Catholics.

In the Eastern church, the penitential period that prepares believers to celebrate Easter, is called “Great Lent,” and its prayers invite the faithful to recognize their “need for forgiveness” and to “delight in the joy” of the fast.

Mother Theodora, the “hegumena” or abbess of the Byzantine Catholic Christ the Bridegroom Monastery in Burton, Ohio, describes the Lenten disposition as “bright sadness.”

“We recognize our weakness and sinfulness, but rejoice in the mercy of God,” she told Catholic News Service.

Unlike Lent for Latin-rite Catholics, Great Lent does not begin on Ash Wednesday, but after Forgiveness Vespers. For Eastern churches using the Gregorian calendar, the vespers are held on the Sunday before the Roman church’s Ash Wednesday. During Forgiveness Vespers, the clergy and the congregation ask forgiveness of each other, one person at a time, for offenses they committed, knowingly or not, and exchange a kiss of peace.

While all Catholics, East and West, are called to fasting, prayer and almsgiving during Lent, fasting and prayer are accentuated and lived more intensely in the Eastern church.

Benedictine Father Michel Van Parys, abbot of the Byzantine-rite Abbey of St. Mary of Grottaferrata, outside of Rome, said the “dimension of spiritual warfare” and the belief in Jesus’ words that “some demons can only be cast out by prayer and fasting” are fundamental to Great Lent.

“The Great Fast is meant to be a challenge which brings out the real struggles of the spiritual life, so that they can be confronted,” said Mother Theodora.

In addition to “emptying ourselves in order to be filled with God,” the purpose of fasting is also “to discipline ourselves and to gain control of our passions,” she continued. “Fasting liberates us from worldly dependence and helps us to realize our dependence on God.”

The fast has two aspects: spiritual and physical. The spiritual “involves abstaining from evil thoughts, words and deeds,” she said. The physical fast traditionally includes eating less [or nothing at all during set periods] and abstaining from meat, fish with backbones, all dairy products, eggs, oil and wine for all of Great Lent.

However, fasting varies by degrees, depending on one’s state of health and type of work, said Father Van Parys. In addition, Eastern Catholics determine their fasting with their spiritual director, who accompanies them on their Lenten journey, he said.

Unlike in the West, fasting is “a cultural fact” in the Near East and in predominantly Orthodox countries, he noted. “There is some fear to fast [in the West]. But you have to take small steps because fasting is not the goal in itself. It is opening your heart to God and to neighbor,” he said.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Eastern Churches Eastern Catholics