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Mar 2, 2020

Lent in the Byzantine Catholic Tradition

Deacon John Harden

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent for most Catholics, (and even many Protestants). But for many other Christians, including Byzantine Catholics like myself, Lent begins on Clean Monday. This is just one of the many fascinating characteristics of Lent in our Byzantine Catholic tradition. So, what is Byzantine Catholic Lent like? Why does it start on a different day? What else is different about it? Let’s take a look!

The Forty Days (and More) of the Great Fast

Lent, which we also call the Great Fast, begins with a forty day period from Clean Monday up until Lazarus Saturday, that is the Saturday before Palm Sunday, (five weeks plus five days equals forty). We count each day in this period as a day of the Fast, including Saturdays and Sundays, although our disciplines are relaxed on those days. Lazarus Saturday and Holy Week, which we also call Great and Holy Week, are strictly speaking not part of the Great Fast itself. But those days are a continuation of our preparation for Easter Sunday in which our prayers and disciplines are intensified. (Latin Catholics also have forty days of Lent, but Sundays are not counted and Holy Week is. So six weeks of six days each equals thirty-six. Add four more days for the half-week beginning on Ash Wednesday, and that’s your Lent!)

Penitential Practices During the Great Fast

Why do we call our first day of Lent Clean Monday? One reason comes from what our Lord teaches us about fasting:

” … when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Matthew 6:16-17

So, we are reminded to approach Lent in humility, not taking pride in our acts of penance. (While Byzantine Catholics don’t receive ashes at the beginning of Lent, this is in no way a critique of Ash Wednesday, which is a praiseworthy practice that reminds the faithful to prepare themselves for death.)

The first day of Lent is also called Clean Monday because of what would traditionally be removed from our homes. Just as a faithful Jew would cleanse his house of all leaven in preparation for Passover (see 1 Corinthians 5:7), so we cleanse our houses of all meat, eggs, and dairy in preparation for Lent. (This is why the two weeks before Lent are called Meat Fare and Cheese Fare. It’s on those weeks that we say goodbye to those foods). While the practice of abstaining from meat, eggs, and dairy throughout the entire Fast is not required by Church law, it is what has been traditionally expected of all Byzantine Christians. What is required in most traditions is fasting and abstaining from meat, eggs, and dairy on Clean Monday and Great and Holy Friday (Good Friday). Abstaining from meat is also required every Wednesday and Friday of Lent. (Vegans would love our traditions. I’m talking to you, Joaquin Phoenix.)

Liturgy During the Great Fast

If you’ve attended a Good Friday Service at a Roman Catholic Church, you may have noticed that it’s not actually a Mass. There is no consecration of the Holy Eucharist, but there is distribution of Holy Communion that was consecrated at the Holy Thursday Mass. In a similar way, Byzantine Catholics have aliturgical weekdays during Lent. The Divine Liturgy is celebrated on Saturday and Sunday, and after the Sunday Liturgy, the Eucharist is reserved for distribution at the Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts during the week. And, on most weekdays, the Gospel is not read in the Liturgy. Instead, we read through the books of Genesis, Exodus, Proverbs, Job and Isaiah.

The Liturgy on Sunday is different, too. While we don’t omit singing Alleluia, we do celebrate the Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great rather than the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, which would normally be celebrated on Sundays. These two different Liturgies are akin to the different Eucharistic Prayers of the Roman Catholic Mass. The Liturgy is largely the same, but the Anaphora (the Eucharistic Prayer) is different. It is longer … by quite a bit. But it is also rich in its imagery and theology.

When it comes to liturgical colors we generally follow one basic rule: bright colors for days of celebration, dark colors for fasts and funerals. Similar to Roman Catholics, violet is often the color of choice on the weekdays of Lent; red is also used. Interestingly, bright colors like white and gold are used on Sunday, not dark colors, because Sunday is always a celebration of Christ’s resurrection, even during Lent!

The Beautiful Diversity of the Catholic Faith

There are many, many more distinguishing characteristics of the Byzantine Great Fast. I share these differences, not to critique—and certainly not as a boast—but to show how beautifully rich in diversity our Church is! The apostle John concludes his Gospel saying:

“There are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

John 21:25

In a similar way, our Catholic beliefs and practices cannot be contained in a single liturgical or spiritual tradition. What unites us is our communion with Christ and his Church. As you continue your Lenten journey, may you abide ever more deeply in Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.

Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory to him forever!

You May Also Like:

Why I Go to a Byzantine Church, and Other Questions [Matt Fradd video]

The Other 23 Catholic Churches and Why They Exist

The Other 23 Catholic Churches: Part 6, the Byzantine Rite

Deacon John Harden is a senior product manager at Ascension and has served as an adjunct professor of theology at Neumann University in Aston, Pennsylvania. He has a bachelor’s degree in theology from Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, and a master’s degree in theology from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. He, his wife, and their children live in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

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  • Please do a similar article about St Thomas Christians too. We too take about 50 days, have no Qurbana on good friday. We do have ash monday, called vibhoothi

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