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The Holy Season of Lent in the Western Tradition

by Fr. John W. Fenton

The Theme of the Season

The holy season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes with the Easter Vigil. It is a 40-day season of instruction in the Christian Faith, and devotion on Our Lord’s merciful passion. During this season, mortification of the flesh, through self-denial, is practiced both with the Church and individually.

The Parts of this Season

The season of Lent is divided into three distinct parts:

  • Lent proper begins with Lauds Ash Wednesday and concludes just before First Vespers on Passion Sunday. Instruction in the Faith is the central liturgical focus.
  • Passiontide begins with First Vespers on Passion Sunday (2 weeks before Easter) and concludes with Vespers on Holy Wednesday. Meditation on Our Lord’s Passion is the central liturgical focus.
  • The triduum sacrum (“holy three days”) begins with Lauds on Maundy Thursday and concludes with Compline (follow the Vigil Mass) on Holy Saturday. Meditation on the Paschal Mystery is the central liturgical focus.

The Three Disciplines of Lent

The mortification of the flesh, or the putting to death of the passions which hinder attainment of the kingdom of heaven, is practiced with three disciplines of self-denial during Lent. These disciplines are not individual, but communal; and they are not optional, but obligatory. For Holy Church understands that the practice of these disciplines both increases the Paschal joy of the faithful, and aids the soul living the fullness of the faith.

These three disciplines are:

  • unostentatious fasting or self-denial;
  • increased prayer, by attending to worship and various devotions; and
  • the sacrificial giving of alms (charitable donations).

All three Lenten disciplines are enjoined by Our Lord in the midst of His Sermon on the Mount, a portion of which is read on Ash Wednesday (cf St Matthew 6.1-21). Additionally, Our Lord modeled all three disciplines throughout His earthly life, most especially when He fasted 40 days after His baptism. His example teaches us that following these dominical disciplines will aid us in striving against the temptations and wiles of the devil, society and our own sinful desires.

Fasting and Abstinence During Lent

In the Orthodox Church fasting is not an individual practice, but a communal habit. In addition, the Lenten Fast does not offer suggestions on what to “give up.” Rather, it prescribes the common rule the faithful are to follow as they fast together. Individuals may choose to “give up” additional items during Lent, but such choices should not replace the Lenten fast, and should be made in consultation with one’s spiritual father.

In Orthodox churches in the Western tradition, the Lenten Fast consists of the following:

  • Fasting on all weekdays (Mon-Sat) in Lent
  • Fasting and abstinence on all Fridays in Lent
  • Fasting and abstinence on Ash Wednesday
  • Fasting and abstinence on Ember Wednesday, Ember Friday and Ember Saturday in Lent. (The Ember days are in the week after the First Sunday in Lent.)

Fasting consists of not eating until after noon; and then eating only one full meal with a collation (about 1/4 of a meal) permitted as a second meal. Abstinence refers to refraining from flesh meat (pork, beef, chicken, etc.) and their juices or broths. Shell fish and fin fish as well as dairy products are permitted.

All Orthodox communicants and catechumens in the Western tradition are encouraged to follow these rules. However, those who are 7 years or older are obligated to follow the law of abstinence, and those between the ages of 21 and 60 are obligated to follow the law of fasting. Those who, for legitimate reasons (pregnancy, chronic affliction, illness, etc.), find it difficult to observe the Lenten Fast should speak with their spiritual father concerning legitimate modifications in order to keep the spirit of the Fast.

Lenten Liturgical Traditions

Lent is a closed season of the Church Year. This means that the solemnities of this season should not be disturbed by wedding celebrations and activities that would encourage one to stray from the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and charitable giving.

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, inaugurates the penitential and prayerful attitude of Lent when blessed ashes are placed on the heads of the faithful as a sign of mortification of the flesh with the words, “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.”

In addition to usual schedule of Masses, the Stations of the Cross coupled with the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament are devotions commonly observed during Lent. These devotions call us to meditate upon and adore Our Lord’s sacrifice.

The penitential character of Lent is exhibited with the omission of the Gloria in excelsis, the Alleluia, and extraneous music. Violet covers both Altar and Celebrant, lightened on only two occasions: Laetare Sunday, with rose as the proper color; and Holy Thursday, when white is used for the Mass of the Institution of Our Lord’s Supper. Passion Sunday heightens the Lenten observance by excluding other liturgical phrases and, most poignantly, veiling crucifixes, icons and objects of devotion in church and home.

Increased personal and family prayer should also be cultivated in the home during this holy season. These prayers and devotions should begin with and be formed by reading from the Holy Scriptures.

Charitable Giving

Since the Lord’s mercy if often proclaimed during Lent, it is fitting that the faithful avail themselves of opportunities for charitable giving. Special offerings in the church for those in need, as well as individual gifts to reputable charities, are reminders that we ought not strive for earthly gain; Furthermore, giving alms helps maintain the true spirit of the fast as a means of self-sacrifice rather than self-aggrandizement.

True Penitence

While maintaining the disciplines of Lent, one ought ever to keep in mind and heart the attitude of true penitence which this holy season teaches. That attitude is aptly captured in these words of the Psalmist—words on which we would do well to meditate during these forty days:

O remember not our old sins, but have mercy upon us, and that soon; for we are come to great misery.
Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy Name;
O deliver us, and be merciful unto our sins, for thy Name’s sake. [Ps. 78 (79)]