Perhaps the most neglected difference between East and West, and the one with the most ramifications, is the great tradition of asceticism in Eastern Christianity. The West has a great tradition of asceticism as well, of course, but the relationship between the ascetics and the church, and the influence they have held within it, are very different. In the West, ascetics became almost an independent branch of Christianity, but in the East, they are still at the center of our faith; indeed, our bishops are taken only from monasteries. And perhaps this distinction becomes clearest during Great Lent, or as it is also — tellingly — called, the Great Fast.
We are certainly held to different standards than the cloistered, but the strict standards of ascetics are, to us, something we should all try to achieve. Hence, the rules for the fast are far stricter for us than they are our Roman Catholic brethren. The same is true of our services.
Let me note here that the rules of the fast are a goal, and many fall short. We are human, and as such fallen, one of the central themes of Great Lent. We strive to keep the fast, for discipline, for self-denial, and for spiritual strength. For us, fasting and prayer are interwined. The fast continues for the duration of Great Lent (no meat, no dairy, no eggs, no olive oil, no alcohol), until Pascha, except for Annunciation and Palm Sunday, when we are allowed fish. The first three days of Clean Week and Holy and Great Friday are the strict fast (water only). The week following, we go back to our usual fast, no meat, dairy, eggs, olive oil, or alcohol on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Today is Clean Monday, the first day of Great Lent. For us, the first and last weeks of Great Lent are the most rigorous. Every evening this week we pray the Great Compline and Monday through Thursday, the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete, broken into fourths. Every Wednesday and Friday evening is the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified, roughly equivalent to the Holy Friday Mass (we have a tabernacle, but we do not regularly consume the reserved Sacrament, save weekdays in Great Lent).
The Great Canon of St Andrew is read each year as part of the ascetic labour of the Great Fast (Lent). Divided into four portions, these are read during the services of Great Compline on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings of the First Week(‘Pure/Clean Week’) of the Fast. The whole Canon is then read in its entirety on Thursday of the Fifth Week (actually read ‘in anticipation’ on Wednesday evening).
The Great Canon is one of the great works, if not the great work, of the Church’s hymnography of repentance. It is steeped in biblical imagery, yet it is not simply a condensation of biblical themes. In the Canon, all the human events of scripture—creation, fall, exile, return, longing, redemption—all are made personal. They become my events: my creation, my fall, my redemption. Their story is my story, and I am made intensely aware of all its depth.
We (should) spend hours at worship during Great Lent. It is the most important fast period, which leads up to the holiest day of the liturgical year, Pascha, the Feast of the Resurrection of Christ. The day before Clean Monday is Forgiveness Sunday, and at Great Vespers, we beg forgiveness of all around us so that we may begin Great Lent with a clean conscience.
We all fall short of our goals during Great Lent. We should be praying more than we do. We should be going to every service, and not only the ones we find convenient. Those liturgical hours our parish does not celebrate we should celebrate in our homes. We are not superior. We merely strive toward a goal.
I fall short. I pray that I may move closer to that goal this Great Lent, because we have been blessed with the opportunity to become more like Christ.
Christ is in our midst!