While there are several differences between the way Roman Catholics and Byzantine Catholics and Orthodox families celebrate Lent, the three pillars remain the same: prayer, alms, and fasting. The goal of this period is to repent and prepare for celebrating the Resurrection of Christ. It is a time to deepen our relationship with God, removing the clutter from our spiritual lives.
This Lent is a period of double preparation for our family, since we have a baby due just a week after Easter! With all the busyness going on in our lives, I want to take the time to really examine Lent. And what better way to do that than to examine the traditions and practices of Lent in the East and the West?
The Basic Buildup of Lent and Great Lent
Eastern Christians call the forty days of preparation Great Lent or the Great Fast. These forty days start on the Monday after Cheesefare Sunday. Great Lent includes Sundays, and refers to the period of preparation leading up to Holy Week. Holy Week is not a part of Lent for the Eastern Catholics or Orthodox. Except for special feast days, Divine Liturgy is not celebrated during Lenten weekdays. During the week priests wear purple or wine-red vestments for liturgical services such as Vespers. Gold is still worn on Sundays for Divine Liturgy; however, it is a dark gold rather than the usual bright gold.
In the West, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. The forty days do not include Sundays, but do include the days of Holy Week through to Holy Saturday. It is still possible to go to daily mass during Lent, with Good Friday being the only day priests are not allowed to consecrate hosts. Priests in the Western Rites wear purple for all of Lent, including Sundays. (For more on Vestments and Liturgical colours, check out our article on the topic).
Fasting is one of the bigger differences between the Eastern and Western practices during Lent. In the East we abstain from meat, dairy, and wine everyday during Great Lent, and in some cases fish and vegetable oils are also avoided. Wine (and fish and oils where applicable) is permitted on Saturdays and Sundays, along with on the Feast of the Annunciation when it occurs during Lent. (Like this year!).
In the West abstinence is just from meat, and only required on Fridays during Lent. Some traditionalist Catholics abstain on all Wednesdays as well. Strict fasting occurs on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday in the West, and basically every day in the East. The oldest prescription for Eastern Christians during Great Lent is to only eat bread and water during the forty days. There’s a reason we also call Lent the Great Fast in the East!
To Alleluia or Not to Alleluia
This question poses the most difficulty for Roman Catholics attending a Byzantine Church during Lent. I remember the first time I went to Vespers at a Ukrainian Church during Great Lent. I did not know what to do when all the Alleluias came up! In preparing for this article I found a book that included an explanation of the usage of Alleluia by Steven Puluka, and I’m excited to share what I learned.
Western Catholics have taken up the tradition of not saying alleluia during Lent. They remove parts of the Gloria and the Alleluia from the Mass. This is done to show the penitential nature of the season, as alleluia is an expression of Joy. On Easter, the joy of singing alleluia is made sweeter by the act of abstaining from use of the word during the Lenten season.
The Eastern tradition on alleluia is the opposite of that in West! Instead of replacing alleluia it is added and repeated more often. In Matins “God the Lord” is said for all of the year except during Great Lent. (Some other translations include “The Lord is God” and “God is Lord”). During the fast, this section is replaced with Alleluia, sung in the week’s tone. Why is the “God the Lord” replaced? Well “God the Lord” is done to affirm the oneness of God and the joy of the revelation of the Trinity. We await the joy of re-proclaiming this Divine revelation at Easter the same way the West awaits the joy of singing Alleluia.
Presanctified Liturgy is my favourite part of Great Lent. Probably because I love Vespers so much. But there are a lot of other great things about it!
Divine Liturgy is not celebrated during weekdays. This is because the Eucharist is a joyful gift, and a celebration of the resurrection. While consecration does not occur during the weekdays, the need for the Eucharist is not lessened. Therefore Eucharist is reserved so it can be given to to the faithful during weekdays. Especially given the intense nature of Eastern Lenten fasting, the purpose of weekday reception of the Eucharist is to give strength to the faithful. The fasting proscriptions are difficult, and the grace and presence of Christ is an indispensable aid to the difficult task of fasting.
The mode for receiving the Eucharist on a weekday during Great Lent is the Presanctified Liturgy. This Liturgy is reserved for Wednesdays and Fridays only. Presanctified Liturgy includes the Lenten vespers. Two readings are given from the Old Testament: one from Genesis, and one from Proverbs. There is also incense, prostrations, and a blessing with candles where the priest says “the light of Christ enlightens all.” When the Vespers is completed we transition to preparing to receive the Eucharist. There is a solemn procession of the previously consecrated gifts, then the faithful sing the Our Father. Finally the faithful are ready to receive the Eucharist, at which time Psalm 34 is chanted: “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord, Alleluia.” Yup. There’s that Alleluia again!
During Great Lent we pray the prayer of St. Ephrem daily. This would be a great prayer to use with your family every morning. Besides the words included below, check out our free Prayer of St. Ephrem printables to print for your family.
[Note: Make a prostration during each line of prayer, totalling three].
O LORD, Master of my life, grant that I may not be infected with the
spirit of slothfulness and inquisitiveness, with the spirit of ambition and vain talking.
Grant instead to me, your servant, the spirit of purity and of
humility, the spirit of patience and neighbourly love.
O Lord and King, grant me the grace of being aware of my sins and of not thinking evil of my brethren.
For you are blessed, now and ever, and forever.
Blocking out time to go to your local church’s Presanctified Liturgies is another great way to make the most of the Lenten season. During the rest of the week you can aim to say at least one of the other prayers of the hours, such as Matins or Vespers. You can find these daily prayers and receive them daily in your email inbox by signing up for free at Eastern Christian Publications. ECPubs is also on iOS and Google Play. You can find more Byzantine Catholic Lenten resources at Royal Doors. The Daily Lectionary readings can be found in a directory on the Byzantine Catholic Church in America (not affiliated with the Metropolia of Pittsburgh) website or as a daily email subscription service from Royal Doors, here.
For more ideas on ways to spend this season with your family, check out our Pinterest Board on Great Lent. And while you’re there, follow us on Pinterest!