It is nearly Lent again and Roman Catholics have fish on their minds. The world sits up and takes notice and fish, seafood, and other meatless fare makes its way onto sale ads, restaurant tables, and even electric menu boards of fast food chains. The familiar question of what one is giving up for Lent and if Sundays count is bantered about even by those who aren’t Catholic. As an Eastern Catholic, I don’t pick something to give up for Lent, I don’t eat fish or egg salad, and my family does not attend stations on Friday nights. It is not that we are not deep in the work of Lent but that the spiritual work is very different. Eastern Lent is as rewarding as it is rigorous and Holy Mother Church in her great wisdom allows us to slowly move into Lent, gently easing us into the Great Fast. It is a gradual process and helps the faithful gather strength.
The coming Lenten season is heralded by Zacchaeus Sunday, eleven weeks before Pascha, reminding us to be like Zacchaeus and to find the right perspective from which to look for Jesus. Then follows the Sunday of the Pharisee and Publican which ushers in a fast free week which reminds us that it is not strict fasting that makes us holy, it is the interior conversion. Then it is the Sunday of Prodigal Son which is a week of normal fasting. On Wednesday and Friday there is no meat, poultry, fish with backbones, dairy, eggs, olive oil, nor wine and this will become the daily fast for most of Lent but not yet because the next Sunday introduces Meatfare Sunday. This week is increasingly stricter and after this day no meat or poultry is eaten until Pascha. Lastly comes Cheesefare Sunday, seven weeks from Pascha. It is now the end of fish, dairy, and eggs.
The Clean Monday Practice
The first day of Great Lent is Clean Monday (February 8th on the Gregorian calendar and March 14th on the Julian calendar in 2016), though we have been preparing for a month now. Olive oil and wine are only allowed on weekends and meat, dairy, and eggs are avoided. Fish only makes its way on the table twice during Great Lent for the special feasts of the Annunciation and Palm Sunday. To prepare my family for this day, we spend some time together on Cheesefare Sunday eating all the remaining dairy and eggs, like other families, but I also use it as a time to prepare my family for Great Lent by preparing my refrigerator. Before bed, we clean the fridge.
I want my children to see me wrapping things up, labeling them, and transferring them to the freezer for the next two months. Not only are these foods ones we should avoid during Lent but there is something to be said about the message this sends. We wash all the shelves, all the drawers, even the outside of the fridge. All of us take part in this ritual, even the youngest of our children can be given a cloth with soapy water and she can wash the lowest part of the door. When we are done, all the foods we will avoid are out of the refrigerator and waiting for us in the freezer. The beans, rice, and lentils that I have been cooking and freezing come out to thaw in the fridge. Because this is time consuming and because we all take part in it, it sends a clear message that something real is happening, something important is coming. Food speaks to us and there is no mistaking it when all the foods in the house are switched out for Lenten ones. Great Lent is coming. On Clean Monday, the fridge will be clean and ready for the season and hopefully, we are ready, too. We should be ready to start from this clean and empty space and to fill ourselves not with rich foods but with the spiritual work of Great Lent.
I think it is fair to say that I have fish on my mind like other Catholics but I also have bacon, cheese, and eggs. Honestly, over Great Lent, I dream of eating bacon and sometimes I swear I can smell it cooking. When I am asked what I gave up for Lent, I say that I gave up food but I do not do all these prostrations and give up eating all these foods because I am punishing myself but because I want to take them up later. I want to remove anything that distracts me from God now, so that I can truly focus on Him during this time. The more we dedicate ourselves to fasting, the greater the spiritual benefit, but it is even greater still on Pascha when we take these things up again. We give up bacon because we want to love God more, and then when we take it up again, we realize that we love God even more. This is why we need Great Lent. I wish you a blessed fast and a good fast and a belly full of bacon and God’s love on Pascha morning. May you feel the fullness of God’s love in every bite.