Sunday, February 10, 2008

February 6, 2008 - Thoughts on Ash Wednesday from a Byzantine

Having been raised Roman Catholic, I am most familiar with the Roman traditions for Lent. However, in my limited exposure to the Byzantine rite, I have noticed differences of emphasis between the two rites. For instance, Great Lent, in the Byzantine church is sometimes called "The Season of Alleluias" because of the increased frequency of Alleluias in the liturgies. The idea, I assume, is this: although we fast, we do so with the knowledge of the Resurrection. Whereas in the Roman rite, the Alleluia is removed entirely from Mass to remind us of the season of preparation. Instead, we say, "Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ, King of endless glory" before the Gospel. Another example that comes to mind is the services which begin the period of fasting. For Byzantines, Great Lent begins two days before Ash Wednesday (because we count the days of Lent differently), on "Clean Monday" (the Monday after Forgiveness Vespers (the evening of Cheesefare Sunday)). During this first week of Lent (I am not sure what day, specifically), there is a service called the Anointing of the Spiritual Athlete. One is anointed with oil to give strength for the period of fasting--physically (so that one can fast and abstain) and spiritually (to resist temptation and to grow ever closer to God). In the Roman rite, though, the ashes which are distributed are the ashes of the palms from last year's Palm Sunday (on the first day of Lent we are already reminded of Jesus' passion). The priest makes the sign of the cross with the words, "Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return." It is a reminder of our unworthiness and the need to remain humble. It is a mark of faith, of penance, and, most importantly, hope: we are only dust, and yet God had died for us. One other very interesting contrast is the type of liturgies celebrated during Lent. In the Roman Church, there is only one day of the entire year on which no Mass is celebrated--Good Friday, when there is a communion service. I have always found this custom very beautiful because the Holy Mysteries were, in that sense, eternal. Somewhere, every day, every hour, Mass is celebrated. It also makes Good Friday that much more barren because of the knowledge that Mass is not celebrated ANYWHERE. However, in the Byzantine rite, because Great Lent is such a penitential season, Divine Liturgy (which is a very joyous celebration of Christ's Resurrection) is not celebrated at all during the week. On Wednesdays and Fridays during this period, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is celebrated, very much like a Roman communion service. Here, bread that was consecrated on Sunday is used, to which unconsecrated wine is added (the consecrated bread is (understandably) stale by the middle of the week). During this service there is much profound bowing (prostration), crossing oneself, asking for mercy, kneeling, kissing of icons, and, of course, incense. **Funny story: my first time attending the Presanctified Liturgy I received a particularly hard piece of consecrated bread. (I almost thought it was a rock.) I was eventually successful in slowly (so as not to hurt my teeth) chewing and consuming Christ's Body. Afterwards, T told me that, when he and his siblings were younger, they thought that those extra hard pieces were "Jesus' bones, because it's Lent." For some reason, that was quite comic and it was hard for me NOT to laugh as Liturgy concluded....** **Another funny story (or two): When T's family was first attending Byzantine litugries, one of the first ones they attended was Presanctified. Like good Catholics, they were closely following the book to understand what was going on. Meanwhile, the whole congregation steps out of their pews to prostrate themselves. When T's dad looked up from the book, the whole church was empty! and his first thought was: "Oh no, the Rapture, and I wasn't taken!" # 2 - T's younger sisters (Lydia and Caellainne) are participating more and more in the Liturgy. Caellainne (1) thinks it's hilarious when everyone lies down on the floor for profound bows and chuckles to herself whenever they do.. "heh heh.." Lydia (4) thinks that it's fun to do profound bows, especially when she can lay down on top of Daddy's back ("But Daddy, it's so cold in here and you're so warm!")... It's nice to have kids around to remind us that God has a sense of humor, too!** John Paul II said, in speaking about the Orthodox and the Catholic churches, "We must breathe with both lungs, the East and the West." I think this applies very truly (if not more aptly) to the Roman rite and the Byzantine rite Catholic churches.

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